The BBC website has an article up reporting on the High Court ruling that local councils do not have the power to include prayers at the start of their meetings. The judgement seems sensible to me – the effect of it is that all councillors who wish to do so can continue to meet together to pray before a council meeting, but only so long as the prayers do not form part of the formal business of the meeting. This means religion is being given its proper place in a secular society, and can continue to function as a guide to the conscience and actions of believers, but religious rituals are not imposed on those who do not believe, or who believe differently.
The article as a whole is fine, and the reader comments on it are encouraging – at the time I checked, the 20 most highly recommended comments were all in agreement with the judgement, and the 20 least recommended were opposed. The positive comments included a number left by people who specifically identified themselves as Christian, proving once again that you don’t have to be an atheist to be a secularist. I suspect it’s only those Christians with the most keenly developed sense of persecution who will mistake this as an attack on their faith, when it’s demonstrably nothing of the kind: the ruling protects a Christian from having to sit through Islamic prayers at the start of a council meeting just as readily as it protects a Jew from having to sit through Christian ones.
My issue is with a few sentences of commentary given in an insert by the BBC’s religious affairs correspondent, Robert Pigott. As a general rule, I think Mr Pigott does a pretty good job. I know some atheists are incensed at the very idea that BBC News employs a religious affairs correspondent, but this seems a childish view to me; religion is a key factor in many people’s lives, it has a huge impact on this country and the wider world, and I see absolutely nothing wrong with the BBC employing a specialist reporter to cover the topic – especially in the current climate, when the issue of the role and status of religion in public life is being questioned in a way it hasn’t been since the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. (As with the BBC’s ‘North America Editor’ – who only ever seems to report on one country in that continent, the USA – there’s perhaps an issue with his job title: he rarely covers any religion other than Christianity, and even then usually only the Anglican and Catholic sects of that faith.) In this particular commentary, Mr Pigott is careful to acknowledge the views of those who support the judgement, and those who oppose it, and he is, of course, doing so in only around 150 words. The brevity of the word count perhaps explains an unfortunate lack of nuance in his comments, which I quote in full below:
By and large, judges have been unsympathetic to the Christian case when people have argued that they don’t want to do things like advising homosexual couples.
The tide has been flowing pretty firmly against Christianity in public life and it’s caused huge concerns for the churches. They say it’s being driven out of public life.
There is a lot of concern that this is not just about pure religion but this is about some of the values that underpin the British way of life.
Of course, from the other side, people like the National Secular Society say the Church and Christianity should not have undue privileges in having their values and their way of doing things upheld.
So there’s an argument on both sides but certainly it’s been very noticeable in the last few years that the tide’s been turning against Christian practices which we’ve just taken for granted for centuries.
If I were a liberal Christian, I think I’d be quite annoyed by that little summary. I think I’d be annoyed by the implication in the first paragraph/ sentence that not wanting ‘to do things like advising homosexual couples’ is ‘the Christian case’: I’m certain the very many gay Christians – including those who are ordained members of the Anglican priesthood – don’t share that view. I’m equally certain many straight Christians (my devout relatives who are entirely non-homophobic, for example) don’t share it, either.
I also think – again, if I were a liberal Christian – I’d be annoyed at the presumption that I am automatically opposed to secularism, and that I would see a ruling against Christian prayer forming a formal part of local government as an attack on ‘the values that underpin the British way of life’. A great many people, after all, people of all faiths and none, think that a non-didactic, live-and-let-live approach by the authorities is quintessentially British, and it’s hard to reconcile that with the idea that mandatory, state-enforced Christianity is an essential value that ‘underpin[s] the British way of life’. (Yes, I know the Church of England is an established state church, but attendance at its rites is (no longer) mandatory, and the fact that Anglicanism is a pillar of the state has little impact on the day-to-day lives of most people – with perhaps the single exception of education.)
Anyway, I don’t want to overstate this. As I say, I think the article as a whole is good, and the comments on it are surprisingly encouraging, and I suspect the deficiencies in Robert Pigott’s commentary stem from the fact that he was trying to cover a lot of ground in only a few words. His conclusion – that practices that have been taken for granted for centuries are being increasingly called into question – is beyond contention. I just think it’s a matter of regret that – beset, as I’m sure he is, by intransigent emails from the most outspoken people on either side every time he reports on issues like this – Mr Pigott temporarily lost sight of a few things: that secularism and atheism are not synonymous; that one does not have to be an atheist to see the separation of religion and government as a desirable thing; and that not all Christians are social conservatives.