Civil Liberties

Jake Berry reminds politicians of accountability to the Prince of Peace

“I am delighted to be able to take the Bill through Parliament and to protect people’s freedom to pray, because it is an important issue. As we approach Christmas, the celebration of the birth of who I believe to be the Prince of Peace, all elected officials might like to reflect that there may be more power in prayer than in any stroke of a Minister’s pen or ruling from the Chair, and that this Bill, which seeks to protect people’s freedom to pray, will enable people of all religious beliefs to seek guidance in their deliberations in elected office.”

So said Jake Berry MP this week in Parliament, during the debate on the Local Government (Religious etc. Observances) Bill, which passed its Money Resolution stage and has support of the Government and Opposition. To hear a member of Parliament so publicly declare his faith in the Commons Chamber is profoundly inspiriting, especially when it comes from a politician who actually believes, rather than one whose faith is a like U-boat, only surfacing when necessary.

The background to the Bill may be read HERE – it is primarily intended for small parish councils (which do not have the general power of competence), but it will have the beneficial effect of entrenching the role of faith in (municipal) public life. As Penny Mordaunt, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, explained:

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. The Bill will ensure that local authorities can support, facilitate and be represented at events with a religious element. Again, nothing in the Bill will compel a local authority to do anything that it cannot already do, such as organise a Remembrance Sunday event safely by closing a road for a short time. Rather, it protects local authorities from those with an axe to grind, who might wish to challenge such a decision. As far as local authorities are concerned, we expect any new expenditure to be negligible.

To which Lynn Brown MP, for Labour, responded:

The Bill will confirm unequivocally that prayers, religious observances or even philosophical observations may take place as part of the business of local authorities in England and Wales.

I welcome the fact that the Bill is not prescriptive. It will leave it to local communities to determine what, if any, observances are appropriate to them; where they should be placed on the agenda; and whether they should be faith-based or otherwise. We must see this as a matter of local choice. Religious observance is a matter where local choice should prevail and in respect of which the virtues of tolerance, sensitivity and community well-being should shine through.

This is a short, two-clause Bill with a simple intention that does not seem to conflict with the most liberal of expectations. It will enable local authorities of all types to include prayers if they wish to. It is not prescriptive, but enabling. I am content, on behalf of the Opposition, to wish the Bill and its purposes well.

Cross-party unity on the freedom to pray in council chambers is to be welcome. Naturally, the secularists are irked: the National Secular Society in particular is concerned that to permit prayer is to “undermine religious freedom“. They accuse Secretary of State Eric Pickles of  “seeking to impose religion by tyranny of the majority.” They describe him as “a committed evangelical Christian and now Minister for Faith”.

Stephen Evans, National Secular Society campaigns manager, said: “The supporters of this Bill are being willfully misleading by citing religious freedom, when the actual purpose of the Bill is to undermine religious freedom by enabling one group of councillors to impose their beliefs on other, equally elected, councillors. This Bill needs to be exposed for what it is, an attempt by religious enthusiasts to push their religion into the public sphere.”

It is, of course, nothing of the sort. What it is is an unequivocal reaffirmation of the law with regard to freedom of religion, and an attempt by HM Government to stop extremist secularists from shunting religion out of the public sphere and confining it to the private. By permitting councils the freedom to pray should they so wish, Eric Pickles is determined that local politicians might be mindful of a greater accountability than that they have to their electorates. Secularists and humanists may believe that all grace is manifest in humanity and nature: Eric Pickles and Jake Berry happen to disagree, mindful both of our inclination toward sin and depravity, the need for redemption and the goodness of God.

This is not a defensive theological posture, but an assertion of liberty in a conversation some seek to censor. And there is in this Bill a parable of how we are prone to treat our Anglican heritage; of how we ignore and neglect our Christian traditions or take them for granted, only to wake up one morning and find them abolished, banned or subsumed to more aggressive principalities and powers. We must learn again to indwell the Anglican tradition, and permit it once more to pervade our culture and shape our minds. Far from being a “tyranny” of religious uniformity imposed by a zealous majority, it is a benign force for the common good; of diverse and occasionally contradictory precepts, with some maddeningly wrong-headed beliefs and practices – rather like the differences, inconsistencies and incongruities of human living itself.