Chris Bryant: What is the place for prayer in Parliament? To learn some wisdom, perhaps

A Political Life

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So the National Secular Society, that jovial easy-going bunch, is taking Bideford Town Council (population 14,599) to the High Court because the council insists on holding prayers at the beginning of its meetings, which supposedly crushes the right of one councillor not to pray to a god that he doesn't believe exists.

Don't get me wrong; I like a bit of militant atheism. Religious fanaticism and the crusading spirit have done immense harm throughout the ages. Some individual churches still act as a corrupt and rotten presence in the body politic. In Cyprus, for instance, the Orthodox church has done nothing to help and plenty to hinder the settling of the decades-long dispute between north and south. So too in Russia, the church has become a vassal of Putin's mafia-style state. And even in Britain, the list of ecclesiastical nonsense is astounding: the complete mishandling of the Occupy site outside St Paul's; the ludicrous Anglican argument that Christians can be gay but must, especially if they are clergy, be celibate; the Catholic church's determination to protect its reputation by secrecy rather than by confession of its child-molesting sins.

Even though (as a former vicar) some of my best friends are bishops, I'd remove them from the House of Lords. After all, we preach enough to other countries against the dangers of theocracy, so why on earth do we reserve special seats for clerics in our legislature?

Yet surely the 16 members of Bideford Council, who have already voted on this twice, should be allowed to pray, if they want to. And any member who doesn't want to pray should be free not to do so. Why it all has to go to the High Court I don't understand.

We have something similar in the Commons. As every day starts, the Speaker, who happens to be Jewish, and his female (Anglican) chaplain kneel, and members face towards the wall to hear the cadences of Cranmer's Book of Common Prayer. Prayers are not recorded; the public is excluded and there is no pressure on members to be present. Some atheist MPs even attend but sit throughout in silence.

As it happens, I would scrap the Commons prayers. They never vary, not for war or peace or national disaster. And inevitably they do not recognise the faith of the fundamentalist evangelical, the liberal Muslim or the devout Hindu. They are a hangover from the days when parliament determined every jot and tittle of true and godly CofE religion – and it would make sense to have a vote on their retention or abolition at the start of every parliament.

There is one benefit, though, because the main prayer we are forced to listen to every day has a wisdom in it: "May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind." It's those words "desire to please" that I always struggle with – in more ways than one.

Hats off to MPs and their toppers

On Monday the Speaker, John Bercow, unveiled his official portrait, which occupies one of the few remaining niches in Speaker's House, opposite Speaker Martin. It is noticeably different from other such portraits, not least because it shows the Speaker in "Order, order" action.

When he asked if anyone had any questions, his seven-year-old son Oliver piped uppiped up: "Why aren't you wearing something on your head, like all the others?" True, all bar his immediate predecessors wore wigs, a tradition going back to the 18th century when a full-bottomed periwig became de rigueur.

Parliamentary fashion has changed. In the 19th century, the preference was for tall silk stovepipe hats, which had to be removed on entering the building, replaced when sitting in the chamber and removed again either to speak or to listen to a message from the monarch. A member could even reserve his seat before prayers with his topper – although in 1893, Mr Mitchell Henry complained that he had seen MPs in the street wearing a top hat while what purported to be their headgear was staking out a seat in the chamber.

So strict was the top hat rule that the first Irish nationalist MP, John Martin, was severely reprimanded in the 1870s by Speaker Brand for appearing in a low-crowned hat. But by the end of the century, the popular Northumbrian radical and patron of lost causes, Joseph Cowen, was allowed to get away with a felt broad-rimmed "wideawake", as his topper supposedly gave him headaches; John Burns sported a soft hat; Will Crooks adopted a sort of sombrero and Keir Hardie wore a tweed cap.

The death blow came 92 years ago this week when Nancy, Lady Astor, became the first woman to take her seat. The hat issue had been advanced by some misogynists as a reason for not electing women MPs. Would they speak covered or uncovered? The Speaker simply ruled that the hat rule (No 142) would not apply to women. Within a decade even men had abandoned hats.

A BSkyB shareholder who really likes her tea

I went to the BSkyB AGM as a proxy on Tuesday. A strange affair. James Murdoch looked and sounded remarkably nervous (as well he might considering 40 per cent of independent votes went against his re-election).

The oddest thing was the board – 13 men and just one woman, most of them so longstanding they had had their purported "independence" squeezed out of them long ago, all seated on a specially constructed platform facing the room like the condemned. Or rather, more like the Politburo on the top of Lenin's tomb for the May Day drive-past. Not a flicker of emotion crossed their faces.

The oddest image of the day, though, came before the meeting when one older lady shareholder approached the tea and coffee stand, opened her handbag and poured every single tea bag into it. She was just moving on to the Danish pastries when I left.

twitter.com/ChrisBryantMP

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