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Canterbury City Council votes to end prayers in meetings

A decades-long tradition of holding prayers before full council meetings in Kent’s cathedral city is set to end following a vote to scrap the custom.

Canterbury city councillors have decided to end the practice amid fears it deters non-Christians from wanting to represent their local areas.

Canterbury Cathedral
Canterbury Cathedral

But some members of the authority railed against the proposals to alter the body’s constitution, arguing that Christianity was “an important part of the city’s very fibre”.

Conservative councillor Ian Stockley also stated that anyone not wanting to take part in the custom could instead step out of meetings.

The Tory said: “Any council or audience member who wishes to attend and does not wish to partake in prayers can indeed leave the chamber while prayers are being said.

“I do feel that this is an important part of Canterbury’s very fibre. I was privileged to work with the previous Lord Mayor through their offices with the Cathedral, and it’s true to say the Cathedral values the connection to the city very highly.

“I think it’s a matter of choice. The Lord Mayor, whom the leading group can select, has the option to decide whether or not to have prayers and what prayers he or she would like.”

Beltinge councillor Ian Stockley
Beltinge councillor Ian Stockley

Council leader Ben Fitter-Harding (Con) also voted against the amendment, stating that any changes to the tradition should instead be made by the Lord Mayor.

Prior to the vote, prayers before full council meetings would be led by the Lord Mayor’s chaplain, who can be of any faith.

However, Barton councillor Dave Wilson (Lab) described the practice as outdated, adding the authority would be failing in its duty by continuing with a tradition that may act as a “potential barrier” to residents participating in local politics.

“I suspect many elected members think is a minor issue and not a real problem,” the Labour member explained.

“But that’s easy to say when it’s your beliefs that are being promoted - for people of different faiths, it may not be such a small issue.

Cllr Dave Wilson
Cllr Dave Wilson

“Some religions or sects will not permit any observance other than their own, so holding any form of prayers will potentially exclude citizens from attending.

“It’s enshrined in the council (constitution) that we do this. The idea that we should tell people to go away if they’re going to be offended by something that we don’t have to do, I think, is wrong.”

Cllr Wilson also pointed to data from the last census that showed 40% of the district’s residents either observed a religion other than Christianity or were of no religion at all.

His proposal received cross-party support from several Liberal Democrat and Conservative members.

Tankerton councillor Neil Baker (Con) added: “We should be open to anybody putting themselves forward who wants to make their community a better place to live or work.

Tankerton councillor Neil Baker
Tankerton councillor Neil Baker

"And if anything that we do makes them think ‘perhaps that isn’t for me’, we potentially will miss out on some potentially very good people. That would be an absolute crying shame.”

The amendment was supported by 18 members, while 11 councillors voted against it and seven abstained.

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