The court ruling that prayers should not be on the formal council agenda at Bideford Town Council has been met with predictable outrage. The Mail says it could be extended to Parliament – I’m not sure it’s quite the same scenario, as in Parliament prayers are said when the session begins, at say. 2.30pm, and then another bell goes a few minutes later and those who didn’t want to be in there for prayers enter the Chamber. So you can avoid them.
I’ve been in a few times – there are prayers where you stand facing forward, and then prayers when you have to turn your backs on the other side and face the wall. People say that’s so we can’t draw our swords on the opposition. I can’t remember if that’s one of the true ones, or a myth.
If you’ve got Q1 on the Order Paper, or you’re on the front bench opening a debate, you’d probably have to go in for prayers as otherwise there’d be an undignified scramble to get in place before business starts. (The clerks’ chairs are removed so the priest and Speaker can stand there while prayers are said; as soon as prayers are over there’s a mad scramble as the doorkeepers rush to put the chairs back and the clerks take their seats. The doorkeepers get rather cross when impatient MPs try to squeeze past before they’ve performed this manouevre).
If people want to bagsy seats for PMQs they get in early and put what are called ‘prayer cards’ into slots on the benches. Loads of Tories do it, but I think only Dennis Skinner does it on our side – and that’s probably unnecessary as no-one would dream of nicking Dennis’ front row gangway seat. (It’s his 80th birthday today by the way – happy birthday Dennis!)
For what it’s worth, I would prefer Parliament to drop the prayers. I think religion should, as the National Secular Society says, be separate from politics. And we have a rather beautiful chapel in Parliament, where people could go if they wanted to pray.
I actually asked John Bercow what he thought of this when he was running for Speaker, as I knew he was an atheist, but he said he wasnt that bothered about keeping the tradition. (I suspect he was being pragmatic; it would cause huge uproar if he’d suggested otherwise. MPs are quite a religious bunch).
The main prayer that is said every day is this:
“Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit. May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind; so may your kingdom come and your name be hallowed.
You can make your own assessment as to whether or not the prayer has had the desired impact on our behaviour.