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In secular Britain, a clash over public prayer

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Bideford, England — Perhaps the locals should have anticipated sparks on a town council stocked not only with a practicing pagan, a staunch atheist and an agnostic former stripper but also two evangelical Christians and a Methodist church organist. But few could have predicted that one small town’s fight over the abolition of Christian prayers at public meetings would escalate into Britain’s own culture wars.

Even as the Republican primaries highlight America’s divide over the separation of church and state, Britain finds itself locked in a debate over religion that is entangling not just the British government but even Queen Elizabeth II. The move to ban public prayers in tiny Bideford — and potentially across all of England and Wales — has erupted into a national proxy fight over the question of whether Christianity should still hold a privileged place in a modern, diverse and now highly secular society.

The match that lit the fires was struck in this quaint town, site of the last witch trials in Britain. Local lawmaker Clive Bone, an atheist, was backed by four of his peers in challenging the long-standing tradition of opening public meetings with blessings by Christian clergy. After losing two council votes on the prayer ban, Bone took the town to court — winning a ruling last month that appeared to set a legal precedent by saying government had no authority to compel citizens to hear prayer.

The Conservative-led British government has quickly attempted to counteract the ban and defend the official status of Christianity — more specifically, the Church of England. At a time when half of Britons claim no religious affiliation, however, the Conservatives are also going one step further — blaming a loss of “traditional values” for such social ills as binge drinking and last year’s riots in London.

In a nation where the Labor Party spin-doctor Alastair Campbell once said, “We don’t do God,” the Conservatives in power have unleashed a number of moves seen by opponents as an attempt to claw back lost ground for Christian traditions — including a vow by the national education minister to send a King James Bible to every school in England.

Even normally behind-the-scenes Queen Elizabeth is dusting off the monarch’s historic role as “defender of the faith” and supreme governor of the Church of England, suggesting in recent weeks that by targeting public prayer, secular society has gone too far.

“The concept of our established church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly underappreciated,” the queen, deploying her trademark power of understatement, said in what was widely viewed as a thinly veiled reference to the prayer debate.

The parameters of discussion in Britain remain sharply different from those in the United States. Though a small fringe here still argues against legal abortion and publicly funded contraception, such issues were considered settled even by many Conservatives long ago. And Prime Minister David Cameron, though not without pushback from his far right, has gone further than President Obama by openly backing same-sex marriage, arguing that equal rights are a fundamental facet of Christian values.

But Christians here maintain that their traditions are under assault, citing, for example, allegations that liberal city officials have discriminated against devout Christian parents in adoption cases. They see the potential ban on public prayer as the last straw.

For now, however, in this historically significant hamlet in the rich green countryside of southwest England, public prayers are on hold for the first time since officially starting during the Nazis’ Blitz of England in 1941. Instead, the mayor is holding private prayer sessions in his office before public meetings — a step that cities and towns across the nation may soon need to follow.

“I can understand there are local governments in places like London that don’t want prayer because they don’t have religion there anymore,” said Bideford Mayor Trevor Johns, a retired farmer and devout Methodist. “But we’re out here in the West Country, where we still have God, and where we believe that church and state are intertwined.”

Bone, a transplanted Londoner and retired management consultant who has given up his seat on the council, said: “This isn’t about freedom of religion. I will defend their right to pray in their churches to my dying breath. Just don’t make us listen to it anymore. It is a backwards tradition that alienates people in this country.”

Cameron steps in

Even before the ruling came out, Cameron, a moderate Conservative by British standards, was wading into the explosive issue of religion. In a landmark speech in December, the prime minister conceded that he was entering “the lion’s den” in a diverse and secular nation by declaring, “We are a Christian country, and we should not be afraid to say so.”

The national government backed up that pronouncement only days after the Feb. 10 ruling against public prayer. Cameron’s local communities minister, Eric Pickles — who has strongly argued that a multicultural Britain must bring “the Christian faith and English language” back to the national forefront — took extraordinary action to override the court. He unilaterally tucked a new clause into a piece of legislation explicitly giving local councils the right to hold prayer. The step sparked immediate allegations of government bias and judicial interference, with the issue likely to be clarified in the English courts.

The government’s move came amid what supporters of a secular Britain describe as a rare campaign by the government to give new footing to the eroding Christian tradition here. Education Minister Michael Gove, for instance, has also moved to make it easier for religious groups to receive state funding to set up schools.

“It is extraordinary to me to see a modern British government promoting religion,” said Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society. “It’s an indication that the Conservatives are flying a kite to see whether the tactics of the American Republicans might fly here. I have a strong suspicion they won’t. Britain is not America, and in trying to establish a religious right, Cameron will find himself shot in the foot.”

A locked door in Bideford

In Bideford, where the first Native American to be baptized on British soil is still buried under St. Mary’s Anglican Church, the uproar over town prayer began because of a locked door at the town hall.

On a national holiday in late 2007, Bone and four other council members who objected to public prayer were forced to wait outside the shuttered doors while other council members and a town clerk with the keys were attending an official prayer service down the street. Bone and the others began talking among themselves, with Bone winning their support for putting forward a motion banning public prayer. The motion was presented twice and failed both times. Only two of the five local lawmakers who favored the ban are still on the town council.

Bone then sought legal backing from the National Secular Society to take the case to court. The Christian Institute in London quickly approached the town council, which embraced its offer to cover the legal costs of defending public prayer, setting up Bideford as a national test case. Much of the town — and Britain — appeared taken by surprise when the court ruled in Bone’s favor.

On the narrow, hilly streets here, local gossip is rife with chatter about Bideford’s rise to national headlines. But many residents insist that the matter is contentious largely among politicians, with few others expressing strong views one way or another.

One person with a decided opinion, though, is the Rev. Alan Glover, 64, the curate at St. Mary’s — a stately church that holds 1,000 but where less than 180 regularly attend Sunday services.

“What a load of rubbish this all is,” Glover said. “I’d never imagined that anyone could be offended by a kind prayer. If you don’t like it, side with tolerance and don’t listen.”

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