Squabble about public prayer—in Britain!

Although you Brits may know about this, I wasn’t aware it was going on. The Washington Post reports a national kerfuffle about something that is (supposedly) settled in the U.S. but not in the UK: the right of government assemblies to be free from religion of any sort:

. . . 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.

And the Conservatives, like the Republicans in the U.S., are defending public prayer and the status of Britain as a Christian nation (which it is officially, of course):

. . . 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. . .

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 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.”

Let’s hope so.  There’s a note of humor at the end:

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.”

I wonder if Glover would be “tolerant” if there was a Jewish prayer or Muslim invocation.


  1. Posted March 11, 2012 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    And noting that the ruling was that the prayer could not be a part of the council meeting, i.e. not attending the prayer would constitute being late for the meeting, with electoral consequences.

    i.e., as usual, the Christians are crying “oppression” at not getting a special privilege.

  2. GBJames
    Posted March 11, 2012 at 6:59 am | Permalink


  3. R J Langley
    Posted March 11, 2012 at 7:01 am | Permalink

    I resent the suggestion that Cameron is in any way a moderate conservative. Not even Thatcher tried to sell off the NHS and give policing contracts to private enterprises. The man is a free-market nutcase and a complete menace to the future of Britain and Britons.

    • Posted March 11, 2012 at 7:48 am | Permalink

      And yet Cameron is still considered insufficiently troglodyte by his own back-benchers, and the troglodyte wing of the party split off to form the UK Independence Party.

      • Posted March 11, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

        And yet the man would be a conservative Democrat were he a politician in the US.

        • Diane G.
          Posted March 12, 2012 at 1:52 am | Permalink

          Gah, that’s depressing!

  4. Posted March 11, 2012 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    In the UK, there is no official separation between church and state. Incredibly, quite the contrary, leading to some interesting contrasts between UK and US. Let me quote a piece I wrote for pandasthumb:


    The US Constitution was crafted in deliberate contrast to that of the UK, where, so far from there being a separation of church and state, the Church of England is England’s established church, with the Sovereign at its head (harking back to Henry VIII; the situation is different in other parts of the UK). Given the nature of our constitutional monarchy, this means that the person with the last word on who should be head of this Church is the Prime Minister of the day, who may of course belong to any faith or none. That last remark is not merely rhetorical. In contrast to the US, religious scepticism is no bar to election, and of the three main parties, two (Labour and the Liberal Democrats) are led by avowed unbelievers, while David Cameron’s Christianity is thought to be at best lukewarm. There are further absurdities and paradoxes. No potential heir to the throne is allowed to marry a Catholic (but atheists, pagans, Seventh-day Adventists, and Jedi-worshippers are okay). 26 seats in the House of Lords are reserved for Church of England bishops, with, by custom, representation for other major religious groups, and while the powers of the House of Lords are severely limited, this has led on occasion to the rewording of legislation to suit their Reverences’ pleasing.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted March 11, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      The remaining trace of Sweden’s former state church can be seen in this as well (besides keeping the privileged name, of course), since no potential heir can be anything else than lutheran. Ironically our monarch is a slave to “us” or rather our former state church.

      [I suspect they kept that requirement to minimize the groups leveled against the separation at the time. As well as the extra legal work required to change the agreement between our monarch institution and the government at the time we adopted democracy.]

    • Stephen P
      Posted March 11, 2012 at 9:23 am | Permalink

      The prohibition on the heir to the throne marrying a Catholic doesn’t seem so strange when you remember that Catholics have sworn an oath of allegiance to a foreign power. Just think of the inordinate influence that the Vatican had in Ireland and still has in Poland. But of course on that basis members of parliament, army officers and the like should also not be allowed to be Catholics.

      • Aidan Karley
        Posted March 11, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

        We took those laws off our books in the early 1800s, IIRC.
        Having said that, the prospect of having to find time in the legislative programme to perform “disestablishment of the Church” (source of one of the better-established contenders for the “Longest Word in the English Language” prize, “antidisestablishmentarianistically”) is an established method for turning a government whip for either house pale with fear or purple with rage, depending on their claret level.
        Estimates vary, but around two years of full-time legislation passing is typical. That’s assuming no debate or discussion, and every single bill going through “on the nod”.

  5. Posted March 11, 2012 at 7:09 am | Permalink

    Thus the paradox of the US vs. the UK: In the latter, an official Christianity which is popularly regarded as a quaint irrelevance. In the former, official secularism — but everyone is expected to at least pay lip-service to a de facto Christian hegemony.

    • Alexander Hellemans
      Posted March 11, 2012 at 8:28 am | Permalink


  6. HaggisForBrains
    Posted March 11, 2012 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    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.

    What part of “secular” don’t you understand, Liz?

    • Posted March 11, 2012 at 7:23 am | Permalink

      Good point. I noted that they are saying that the monarch is head of state rather than defender of the faith. Especially interesting is that a monarch can marry a catholic with all that implies.

  7. Posted March 11, 2012 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    It is a worry when a politician has reached the lofty office of Prime Minister turns out to be credulous. Mind you, Tony Blair who once said ‘we don’t do God’ suddenly converted to Catholicism. I am sure all this is nothing more than cynical posturing just in the US becomes a Republican promised theocracy.

    • Posted March 11, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

      Ah, no, Blair did not say that – that was the response of his spin doctor, Alistair Campbell, to Blair wanting to “do God”.

    • Posted March 11, 2012 at 7:58 am | Permalink

      Tony Blair did not say, ‘We don’t do god.’ That was the advice of his spin doctor, who appreciated that talking about god would cost them votes and credibility.

  8. Posted March 11, 2012 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    Alan Glover’s comment about being offended at a “kind prayer” manages to miss the point in so many ways.

    Apart from the fact that a Christian prayer is immediately exclusive of every person who is not a member of that particular brand of religion, the content of the sort of prayers that gets muttered at the opening of meetings tends to suggest by its own wording that those present are not really capable of dealing with the business in front of them without supernatural intervention.

    I would prefer that public officials didn’t start meeting with a public declaration of their own incompetency.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted March 11, 2012 at 10:50 am | Permalink


    • Diane G.
      Posted March 12, 2012 at 2:00 am | Permalink

      + 2

      Ha ha! Good one, Grania!

    • Posted March 12, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      + 3

      Perfect point!

  9. Manfredi La Manna
    Posted March 11, 2012 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. I have on good authority that Bideford Council (probably with financial backing from evangelical christians) are going to appeal, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the National Secular Society, which very courageously took on this case on behalf on Councillor Bone. This may bankrupt a combative but very poorly funded society such as the NSS. Which raises an interesting question: how is it that religious pressure groups manage to get lavishingly funded by wealthy donors whereas secular ones do not?

    • Alexander Hellemans
      Posted March 11, 2012 at 8:45 am | Permalink

      I guess that the middle class belonging to the lower half of the Bell curve associate atheism with socialism, or worse, communism.

      • Adrian
        Posted March 11, 2012 at 10:10 am | Permalink

        No, as in the USA, it is the right-wing supporters that have this attitude. The average Brit does not assign atheism to any political persuasion, it is not as politicised as in the US. Communism isn’t the scary monster in the woods unlike the US.

  10. Posted March 11, 2012 at 8:03 am | Permalink

    A kind prayer? A prayer to the Invisible Sky Fairy that will consign every gay friend and acquaintence to being tortured for all enterinity in the most absolutely horrible ways…

    And I could go on… For example, virtually every person I know, because of their mixed fibers and other clothing mistakes will burn in hell right along with them… As will the Red Lobster crowd… The shrimp BBQ crowd… Everyone who played in the NFL… All the rich because we know that rich people get their rewards on earth, not in heaven…

    Oh, did you shave? Burn baby burn! Have sex while ‘unclean.’ Burn baby burn!

    How about all those innocent children that have died over the millienia? Who earnestly prayed for God’s help and received none, to die, often lingering, in pain and suffering…

    A kind little prayer… Please… Take of the rose colored glasses… When someone prays and tells us all about how great Jesus is, sometimes I just want to punch them and let them know just how Doesn’t Give A Fuck Jesus, if he exists as they believe, really is…

    • Stephen P
      Posted March 11, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

      British Christians don’t on the whole do the hell thing. There’s probably some unpleasant place down there for mass murderers and the like, but not for “anyone we know”, not even gays and muslims. Fire-and-brimstone preachers are generally regarded with a quiet embarrassment, and the hope that they will grow up one day. (No, most British Christians haven’t read the bible either.)

  11. David Leech
    Posted March 11, 2012 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Most of us Brits are apathetic towards religion as it simple plays no part in our lives. The worse thing any religion can do is to remind us that it is still here.

    • raven
      Posted March 11, 2012 at 9:48 am | Permalink

      Good. Lucky you. If things get worse here, I may be looking for a place to run.

      But remember. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. It can happen there.

  12. raven
    Posted March 11, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    This is something I noticed.

    The USA seems to manage to export our culture, often the worst of our culture, to other countries.

    1. The British Tea Partyiers (Torys) seem to have realized that there are votes in pandering to the xian cultists and kooks. Maybe not many, but 10% is 10% and can swing elections.

    You don’t actually have to do much for them, in fact lowering their standard of living or starting wars that cost a lot and kill their kids doesn’t bother them. You just have to say the right words and bash atheists, gays, and whatever tiny minority is out there.

    2. The premier of Canada, Steven Harper, is a fundie from some wacko cult and a Bush clone. Canadians always have imaginative reasons why they aren’t influenced by US cultural imperialism but never manage to explain that fact away.

    If all that is correct, if the Dark Ages Pope wannabe Santorum or another vaguely humanoid toad fundie takes down the USA, chances are Canada, Australia, and the UK will follow. We have 310 million people, world’s largest economy, and so on and this seems to give us long tentacles.

    • Posted March 11, 2012 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      The British Tea Party equivalent are the UK Independence Party. Approximately no-one on the ground actually cares about them.

    • Rod
      Posted March 11, 2012 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      Thing about Harper is that even on his worst day he is not 10% as conservative as the most reasonable republican (contradiction in terms, maybe).
      Also we go for months and do not hear a word from his mouth regarding religion or his take on it.
      By and large, Canadians neither know nor care about one’s religious leanings. That is why I would equate the question, “What church do you go to?” with “Did you have sex last night?”. No-one’s business at all, and prettyinsulting to boot.

      • Posted March 11, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

        Also we go for months and do not hear a word from his mouth regarding religion or his take on it.

        ….because he knows he would instantly forfeit the votes of every Canadian except the Evangelicals (and even some of those) and right-wing Catholics. But Harper and his cronies have nonetheless managed to get embed their style of religion into government behind the scenes in a number of ways.

  13. Knuckle Pushups
    Posted March 11, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    If Anjem Choudary has his way, they’ll ALL have their asses in the air before long.

  14. Dave Ricks
    Posted March 11, 2012 at 10:53 am | Permalink

    Defenders of the status quo frame the conflict as: 1) an individual 2) being “offended” — as if there would be no problem if: 1) that individual would 2) be “tolerant”.

    Like an angry mob defended the Cranston High School West prayer banner, I see the same misdirection of the issue onto a scapegoat.

    If I had it to do it all over again, I might be a sociologist, because I’m fascinated by people forming the same group response spontaneously. I mean, it’s not like Cranston telephoned Bideford and said, “I heard about your situation, here’s what you should do.”

  15. Posted March 11, 2012 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    Government with religious frosting scares the heck out of me! Anyone read “A Handmaid’s Tale” or any other stories of religious “utopias?”

  16. Marella
    Posted March 11, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    And now Delia Smith has got into the act!


    She’s an excellent cook and is second only to Nigella in her popularity in England. Pity she didn’t stick to cake.

    • Aidan Karley
      Posted March 11, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

      Pity she didn’t stick to cake.

      Oh, I don’t know – I found her rant to a stadium full of Canaries fans (IIRC) was rather amusing. I do hope that she’s not hoping people will have forgotten that little incident.

      Had she been comparing notes with Keith “check the whiskey for quality” Floyd?

  17. Diane G.
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 2:06 am | Permalink


  18. MikeN
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 3:02 am | Permalink

    Actually they just changed the law to allow the heir to the throne to marry catholic, and also allow the first-born of either sex succeed, though that’s already covered for the next couple of generations.

    (It was pointed out that if that rule had been changed earlier, the King of Britain at the outbreak of WWI would have been Kaiser Wilhelm.)

    Since a Prime Minister can nominate anyone for the post of Archbishop, maybe a future atheist PM will give us ‘The Most Reverend Richard Dawkins’.

    • Nick Evans
      Posted March 12, 2012 at 5:16 am | Permalink

      That law hasn’t been changed yet. Commonwealth countries have agreed that the UK can make this change, but it’s not actually been implemented. As the next 2 heirs are male and married to non-Catholics, there’s probably not a great urgency to make the change just now, but they’ll probably try to do so before William & Kate have kids.

    • Dave Ricks
      Posted March 12, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

      I haven’t read or seen The Da Vinci Code, or Angels & Demons, but I would definitely see a movie where the conspiracy is the Illuminati making Richard Dawkins an Archbishop. Calling Tom Hanks…

  19. Sastra
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    “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.”

    “Siding with tolerance” would be kindly refraining from forcing other people to listen to your prayer. Instead, if you must pray, let them exercise their tolerance if they accidentally happen to overhear it.

  20. marvol19
    Posted March 12, 2012 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    I don’t think this bit of conjecture by me is too far from the truth:

    In the UK, voting by and large follows income. High earners vote Conservative, low earners vote either Labout or Liberal Democrats. (side note: this means ‘left’ votes tend to be split and the UK ‘winner takes all’ voting system thereby strongly favours the Tories).

    Somewhere ‘in the middle’ is a theoretical line where people would be equally likely to vote ‘left’ or ‘right’.

    Now the Tories reckon, that even if they do a lot of godbothering, even the high-earning atheists and agnostics will still vote for them – else they’d be voting directly against their own financial interests.
    Also, a lot of people do ‘belief in belief’ and are of the attitude ‘I don’t really care about these noisy atheists, why can’t they just leave our village vicar alone’. However wrong this argument may be, it gets pushed strongly by the media – the BBC and most newspapers are of this stance (de facto, if not officially), lately including even the left-wing Grauniad.

    However, on the lower end of the income line, religious people WILL vote against their financial interests if their beliefs are (perceived to be) under threat, and the Tories are the party protecting their interests.

    There is no inverse trick for the left to gain voters, and as was said, it may only be 10% of the voters (5 million members of the CAtholic Church in the UK), but that’s enough to swing a lot of constituencies.

  21. Posted March 13, 2012 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    Unfortunately – and disgracefully – the court’s ruling has been overturned by the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, who called it ‘illiberal’.


    And of course, ‘intolerant secularism’ was to blame.

  22. Posted December 16, 2012 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    Way cool! Some extremely valid points! I appreciate you penning this article and also the rest of the site is also very good.

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