Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Displays of religious devotion in the Council chamber

The deputy leader of the LibDem group on Oxford City Council tabled the following question to the Leader at Monday's meeting :

Should all local authorities follow Oxford City's example and avoid requiring councillors to participate in often hypocritical displays of religious devotion?

I couldn't hear the mumbled answer, but presumably it was affirmative because the questioner replied with a hearty "Amen".

Some weeks earlier, I'd had a conversation with a minister colleague who grew up in a Presbyterian minister's household, subsequently became a Roman Catholic and is now an Anglican priest. She had said she found my Reformed tradition (Presbyterian is 'Reformed') to be lacking in 'spirituality', and I think this is quite a common feeling. Reformed worship is, on the surface, extremely passive. The only point where the congregation 'displays' anything is in the singing of hymns.

I found myself reflecting that at its birth, the Reformed Churches were themselves reacting against the imposition of religious 'display'. They refused to kneel to pray or receive communion; out went genuflecting, lighting of candles, kissing of icons -- the value of religion was in the inward disposition not the outward display. Equally important were the rights of personal conviction and religious tolerance. England had seen enough of people being persecuted for not saying creeds or 'displaying' their religion as decreed by the State. With this went the conviction that the power of religious institutions needed to be separated from the power of government.

So what my colleague perceives as a 'lack of spirituality' is actually a strong statement of religious freedom, an awareness of the ever-present possibility of hypocrisy, and an awareness of how outward display can be a tool of oppression.

Next time my councillor colleague is sitting in the Council chamber saying nothing and making no gestures, should I interpret this as a display of religious devotion? Or as a refusal to participate in such?