Praying for democracy
Sometimes an e-mail pops into our inbox with a guest post which would never have crossed our minds. Today is just that day and we’d like to thank our guest poster for it. It’s all about prayers and council meetings but you’ll know that once you’ve read it.
A few years ago I was the clerk to the Full Council meeting of a now defunct rural District Council. The meetings used to be fairly stage managed even the righteous indignation of the opposition was carefully worded at times.
As such, many of back benchers were left without lines and were relegated to the role of ‘spear carriers’ in the play.
It wasn’t often the Chamber witnessed a genuine debate where all members had a chance to argue their points and really feel like they were able to determine the issue at hand. Seasoned watchers of local government debates may recognise this picture.
I was reminded recently, by the reports of the Atheists taking Bideford Council to court over the imposition of prayers at the beginning of Full Council meetings, that sometimes a Council Chamber can be electrified by good debate that involves all Councillors.
This has been a long standing tradition for many Councils but one that I, as an officer and an atheist, had always felt uncomfortable with. I won’t go into the pros and cons of prayers, but I will weigh in below the line if it kicks off later, but I will recall the best debate I ever heard in a Chamber.
The sole Labour member of the Council submitted a motion for debate asking the Council cease all prayers at the beginning of Council meetings. She felt that practice of prayers at the beginning of Council meetings was imposed on and excluded those of different faiths and those of no faith at all. This issues was debated vigorously by a range of backbench Councillors some of whom had never spoken at Full Council before.
As the debate was coming to a close, the Chamber appeared to be settling down between party lines with the Established church being defended by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (largely non-Conformist) arguing for an abolition.
The Council was at that time, in no overall control and the debate was reaching an impasse. Suddenly, stirred from his slumber, a sports coated Conservative back bencher, normally silent on most matters, made a plea for sanity. His proposal was that rather than having prayers or not there should be a minutes reflective silence that would allow the religious to pray and the atheist to contemplate. The Labour Councillor who had put the original motion now enthusiastically adopted this amendment and the issue was put to the vote.
As I counted the hands for vote, I reflected on how impressed and quietly proud I was of the Councillors for giving the issue a bloody good airing and coming up with a compromise that should suit all.
The motion was lost by 2 votes.
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