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11/02/2012

Acts of Settlement

It seems to me the court battle, and subsequent media furore, over whether local councils should hold prayers before session is extreme at both ends. At one end we have defenders of all-things-Christian calling the banning of Christian prayers unjust, yet also speculating darkly on the risk of Islamic prayers taking centre stage in some councils. At the other end we have the campaign against any expression of spirituality, namely Christian spirituality - backed by a minority group, the National Secular Society, which with approx. 7000 members, is apparently similar in size to the British Sausage Appreciation Society (according to @colin_bloom).

I am by and large a secularist, and I do have a measure of respect for the National Secular Society, but I am a secularist that doesn't deal in black and whites. For example, I see good reason in the French approach to schooling - that religious guidance / tuition should be left at home. I understand the concerns about increased numbers of faith-based schools leading to a potentially dangerous segregation. However, having quite recently in my life taken up employment at a Catholic school, I have also come to see firsthand that the collectively-affirmed values of treating others with love, forgiveness and individual dignity - arising directly from religious beliefs - can lead to a more inclusive, relationship-driven, holistic education. Whereas some secular schools I have worked with - where there was no prevailing ethos or sense of mission other than 'success' - the focus is primarily on churning out academic results and a pretty rigid conformity to a code of conduct, which then sees some students left out in the cold - often damaged by their experience - before they've had any chance to grow and shine. These are clearly not wholly-representative examples, but I do think it points to the fact there are no absolutes. The point is we should be allowed some diversity, some grey areas - we shouldn't just start pulling down traditions in the name of secularism, or any other form of 'progress', if those traditions are benign.

Elizabeth Hunter, writing for the Huffington Post, is spot-on when she says:
"Our current discourse, which frames the debate as about competing 'rights', us and them, religious people vs. secular people, creates an impoverished and divided public space. We have forgotten how to handle our differences like grown-ups. Healthy, generous secularism, what Rowan Williams calls "procedural secularism", means holding open a space where all people and all voices are allowed space to flourish. It does not mean a programmatic and illiberal banishing of some points of view which are seen by others to be invalid- whether those are religious, ideological or other.

If the majority of council members wanted to say prayers, those that didn't should be able to join after they'd finished. This in the end was part of the judges ruling- that prayers could be said as long as councillors were not formally summoned to attend. Was this not something that could have been worked out without the money and resources spent on a protracted case? There was no need for an unhelpful legal precedent to be set.

The NSS's misguided campaign to rid our public life of any hint that religious people might be a part of it simply continues the impression that religious people and non-religious people are not able to function together, respecting each other's differences, without all out war."
Ultimately this issue over prayers before council meetings could have been a case of people compromising - learning to accept that human beings believe and act differently, and even taking some joy & insight from that. Rather than fight this out in the courts an agreement could have been reached whereby an informal gathering for prayer is held before session formally starts to which councillors could opt-in, by turning up early, or opt-out by turning up on-time. Simple really. And a lot less hurtful to all involved.

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