It is no surprise that the extremists in the National Secular Society are now targeting Parliamentary prayers, having made local civic prayer almost impossible through legal challenges.
Seven years ago, secularists challenged my local district council, Bideford, with a legal challenge to the saying of a prayer at the beginning of council meetings. A High Court judge ruled that it was unlawful for prayers to be said at council meetings.
This ruling was bizarrely not based on the principle of the matter but a narrow point of law under section 111 of the Local Government Act 1972.
It was held by Mr Justice Ouseley that there was no “specific power to say prayers or to have any period of quiet reflection as part of the business of the council”.
Crispin Blunt, a new Patron of the National Secular Society, is tabling an Early Day Motion because the practice of prayers make him feel “uncomfortable”.
The blogger, Adrian Hilton, AKA Archbishop Cranmer, points to the ludicrous nature of the arguments advanced by secularists: “So the freedom to hold parliamentary prayers must give way to the freedom to be free of them, even though they are not mandatory,” (http://bit.ly/2Mr8UEI).
Hilton argues that Parliamentary prayers have been part of the business of Parliament for half a millennium. He writes: “The Palace of Westminster is not a ‘secular’ space from which God is excluded; it is a royal palace, housing St Mary Undercroft, a royal peculiar. The Church of England is established (like it or not, that is the Constitution), and three quarters of MPs taking their seats swear their Oath of Allegiance to the Head of State (who, like it or not, happens to be Supreme Governor of the Established Church) on a religious text (250 choosing to do so on the Authorised Version [which is heartening]).
“Parliamentary prayers are open to politicians of all faiths and none; the Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin is chaplain to MPs of all faiths and none. Parliament is her parish; MPs are her parishioners, and she serves them and ministers to them all – including Crispin Blunt.”
Notwithstanding the extremely effective ministry of Rose Hudson-Wilkin to Parliament, Blunt’s EDM is only the beginning of the end for prayer in public life. It is unlikely that Blunt’s attempt will lead to a ban but the NSS will not stop their campaign.
I fear that the Church of England, in particular, is weak and unable to summon up the theological resources to resist the abandonment of public prayer. It is not just because the Church is weak in demographic terms but driven by a corresponding weakness of the Church’s own public theology.
The Church of England must pay attention to the need to prize theological scholarship and bring theologians and scholars, in addition to managers, into leadership.
Masculinity is brought into question
Given the weakness of the Church, it is telling that multi-national companies such as Nike and Proctor & Gamble (the owners of the shaving brand Gillette) have taken to the public pulpit with adverts that preach about the values of environmentalism and modern masculinity.
The Gillette advert, which condemns ‘toxic masculinity’ and singles out for praise examples of good masculinity such as defending people who are bullied or assaulted, has created a storm of protest. Many people object to the advert on the grounds that it singles out men as a group and associates their gender with poor behaviour.
But with more justification, many critics simply object to being preached at, hectored and lectured by companies whose prime attachment is to making a profit and legally minimising their tax obligations.
At this point, I must declare an interest. I have been boycotting Gillette for more than two decades. And I call upon all male readers to join me in this boycott of Gillette and flaunt their facial hair with pride.
But the Gillette advert highlights the way that masculinity is coming to be viewed increasingly negatively. According to the sociologist Frank Furedi, the American Psychological Association has listed aspects of behaviour associated with traditional masculinity as a “medical problem,” (http://bit.ly/2DpmxRW).
He writes: “According to the APA, traditional masculinity is ‘marked by stoicism, competitiveness’; it casually couples these values with dominance and aggression’. It says that the bad habits associated with masculinity, ‘like suppressing emotions and masking distress’, often start early in life and are ‘psychologically harmful’.”
It is worrying to see aspects of behaviour such as ‘risk-taking’ and ‘stoicism’ now being treated with increasing suspicion. Of course, such ‘virtues’ can lead to recklessness and inflexibility, but there can be no advances without taking a risk. And it is much harder for men and women to get through the vicissitudes and trials of life without at times suppressing and harnessing their emotions for the sake of supporting others, especially their families.
As the father of a girl, I worry about some aspects of behaviour associated with masculinity that could affect my daughter. But I also worry about my two sons in a world where their very gender is often regarded as problematic and even toxic.