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Posts Tagged ‘reflection’

Living on a Prayer

In Events, Home Affairs, Judicial Spotlight on February 10, 2012 at 4:29 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox –@polar_ii

So today, we learn that it’s not legal for district and town councils to say prayers before their sessions. In fact, it’s illegal, apparently, for them to do anything which isn’t “calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the discharge of any of their functions.” (Section 111, Local Government Act).  As far as I can see, it’s also now illegal for the council to begin their session with a rendition of the national anthem, or with a reading of a post-colonial poem.

But I want to argue that prayers are conducive to the discharge of a council’s functions. By ‘prayers’, I mean some sort of time for reflection, without an overtly Christian flavour (although for ease, some words from the Book of Common Prayer, I suppose, could be used). The explicit Christianity of Bideford Town Council’s prayers were what initially led to the objection. And I can see why some people might find explicitly Christian observances off-putting in their place of work. But the ruling on the question has thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

The ability of town councils to ascribe a period of reflection is important for two reasons. Firstly, if a council wants such a time, it should be able to have it. A council having the ability to set its own agenda, as far as I can see, is certainly incidental to its statutory functions (it needs this freedom in order to determine, at minimum, what services to debate), and probably conducive too: the more control the council has over the terms of its debate, the more it can have more constructive debates and make better decisions. The more it functions as a body that is certain that it can debate matters without being over-ruled, the better the deliberations will be.

Secondly, I would argue that a period of reflection is also conducive to constructive debate and better decisions. An opportunity to pause and reflect takes any heat out of the situation, and gives people space to focus on why they are in a council chamber. For religious people, that may well have something to do with their god. For non-religious people, it might be an opportunity to reflect on the interests of the people they represent, and this is equally true of religious people. Everyone can reflect on the manner in which they will approach the upcoming debate and decisions; hopefully leading to something less confrontational and more constructive.

And just to show that it’s not just me who thinks this, in the House of Commons there are prayers (not always led by the CoE chaplain) and in the Scottish Parliament there is a time of silence. Yes, these are throwbacks to a previous time, but they are throwbacks that are appreciated by the people who use the space to reflect. No less a figure than Gladstone said that prayers were the most important business the House of Commons undertook.

As the hymnwriter says:

“Drop the still dews of quietness
Til all our striving cease:
Take from our souls the strain and stress
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of thy peace.”

Take the ‘thy peace’ out of the hymn and replace it with ‘true peace’ or ‘a peace’, and you have a poetic stanza that most people would agree with. You don’t have to believe in god to believe that quiet moments of reflection are beneficial to people. In the heated, intense, ordered council chambers up and down this country, there is a strong case to be made that a quiet moment of reflection will actually benefit (albeit in an unquantifiable way) the council’s deliberations and decisions.

For those reasons then, I think that there’s plenty of room for times of reflection (whether or not they are called prayers) to be included on council agendas. While having times specifically focussed on one religious tradition risks alienating people, the space for rest and reflection can only help councils in discharging their functions.