Should there be prayers at council meetings-?

An unholy row is brewing over whether to scrap prayers at the start of council meetings in Edinburgh. Officials fear the city is open to legal challenge following a High Court ruling in England which said the practice was not lawful as part of a formal meeting. Here we give two very different views in the debate

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 23rd May 2012, 1:00 pm



Retired Parish minister and Former Lord Provost

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As a parish minister in Corstorphine, I was asked to pray at both Lothian Region Council and City of Edinburgh Council. It was interesting and I wondered what to pray about and how I would be received. I was told there would be only a few present and some would read the morning papers.

However, it didn’t turn out like that, all the members seemed to be there and I was received with great courtesy and kindness.

I was also on the receiving end of prayers when I was a councillor for Queensferry, and then Almond ward and then as lord provost.

Tradition plays an important part in council meetings. The lord provost proceeds in behind the sword and mace, and the first thing he does is to welcome the minister or priest to lead the council in prayer.

It’s been part of the tradition for generations. At one time, I suspect it was only Christian prayers that were said, but now the council welcomes people from all faiths and no faith. Humanists and secularists are welcome to take part.

Things have changed in the council and it is time not just for prayers but for a reflection offered by members of the faith communities. The council welcomes the minister from St Giles, the cardinal, the rabbi, the imam, the Sikh, and many others.

So at one level, it means the councillors are able to see and hear members or representatives from all the faith communities that they represent in their wards.

Is it possible to measure in any way the success or failure of the “reflection”? I doubt it, but often the officiator manages to say a word about an international disaster, or a tragedy that had shaken the local community. All very relevant to the work of the council.

The right word can be uplifting and helpful before the beginning of the meeting.

Naturally, as Kirk minister I would be saddened if the council decided to abolish prayers and the “God slot” disappeared. Just as I would be saddened if the civic services that the council attends throughout the year were stopped.

Edinburgh prides itself on being an open, inclusive, tolerant city, and it would be a shame if one group set out to undo years of tolerance and inclusiveness because of their philosophy.

The Edinburgh motto is nisi dominus frustra – “unless the Lord build the city, the builders toil in vain” – from Psalm 127, verse 1.

The words are enshrined in the window as you walk up the stairs of the City Chambers. It is a good reminder that the council has a dimension that often goes beyond the here and the now and it is privileged to capture glimpses of eternity.

Abolish prayers today – and smash stain glass windows tomorrow – that would deserve an Asbo.


By Norman Bonney

Council member, National Secular Society

In a recent High Court judgment, it was determined that the saying of prayers at council meetings in England and Wales was unlawful because of laws relating to local government passed by the Conservative government in 1972.

Since that time, some councils south of the Border have been breaking that law by saying prayers and have now been required to stop the practice.

There may yet be other legal cases about whether new legal provisions recently passed by the UK government will allow the practice to be resumed in England and Wales.

The City of Edinburgh Council is unusual in being one of the few Scottish councils to conduct prayers at its monthly meetings.

The prayers are conducted furtively. They are not recorded as an item on the agenda of the meeting or recorded in the minutes – unlike the Scottish Parliament. Prayers are conducted when the bell summons councillors to the meeting so they are part of the proceedings. But, as far as I am aware, councillors have never had a public discussion or debate as to whether they should have prayers, and what form they should take. They have left the hot issue to the lord provost to decide.

Pressure from the National Secular Society has now led the new council to review the law and to debate whether it wishes to have prayers and what form they should take.

Prayers are meant to be unifying – to apply to the whole body of councillors involved. If some councillors dissent from prayers by being absent in body or mind then prayers have lost their purpose. Any decision over whether to have prayers or some other observance has to be 100 per cent consensual – otherwise the exercise is in vain – it will involve the imposition of the religious views of the majority on a minority.

This should be one area where majority rule does not apply. There should be complete agreement. One dissenting member should have a veto. The saying or form of prayers should be agreeable to all. And if councillors are in any way typical of the public, one in three of them will not be religious in any way.

If the council decides to have prayers then it may well follow the Scottish Parliament model, and in trying to be representative of the community we can expect to have prayers from Christians of numerous varieties (now about half the population), Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, humanists, Scientologists, pagans etc – because the UK Equality Act of 2010 requires that public bodies must now demonstrate that they are non-discriminatory in their actions on grounds of religion and belief.

Perhaps the best solution, apart from the complete ending of prayers, comes from the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly, where meetings begin with collective silent contemplation.