This Friday will see Jake Berry MP’s private member’s Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill go to Committee stage in the House of Lords. Assuming this goes through (and the indications are that it will), the High Court judgement two years ago, which found that the saying of prayers as a formal part of council meetings was unlawful, will have been overcome.
‘Hurrah!’ we say. Common sense has won. Let the councils decide how to start their meetings without unnecessary interference from above. If they wish to continue with their centuries-old traditions of placing meetings in the hands of God, then why should anyone with very little more than an axe to grind stand in their way? This has nothing to do with forcing religion upon anyone, as Penny Mordaunt, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, made clear: “The Bill will not compel anyone to pray or any local authority to include prayers in their official business, nor does it define what constitutes prayer,” she said. Instead, it provides safeguards which will ensure that religion is not gagged and then dragged out of this particular arena simply because one or two people have chosen to get upset about having to listen to a few words directed at God rather than man.
The Bill may have strong cross-party support, but the National Secular Society is convinced that this is a terrible piece of legislation. They did, after all, bring the case against Bideford Town Council which led to this unholy mess in the first place, and their hard work is in the process of being unravelled. To forgive and forget is simply not on the agenda. In a recent article on politics.co.uk, their campaigns manager Stephen Evans states:
The effect of this bill is to give councils and a range of other authorities such as fire and rescue authorities, joint waste authorities, internal drainage boards and even Transport for London the power to ‘support religion’ and impose prayer. It reads like an evangelicals’ charter.
Quite why Evangelicals would want to hijack such a wide range of groups with the intention to make them say a simple prayer once in a while is not explained, possibly because – to quote a phrase used several paragraphs earlier – “This is nonsense on stilts.”
As he draws together his conclusion, Mr Evans comes out with the hackneyed secularist mantra: “This is why religion belongs in the private, rather than the public, sphere.”
Let us just stop for a moment and consider some of the implications of this secularist fantasy, in which religion hides in a corner doing its best to pretend it doesn’t exist. All of a sudden we’d see around 1.4 million Christian volunteers suddenly withdraw from church-based community work which benefits millions of local people (not fellow churchgoers). The vast majority of foodbanks would cease to exist, as would huge numbers of parent-and-toddler groups, out-of-school children’s clubs, debt counselling services, parenting and marriage courses, and night street patrols. Thousands upon thousands, including young people, the elderly, addicts, ex-offenders, asylum seekers, sex workers, the homeless and those needing counselling for mental health problems would find support and care drying up. Around 114 million volunteer hours would need to be replaced to maintain all of the community work performed by churches. Where exactly would they come from?
Those figures are found in the third biennial National Church and Social Action Survey for the UK, which was published by Jubilee+ last week. It also finds that the financial value of volunteer and paid staff time provided by our churches for these projects and activities is estimated to be a massive £2.4 billion. If we then factor in the use of facilities and direct financial contributions, that total value of church-initiated social action rises above £3.5 billion per annum. And 72 per cent of churches receive no outside income. Instead, congregations last year raised £393 million to fund the work they do in their communities. To put this in context, it is almost four times the £100 million raised by Comic Relief in 2013.
Since 2010, government spending has dived and charities have increasingly felt the pressure of reduced incomes. But the picture for our churches, which we are repeatedly told are at death’s door, is markedly different. In just four years, church spending on social action has leapt an incredible 36.5 per cent. Volunteer hours have jumped by 59 per cent. Churches continue to plough resources and paid staffing into new ventures, with each church now running on average 8.9 initiatives compared to 4.9 in 2010. This trend is likely to continue, with well over half of churches expecting to do yet more in the next 12 months.
When you look at these raw figures they are quite staggering. Which other group of people in this country can claim to be doing so much for the benefit of others? And yet there is a small but vocal minority who would rather see this all removed from the public sphere, along with public expressions of faith – including a few council prayers – because in their eyes religion has no value and makes no sense.
When presented with these two worldviews, it is hard not to consider one as virtuously bankrupt and the other as an undeniable sign of hope. Life is more than an intellectual argument waiting to be won. You can make all the criticisms and accusations you like, but at the end of the day it’s our actions rather than our words that speak loudest about our intentions and priorities. If you want to judge others and their beliefs, look at the effect it has upon their lives. If anyone needs convincing that Christianity brings life and renewal along with salvation, then this recent revival in the Church’s desire to bless the nation is surely sufficient evidence.
To be able to say prayers at a council meeting is a minor quibble in the broad sweep of life. But to be given permission to do so shows that the value of faith is appreciated and welcomed. It recognises that belief in a God can make us a more compassionate people who remember the need to serve others before ourselves. It hardly needs saying that without the work of Christians driven by their life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ, our country would be a much less pleasant place to live.
Can the same be said of those who choose to be offended by the mere acknowledgement of God in public?