Dean Acheson, former US secretary of state, famously remarked in 1962: “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role.” Reading the news story about former councillor (and atheist) Clive Bone who brought a case against Bideford town council in July 2010, claiming he had been “disadvantaged and embarrassed” when prayers were recited at formal meetings, makes me tempted to paraphrase Acheson’s remark. Perhaps: “Great Britain has lost its Christian identity and not yet found its faith”?
Backed by the National Secular Society (who else?), Mr Bone went on to say that the “inappropriate practice” breached his human right of freedom of conscience and made non-believers feel “uncomfortable”. He was backed up in court by a High Court judge who ruled that prayers could no longer be said at the start of council meetings – though they could still be said beforehand. This in turn has prompted Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, to countermand the judge by stating that the forthcoming Localism Act will give councils the power to hold prayers at the start of their meetings if they choose. So is it now a storm in a teacup?
Not exactly. Mr Bone, wishing to demonstrate his sense of fair play, has gone on to declare that “Religious freedom is an absolute right and so is freedom from religion an absolute right in my view.” Enter John Bercow, Speaker of the House of Commons (and not known for his unwavering support of Christian values) who says the ruling will not affect Parliament’s tradition of daily prayers. An editorial in the Telegraph points out that when the monarch of the country takes a solemn vow to uphold the Christian faith, you can’t separate Church and state in that country as easily as Mr Bone may wish. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, writing in the Daily Mail, states that we don’t live in a “secular democracy” and that “Britain is fundamentally and historically a Christian country”.
Historically, yes; fundamentally – well, I wonder. Mr Bone would never have brought his grievances to public attention if he had not been certain he would receive a sympathetic hearing. You only have to add the phrase “breaching human rights” to generate much public fuss and anxiety – and probably win your case. But surely: if we do live in a country with a Christian head of state who makes a solemn vow at the coronation to uphold the Christian faith, a Parliament which opens its sessions with Christian prayers, state schools which are meant to hold Christian assemblies and local councils which begin their formal meetings with Christian prayers, then atheists like Clive Bone, and all his secular and humanist brethren should simply lump it. You can’t change the Christian traditions of a Christian country any more than you can change the rules of cricket.
This brings me back to my paraphrase of Dean Acheson’s prescient remark. We have let our identity as a Christian country dwindle and become blurred. We have taken it for granted rather than defend, uphold and live it; and then we have a rude awakening when people like Clive Bone come along and challenge us. We have to rediscover our faith, profess it and proclaim it – and then we will have a real role to play in the world. Our faith is much older and more vital than our lost Empire, after all.