Belfast Telegraph

Jesus being ruled out of order in Northern Ireland town halls

Only one of Northern Ireland's 11 super councils has said it will continue the practice of prayers before its monthly meetings. It's just another example of Christianity being erased from society in case someone takes offence, says Alf McCreary

Only one of Northern Ireland's 11 super councils has said it will continue the practice of prayers
Only one of Northern Ireland's 11 super councils has said it will continue the practice of prayers

The power of prayer is not yet high on the list of the new super councils for Northern Ireland, which will come into existence on April 1 - a date that has its own particular connotations.

Only one of the 11 new councils - Newtownabbey and Antrim - has so far decided that it will have a Bible reading and prayers before its regular meetings. All the others are still thinking about it, or haven't even bothered to do so, or just want to duck the issue entirely.

No doubt all will become clear after All Fools' Day, but the question of holding prayers before a council meeting is so overloaded with political correctness that most councillors will have trouble enough without creating more problems for themselves.

In a so-called Christian country, it seems obvious that the councillors from all parties who have been elected to serve the best interests of the general public could do with some advice from outside - or perhaps from above - the council chamber.

Certainly, they could do with a period of silent contemplation before the meeting starts and this in itself might lessen the acrimony and the party political and self-serving exchanges which periodically bring some councils and councillors into such disrepute.

Councillors are not necessarily all bad, or awkward, people. The trouble is that, once they enter the council chamber, they are tempted to show off - particularly if representatives of the Press are present.

What is said in a council meeting is too often aimed at people outside the chamber, rather than those inside it.

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Unfortunately, if the super councils did introduce a period of silence before a monthly meeting, there is a distinct possibility that this could turn into the contemplation of political navels, with predictable results and even more predictable headlines.

Christians would claim - and not without some credibility - that Bible readings and prayers would help to set the right tone for a council meeting, provided suitable words were read and intoned.

Sadly, however, such a well-intentioned gesture might turn into the parody of "Praise the Lord and pass the verbal ammunition".

Nevertheless, the relative reluctance of councils to consider, as yet, holding prayers before meetings may reflect the onward march of the times.

Our secular society has dispensed with so many bulwarks of faith that it is difficult to determine what the people of this country believe in anymore.

There is also the non-faith lobby, which asks why any public forum like a council meeting should start its deliberations with a religious act of any kind.

Even if that objection was over-ruled, there would be others in our allegedly multi-cultural society who would claim that there should be representations from several other faiths as well as Christianity.

Such an approach might have some broad support. I recall that there was a multi-faith series of messages in the commemoration service at St Anne's Cathedral last August to mark the outbreak of the Great War and no one in the large congregation seemed to object.

One of the particular problems in Northern Ireland is that religion gives politics a bad name - and vice versa.

It should not be so and the best of religion - in my opinion - can enhance human attitudes in dealing with common problems.

Sadly, however, religion is so associated with some political parties that the idea of prayers in the council chamber is in itself divisive.

Indeed, I was amused to read that the very concept of introducing Bible readings and prayers before council meetings could be subject to "equality screening" - whatever that means. It would seem that, if any issue is controversial, or just plain tricky to handle, a spokesperson nowadays will be instructed to talk about "equality" or "human rights" or "fair employment" - all of which is another way of trying to kick it into touch.

Our society has now become so politically correct and our politics and public life are so paralysed by the fear of offending someone or some institution, that very little seems to get done.

As a result common sense is kicked out of the window. The issue of holding prayers before council meetings is one of the lesser, though not unimportant, questions facing our society.

However, if our councillors had even a basic measure of common sense, surely they could devise a system whereby sessions for Bible readings and prayers would be held voluntarily before a meeting and people could attend these if they so wished.

What seems to be happening now is that Christianity is being erased from our society in case someone becomes offended.

Take, for example, the situation in Queen's University, where the Grace was dropped from official dinners - even though, to my knowledge, the people of other faiths (and of none) did not object in the first place.

We are a society running so scared of offending people that we hardly do anything which might be the subject of criticism.

In such a situation the last arbiter of good taste and practice should be the Mother of Parliaments. Yet even here there is little guidance.

Prayers are still held before Parliamentary business begins, and on certain days the chamber of the House of Commons is packed with members at prayer.

However, the spiritual value of such a demonstration might be reduced by the fact that some members are actually booking their seats in the chamber in advance of a particularly important debate that day.

This may be the equivalent of our public representatives adopting the German practice of placing towels over poolside loungers before dawn, or it may be yet another good example of people trying to serve God and Mammon.

Perhaps the last word on this business of prayer should be left to the founder of Christianity, who was asked a tricky question about loyalty to the Emperor or to God.

We are told in the King James' version of Mark's Gospel that Christ replied (with typical brevity and depth): "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's."

Our councillors should try to work that one out - then they will be on the right track.

Alf McCreary is the Belfast Telegraph's religion correspondent

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