As we sheltered from the teeming rain last Thursday, waiting expectantly in the company of other faith leaders in the city to welcome His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I had to reflect that even if our weather isn’t always welcoming to all-comers, at least the people of Edinburgh are.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a culture of respect for all faiths, beliefs and viewpoints is so intrinsic to civic life in Scotland’s capital that it is all but taken for granted.
Don’t take my word for it. An American couple who happened to be staying at the same hotel as His Holiness and who saw me flanked by Imam Sajjad of Central Mosque, Rabbi Rose and Reverend Donald Reid told me: “We don’t get this sort of thing back home.”
The “sort of thing” they meant may have been in part the sense of ceremony and tradition conferred by the Lord Provost’s chain and the formal attire of the City Officer who accompanied me. But I think Edinburgh’s kaleidoscopic “welcoming committee” was part of it too. Such an ecumenical representation, however, is testament to this city’s values, which promote tolerance, peace and freedom of belief for all our residents.
As you would expect in the home of the Scottish Enlightenment, here in Edinburgh we are better than most at fostering a culture in which no one group feels marginalised because of their lifestyle, belief or opinions.
On becoming Lord Provost, I stated that one of my priorities was to bring in groups and citizens who felt excluded so that everyone felt they were part of the civic life of the city. It is about showing respect for what people in the city have respect for, both religious and non-religious.
At meetings of Edinburgh City Council, it has been the tradition for an individual to be invited by the Lord Provost to open the proceedings “as they feel appropriate”. For the most part, the meetings have in fact been opened with prayers, although there have also been addresses by non-religious organisations such as the Humanist Society Scotland.
Technically, it has always been possible for any kind of group or body to send a representative to full council meetings for this purpose.
But as we embark on a new five-year term of office, the Capital coalition has embraced the opportunity to make sure we clearly give a voice to the broadest possible spectrum of faith, community and civic interests from among Edinburgh’s residents and organisations.
That’s why I have agreed, in consultation with every group leader, to establish new “Pause for Reflection” sessions. These will take place in the Council Chamber ahead of formal council meetings and will be open to anyone gathering at the City Chambers for the meetings.
The sessions will continue to feature contributions from a wide range of religious groups, while expanding the offer to participate to voluntary organisations, societies and indeed visiting public figures to the city. Perhaps His Holiness the Dalai Lama will want to take part on his next visit to the Capital!
The first Pause for Reflection session, this Thursday, will be delivered by Charlotte Chapel senior pastor Paul Rees. For forthcoming sessions, I look forward to hearing suggestions from any and all elected members on the council. Members of the public are also welcome to contact me with their nominations.
Edinburgh has not been alone as local authorities up and down the UK have tried to respond to contesting calls over the future of formal prayers at council meetings. Here in the Capital we have kept the debate polite and informed, even when views have differed.
I firmly believe our solution meets the council’s commitment to achieve equal access for all Edinburgh residents, regardless of race, gender, disability, sexuality, age, religion or belief.
The Capital coalition recognises that there has been a feeling of “disconnection” in the past among a certain proportion of the city’s citizens in relation to the local authority that serves them. My express goal is to restore that sense of shared belonging so that everyone feels included.
As His Holiness the Dalai Lama himself once said: “All here are the same, whether rich or poor, educated or uneducated, Easterner or Westerner, believer or non-believer, and within believers whether Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and so on. Basically, from the viewpoint of real human value we are all the same.”
THE prayers row flared up this year after the National Secular Society (NSS) won a High Court ruling against prayers held by a Devon town council. The NSS said it would turn its sights on Edinburgh as it was one of the only Scottish councils to still hold prayers before its monthly meetings.
Council officials said that prayers should be suspended until more information was available on the legal issue. NSS Edinburgh representative Norman Bonney said council standing orders did not allow for prayers and said it could be “open to charges of mal-administration”. However, Tory councillor Jeremy Balfour challenged the relevance of the English ruling and said councillors should be allowed to make the decision.