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Opinion: Our Council Needs All the Prayers It Can Get – Or Does It?

Published on: 22 Apr, 2014
Updated on: 22 Apr, 2014

By Martin Giles

Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph headline: “Cameron ‘divides Britain’ over faith” has a Guildford resonance.

PrayersWhether prayers should be a part of our local council meetings was debated at the recent borough council meeting at Millmead and led to an unusually bad tempered outburst with one councillor accusing another of hypocrisy.

The main protagonist in the debate was one of the two Labour councillors on the council, Christian Gilliam who represents Westborough ward. He believes strongly prayers should not be included.

Cllr Christian Gilliam

Cllr Christian Gilliam wants prayers to be said outside the council meeting

He has no objection to them being held by those who wish to take part but thinks that they should be said somewhere separate, not part of the council meetings in the main chamber.

To date the council has overcome any objection by stating that the prayers, normally led by the mayor’s chaplain, precede the meeting and are not formally part of it.

It should be said, though, that for those attending there is no clear separation and if one did not want to take part it might be awkward to wait until they had finished. I have not noticed anyone doing so.

Cllr Marsha Mosley

Cllr Marsha Mosley accused Cllr Gunning of hypocrisy

But does it really matter? Cllr Marsha Moseley (Con, Ash Vale) thought not and got hot under the collar that any council time was being spent on the subject.

She does not normally say a great deal in council meetings but on this occasion was so angry that she said: “…I cannot believe that we are sitting here and even debating this this evening when we have so many more important issues that we could be discussing. I am not going to say any more because I am so disgusted and I will lose my temper.”

She did though continue, in an unseemly outburst to accuse Cllr Gilliam’s sole supporter and fellow Labour representative at Guildford Borough Council, Cllr Angela Gunning, of being a hypocrite because she had participated in ceremonies where prayers were said during her time as mayor.

Cllr Angela Gunning voiced the only concerns about the planned expenditure

Cllr Angela Gunning, Labour group leader who supported Cllr Gilliam.

Surprisingly her choice of insult, which many might deem inappropriate, was overlooked by both the mayor, chairing the meeting and Satish Mistry, head of the legal department, who has interrupted meetings on previous occasions when councillors have overstepped the mark.

Cllr Moseley’s accusation was as wrong as it was unfair. It is not hypocrisy for Cllr Gunning to support such a change, even if she did go along with the practice as mayor.

Don’t we all, at times, go along with things we do not necessarily agree with, unless we find them morally unacceptable. I suspect Cllr Moseley disagrees with some parts of Conservative party policy, many Tories do, but she does not leave the party.

After all, it is not as if Cllr Gunning pretended to be a Christian to garner votes or stood for family values while conducting an affair. That would be hypocrisy.

I understand that Cllr Gunning considered her options but has decided not to make make a formal complaint. In my view, Cllr Moseley should apologise anyway.

But surely saying prayers does no real harm. Even for agnostics like me and confirmed unbelievers it is easy enough to respect those who are simply calling for supernatural help to come to good decisions during the meeting.

Of course, in purist terms Cllr Gilliam has a point: should religion, even from the established Church, play any part in a council meeting? If so, shouldn’t there also be prayers from other religious representatives: there are Moslems and Jews and members of other religions too in our borough, not to mention humanists.

However, is it such a big deal? It certainly isn’t for me. I suspect it will gradually change over time. We are, like it or not, and despite any claims by the prime minister, becoming more and more a secular society. Christianity no longer has the religious dominance of my childhood.

On one point though I do agree with Cllr Moseley. Surely with all the real challenges our borough faces the 20 minutes or so spent on this subject could have been better used, especially when it is reported that there are more and more people resorting to using the food bank in Cllr Gilliam’s own ward along with others in Guildford.

See also BBC articles:  Council prayer row: Prayer sends out the wrong signal and Town council prayer ruling ‘rather sad’

What do you think? Should prayers precede council meetings? Have your say by using the ‘leave a reply’ feature below…

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Responses to Opinion: Our Council Needs All the Prayers It Can Get – Or Does It?

  1. Bernard Parke Reply

    April 22, 2014 at 9:36 pm

    For generations we have had prayers before council meetings regardless.

    What is the harm in it?

    If those councillors who object to prayers perhaps they should leave the council chamber.

    They have a little list. They would never have been missed?

    (Misquote from Gilbert and Sullivan).

  2. sue fox Reply

    April 24, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    Has anyone seen any EU election literature or spotted a canvasser from any party ?

    No wonder turnout at elections is minimal, only ‘literature’ we’ve seen is poll cards!

  3. Christian Gilliam Reply

    April 25, 2014 at 2:04 am

    As much as I appreciate the fact that Martin Giles has striven for balance here, I find his last remark fallacious and somewhat frivolous. Debating prayers in the chamber, and fighting for my residents are not mutually exclusive. Might I remind everyone, for instance, that not so long ago I tried to get a motion passed that would lift a large number of my residents out of the bedroom tax. It is also worth considering that full council represents only one of many mediums through which we as councillors can represent the public.

    As for this meeting, what I put forward was an amendment to a specific section on prayers in the civic review report. In other words, the debate was not plucked out of thin air, and randomly forced upon the chamber. Rather, it an entirely suitable (or perhaps the only) time to bring up the topic. In terms of ‘wasting time’, the 20-minute debate did not preclude the debate of anything else…at all. That’s not how full council works. The remark is therefore null and void. On that note, I would urge members of the public to take a look at how many Liberal, and especially Conservative backbenchers actually contribute to meetings in the form of questions and indeed notices of motion. Considering their numbers, not many. So I ask, if Angela and I weren’t so ‘troublesome’, would there be any real debate in the chamber at all? At least we provide real opposition, which is what we were elected to do.

    Finally, although I appreciate other views on prayers, I would just say that for many people – my residents included – this is a big deal. (In fact I would say that referring to ‘challenges’ facing the borough is nothing more than an empty signifier, and so rather meaningless and misleading. Everyone has a different view as to what a challenge is, and which are the most pressing.)

    If more people were aware of what was going on, there would be a more audible outcry, undoubtedly stemming from one of our more significant traditions: liberal secularism (inter alia Locke, Paine, Bentham, Mill, Green…)

  4. Mary Bedforth Reply

    April 27, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    Christian says ‘On that note, I would urge members of the public to take a look at how many Liberal, and especially Conservative backbenchers actually contribute to meetings in the form of questions and indeed notices of motion. Considering their numbers, not many.’

    Unless we attend every council meeting open to the public, we can never know the answer.

    Also why are there now as many three councillors in some wards? When I moved here 30+ years there was just one councillor in the ward. There are now three who we only hear from at election time in the form of a leaflet maybe.

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