Prayer At Cambridge City Council

Thursday, March 22nd, 2012. 1:50am

I observed Cambridge City Council’s Civic Affairs Committee on the 21st of March 2012 discuss if prayers ought be held at council meetings.

The meeting was inconclusive. Its outcome was to ask the mayor, Cllr Ian Nimmo-Smith, “to hold discussions” on what ought be done regarding prayers.

One of the most surprising claims, repeated by many councillors, was that what the council does isn’t praying. Cllr Stuart, who was mayor in the last civic year, stated what chaplains did was not lead the council in prayer, but merely open the meeting.

Here is the wording of one of the meeting openings conducted by a chaplain which Cllr Stuart presided over as mayor:

So let me lead us in a prayer.

Give us father a vision for this city as love was remained[?].

A city where the weak are protected and no one goes hungry.

A city where benefits are shared so that all may enjoy them.

A city where all peoples live in tolerance and mutual respect.

A city where peace is built from justice and justice is fired in clay.

And give us the courage to build these days this city.

- Amen

Liberal Democrat Cllr Boyce expressed his view saying: “What the council does isn’t really prayer”. Labour’s Cllr Benstead said that the prayer isn’t a prayer but a metaphor for respect for the mayor.

The Debate

The item had been placed on the agenda by Labour councillor Gail Marchant-Daisley who was unavoidably absent due to an unexpected work commitment.

There was no report on the item. The meeting’s chair Cllr Boyce asked the council’s head of legal, Simon Pugh (Salary 70,263 of taxpayers’ hard earned pounds each year) to explain the legal position.

Mr Pugh said prayers were lawful but not compulsory.

Labour leader Cllr Herbert spoke in Cllr Marchant-Daisley’s absence. Oddly he said that Cllr Marchant-Daisley didn’t want, or expect, the committee to make a decision on holding prayers. (Quite what she was seeking wasn’t made clear).

The meeting was told that prayers were not on the city council’s agenda or mentioned in the constitution and that the mayor holds them as it is customary.

It was noted that by not putting the prayers on the agenda the council had avoided the “mistake” made by Bideford council where prayers were ruled illegal.

Cllr Herbert suggested another meeting on the subject and a wider discussion.

Cllr Boyce said he had canvassed the Liberal Democrat party and had a high response rate, with views being expressed strongly right across the spectrum from one end to the other. He noted that the party had decided this was to be a subject for an unwhipped free vote should it ever come to one.

Cllr Boyce claimed that attendance at the prayers was not compulsory (they’re held during the council meeting). A councillor, I think it was Cllr Benstead, said that he attended the prayers because he feared if he didn’t he might miss something.

Alternative options such as having a moment of reflection; having something which involved more faiths, or holding prayers in the Mayor’s parlour, or in other rooms, before the formal meeting were briefly put forward.

Cllr Stuart argued to keep prayers as they are as doing otherwise would upset the ceremony involved in the start of a full council meeting (the Mayor, Chaplin, Chief Executive, Head of Legal and Sergent at Mace process in).

The current Mayor Cllr Nimmo-Smith was invited to join the debate despite not being a committee member. He argued in favour of formal prayer saying it was “custom, practice and tradition”. He added though that he would be keen to hear if people think the practice of prayer is exclusionary, indicating that might change his mind on the matter.

Cllr Benstead said he is a long lapsed Baptist who is beyond redemption. He said it ought be up to the mayor each year to decide what they wanted to do.

Mayor Ian Nimmo-Smith said chaplains being invited to lead prayers at the council but not turning up was becoming an increasing problem.

Despite not being on the committee Cllr Andrea Reiner attended the meeting and joined the committee at the table for their discussion. She spoke when prompted to do so by the meeting’s chair but expressed no view on the subject.

Cllr Rosensteil told the meeting he had never put himself forward to be Mayor, despite being a long serving councillor, as he would not be comfortable with the prayers. He said he currently sat through them and didn’t make a fuss, he said this was the British thing to do. Cllr Rosensteil said that once, in the 1960s there had been a Mayor who didn’t appoint a chaplain, and there had been one councillor, ex-cllr Frank Gawthrope who actively absented himself from the prayers during his decades on the council.

Cllrs noted they didn’t know if councillors absent from the prayers were late or abstaining. Cllr Boyce confirmed he was often late, and wasn’t actively avoiding the prayers. He noted there was a custom that those who arrived after the meeting had started, but before the prayer had finished, wait outside so as not to disturb the prayer.

Cllr Herbert responded to those who had claimed the council didn’t pray, saying “they might not be called prayers but they feel like prayers”.

The item was concluded as Mayor Ian Nimmo-Smith agreed to hold discussions on what ought be done.

My View

I don’t know if mayor Nimmo-Smith will be seeking the views of the public, but the prayers affect those seeking to observe and report on council meetings too. The views of the public are also important as members of the public are all potential councillors.

I don’t think there ought be prayers at council meetings. I simply don’t think the council chamber is the place for them, it’s a place for our elected representatives to come together and democratically decide how to run the city.

Prayers, conducted in a formal, public, manner, risk making some councillors, or members of the public, stand out or feel uncomfortable, on the basis of their religion, or lack of it, something which just shouldn’t be a factor when it comes to running our city. If an individual doesn’t want to participate in prayer, or doesn’t want to be seen to pray, they shouldn’t have to mark themselves out, and become the odd one out as all the other councillors are doing it (or at least going through the motions).

Personally I sometimes stand outside the chamber in protest (both at the prayers and the presence of the Mace – I think the monarch ought have no role in democracy either) , sometimes I forget to do this, or I go in to get a seat and to collect and read the meeting papers, or if I’m using the public speaking slot I’ve gone in because I’ve not wanted to miss any relevant announcements. Sometimes I attend and report the content of the prayer live via Twitter, or note it down, as I do with other aspects of the council meeting.

I have seen members of the public stand for the prayer as councillors do, but recently council officers have required people in the public gallery to sit down (for safety reasons, as there is a low rail).

See Also

2 comments/updates on “Prayer At Cambridge City Council

  1. Richard Taylor Article author

    When the ruling on prayers at Bideford was made I was asked by BBC Radio Cambridgeshire for my views on prayers at council meetings. The notes I made in preparation for a interview included the following:

    I’m a fan of unfettered representative democracy.

    I’ve expressed a view for a long time that we should get both God and the Crown out of our running our society.

    I’ve filmed councillors at prayer; letting people know these prayers happen. Cambridge City Council doesn’t put the prayer on the agenda.

    Liberal democrats stood on a manifesto promising evidence based policy making. People stand on manifestos of evidenced based policy making, because there are alternatives, one of those is doing what God or your faith tells you to do. I find councillors seeking divine guidance on the decisions before them at the start of the a meeting worrying. I’d rather they had more robust and tangible justifications for their actions.

    There are broader related factors. I’d like to see religion, god and the monarchy out of our democracy entirely. I’d get rid of oaths to the monarch wherever they’re found. I’d get rid of the prayers from Parliament too — we don’t see them as they’re not televised – but they happen.

    I don’t think we should have current incumbent councillors setting up an environment which deters or prevents others from seeking election.

  2. Martyn

    Your comments are spot on – but I also think that local councils should see their role as representing local people in opposition to the government, rather than being an administrative arm of central government which is the current situation.

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