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.