Christian News from Scotland

News stories from Scotland and beyond

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Unholy Row Over Prayer

GOD may well be in his heaven, but he faces a battle to hang on in the council chamber.

Traditional prayers at meetings of the Highland Council face being scrapped amid worries they may be "discriminatory".

The Inverness-based body is investigating whether the invocations break equal rights laws. A small number of councillors now stay out of the chamber, while others claim the prayers are "rambling and repetitious".

But the calls to scrap the devotions, which typically last for about four minutes, have led to a furious backlash from traditionalists in some of the strongest churchgoing areas in Scotland.

All meetings of the full council, which are held every six weeks, along with meetings of the education and culture committee, feature times of prayer. At the start of a full council meeting the convener asks a councillor, who is also a committed church member, to pray.

For education meetings, one of the trio of clerics who attend the committee is picked. Those selected are rarely warned in advance and, in the best Presbyterian tradition, must pray "off-the-cuff" rather than reading out pre-prepared texts.

But even the few minutes contemplating the Divine are too much for some, who believe the tradition is anachronistic in the increasingly multi-cultural Highlands.

Michael MacMillan, the leader of the Labour group on the council has asked for a review of whether the authority risks breaking equality laws by holding the prayers. A team of officials will now investigate the legal question and quiz other local authorities on their stance on the issue.

Other Scottish councils which share the practice are Edinburgh, Dumfries and Galloway, and the Western Isles. The Scottish Parliament has a weekly session for prayer which is led in turn by representatives from different religions and includes Humanists.

Dingwall councillor MacMillan, who is standing as a list candidate in next year's Holyrood elections, said: "I have come to this from a legal background and am concerned about whether we are breaking equality laws. We have to ask whether this is an issue of religious discrimination. We are likely to be in the situation soon of having councillors who might be Sikh or Muslim and we need to ask whether the prayers should continue."

The possibility of scrapping the prayers has led to a backlash from many members.

Independent Inverness councillor Jimmy MacDonald, said: "This is the Highlands, this is Scotland, and this is a churchgoing area. I have never heard any complaints about the prayers until now. I see no reason to change it."

Sandy Glass, a Church of Scotland minister and member of Highland's education committee - who regularly leads prayers in the chamber - said: "A much better answer to the question of several cultures and faiths is to allow different religions their turn, just like we do with the Christian denominations right now. I would have no problem with a Muslim, for example, praying in the chamber. I think that's the way ahead."

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