âChristianity on the rack as Judge bans public prayerâ screamed the headline in The Times on Saturday. This in the light of the decision of Mr Justice Ouseley in the High Court to ban prayers being held as part of the formal agenda and business of meetings of the town Council in Bideford Town Council.
The case had been brought by the National Secular Society, a group of utterly committed and faithful non-believers, who argued (inevitably) that the practice infringed the âHuman Rightsâ of those non-believers forced to be involved in such non-sensical âjujuâ.
And earlier in the week the Court of Appeal refused to overturn a fine imposed upon Christian guest house owners Peter and HazelMary Bull for refusing admission to an openly gay couple.
Is the Christian faith under attack from the forces of aggressive secularism on the one hand, and rival religions such as Islam on the other?
Indeed, is it time to divorce Christianity specifically and indeed religious rite of all forms from the day to day workings of the State on any view?
Clearly there are very sensible grounds for so doing. The fact of it is, society as a whole no longer clings the Christian religion as it once did. There are many reasons, but at the crux of it is this. For the bulk of history mankind has been like a child alone in the jungle; aware that it is alone and vulnerable, but entirely uncomprehending of what to do about its situation. Until the beginnings of the Enlightenment and the development of scientific method mankind suffered an existence which was entirely prone to instant and unexpected death by fire, sword, pestilence, illness or random chance. With this precarious existence and with the advantages of social control that it could offer it is little wonder that mankind was sold and accepted a message of a stark choice between Eternal Damnation and Eternal Bliss, and was willing to die rather than compromise its chances of achieving the latter.
Here it happened by historical accident that the route to this faith system was Christianity.
Christianity is still adhered to in some shape or form by a significant proportion of the population, but without great conviction. Unless and until the Grim Reaper slithers menacingly into view, we place our trust not in the Lord, but in PayPal, the NHS and the Government. There are still some hard core fundamentalists to be sure, but they are nutcases as we all know. We see them preaching the Lordâs word outside âNextâ of a Saturday afternoon. âJesus saves!â they cry.
âYeah, but [insert footballer of choice] scores on the rebound!â we deride.
These days most of us (unless we live in Derby) do not call for gays to be stoned to death, nor do we burn people at the stake because they dress in shiny robes and like to worship outside, rather than through the medium of a âpriest.â
Indeed, I am sure that I could give a litany of the crazy murderous behaviour of those involved in almost all creeds, with the defining characteristic being one shared by all who commit atrocities: the ultimate sense of being ârightâ, with the carte blanche to do whatever is necessary to correct, or eradicate, whoever is âwrongâ.
To put it this way: can it really be right in this day and age there is of the âState Churchâ or âState Religionâ, or even any religion.
When put like that, I am always put in mind of those priests who served the various cults and gods favoured by Roman Emperors. Have we moved no further forward than that in 2000 years? One of latter of those cults being, of course, Christianity itself.
I am quite happy to make the case that organised religion â in this case Christianity â has been used as an instrument of social control for millennia, to the benefit of those at the top of the social pyramid, and the close and usually familial links between political and religious position, particularly strong in the Medieval World, but which still lingers today.
Indeed, can someone please explain why there are 26 Bishops of a Church to which many, including myself, do not adhere sitting in governance upon us?
And can someone explain why the Church in which I grew up â the Catholic Church â has shamefully practiced and covered up cruelty and child abuse for decades, perhaps generations?
In fact, there is good reason why in modern, multicultural Britain, all religions should be strictly divorced from the function of the State or Local Government. It is one thing to have religion and politics entwined when broad consensus, at least in terms of what that religion is. In days gone by that may have been acceptable, even socially useful. But it is no longer fanciful to say that there are areas of the country where Christianity no longer is the majority religion, insofar as the population can drag itself off watching the X Factor and actually care. Would those so horrified by the potential implications of this ruling be quite so horrified if they were a counsellor forced to stand by and hear the call of the Imam on Council time? I would certainly be extremely upset by that.
So what then of the Bideford case?
I should mention that I heard the protagonist from the case argue their point live on radio this week. I am bound to say I found both sides deeply unattractive. A counsellor arguing against the ban appeared to take the view that prayers should be said because (a) what appeared to Evangelical Christianity of a rather zealous kind was just ârightâ in the natural order of things and (b) it had always been done. Whether these attitudes had anything to do with living in Devon is not clear to me.
On the other hand, the nominal claimant and complainant Clive Bone struck me as a rather po-faced little prig with an equally messianic view that there could be no validity in religious belief.
So before the world goes crazy it might be worthwhile explaining the decision.
I have not been able to obtain a copy of the judgement yet, but I think I can explain it from the various reports that have been available. The Judge appears not to have proceeded on Human Rights grounds, but rather on very narrow grounds that the Council did not have power to hold prayers as part of the agenda.
I think I can explain the actual decision more clearly. In 1972 the whole system of Local Government in England and Wales was reformed. There was a mish-mash of various different bodies: towns with charters royal and ancient, boroughs both rotten and not so rotten, counties with ancient customary rights. A bit of a mess, then.
The Local Government Act 1972 wiped them all out. Parliament (to be precise Her Majesty the Queen in Parliament) is supreme, and by Act of Parliament with effect from midnight on 31st March 1974 all these various councils, towns, boroughs and so forth were deemed to no longer exist. They were no more.
They were replaced with a new statutory created system of various boroughs and councils, but the key point is that these were âcreatures of statuteâ. In legal theory they are like robots; if the âprogrammeâ created by the stature does not permit them to do something, they cannot legally do it. In the legal idiom it is âultra viresâ or âbeyond their powersâ. What the judge seems to be saying is that the relevant 1972 Act gave the Council no power to hold prayers, therefore, it cannot do so. That component is missing, so to speak, from its DNA. So it its unlawful if it did so. That is simply an accurate legal analysis.
Phew! Moral panic over, Daily Mail.
Except of course that is not true. Judges always contextualize. They just donât admit it to you and me.
For something like the past 1800 years, until at least the mid 20th Century, for all the follies, cruelty and malice of some who follow it, the Christian religion has been ingrained in this Nation State; England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland too of course.
Those of a historical bent will be able to chart the almost seamless bond between Church and State from the gradual conversion of the Roman Empire into what as to become in part the Holy Roman Catholic Empire. Indeed, the battle for control of âBritanniaâ between the Christian Romano-British and the barbarian Anglo-Saxons was characterised at the time not just in racial terms, but as the fight by one a Christian civilization against pagan aggressors. Ironically when the Saxons prevailed and later themselves converted, much the same could be said of their life and death struggle for control of the English State against the pagan Vikings.
The highest order of thought and mind and every order of historical development of the British State ever since had been inextricably interwoven with Christian thought in some form. Picking from my fading memory at random, I start with the fate of Beckett, hacked down in Canterbury cathedral, was ultimately the result of a clash between Beckett and his former friend Henry II about whether the Church or Monarchy was supreme.
Henry VII approached the problem in a unique and radical way, effectively nationalising the Church and establishing independence from Rome, and the Church of England was born. The Church and State united for the first time.
But the ultimate expression of this battle for control was the English Civil War: in essence a battle for control of the State by those such as Charles I who were rooted in conservative Catholic Absolutism on the one hand, and radical Presbyterian based âdemocraticâ principles on the other.
The settlement achieved post the Civil War matched Church and State until now. Each deferred to the other in the classic English way, with nothing in writing, with no strict boundaries, but a genteel understanding.
For all the faults I have readily outlined above, the best of Judaic- Christian philosophy has informed and guided this Island race or these Island races for the best part of 2,000 years. I cannot deny the follies, murder, rage, torture and cruelty. ThereÂ has also been enormous good.
The decisions in both these cases show that settlement is under threat, as is nearly 2000 years of Christianity in this nation. Both are political in that they reflect what the courts consider politically adept at the moment. That tells us that we are moving from consensus to a fragmented, unhappy, future.
Oh unhappy Isle!
Gildas the Monk