I was sad at the recent judgement that Prayers before Council Meetings are illegal and hope that steps will taken urgently to change the law. I understand that it has been the custom for prayers to be offered at Council meetings ever since Elizabethan times. The atheist who took the case to the High Court, in conjunction with the Secular Society had previously been a member of the Bideford Council. In his judgement Mr Justice Ouseley, sitting in London, ruled: ''The saying of prayers as part of the formal meeting of a council is not lawful under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972, and there is no statutory power permitting the practice to continue.'' There is no doubt in my mind that this was another attempt to marginalise Christians but as I will demonstrate this doesn’t only affect Christians.
In the year before I retired as Vicar of St. Francis, Barkingside I was privileged to be Chaplain to the Mayor of Redbridge, a role which I very much enjoyed and which I hope I fulfilled satisfactorily. On the night of the Mayor making, the Chaplain to the previous Mayor, a Hindu priest, took the prayers. At subsequent Council Meetings it was my responsibility to lead the prayers and I saw my role as Mayor’s Chaplain as one of being Chaplain to all members of the Council.
The Council then was made up of members of many different faiths:Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Sikh, Jainism etc. None were compelled to attend the pre-council meeting prayers but many chose to do so. The next Mayor to take office later this year has announced that he is appointing three Chaplains of different faiths for the next year. I don’t think Redbridge is unique in appointing non-Christian chaplains when the Mayor is not a Christian but a follower of a different faith. So this ruling will be detrimental to all faiths until it is corrected.