Published: 21:16, 04 June 2019
| Updated: 21:17, 04 June 2019
Seeing a priest sitting at the top bench during a council meeting can be a surprise to anyone visiting the chamber for the first time.
This ancient tradition of blessing councillors takes place in the majority of local authorities in Kent despite a recent study showing nearly half of the UK identify as a non-believer.
On top of that, the south east is one of the least religious areas in the country, according to research by professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, Stephen Bullivant.
Yet nine of the 14 local authorities in Kent have lord mayors, who can appoint a church representative to host a prayer in council meetings and community events.
These members of the clergy are known as chaplains, who offer prayer and support at the request of the mayor throughout a municipal year.
The chaplains, who are often from the Church of England, address councillors at the beginning of a full council meeting with a prayer or blessing.
Chaplain for Ashford Borough Council, Reverend John MacKenzie, thanked God for the new mayor Cllr Jenny Webb during the meeting on May 30.
During his short sermon, every councillor stood and bowed their heads, regardless of their beliefs.
He said: "Lord God, we give thanks for our new mayor. We pray for her and Mr Webb as they begin this year.
"We ask you to fill them with wisdom, joy and perseverance as they represent Ashford. We pray for our leaders and councillors, especially those that are newly elected, and the chief executives, officers and staff of our council.
"We pray for the charities proposed by our mayor and for all that work with the young, frail and confused. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen."
Rev MacKenzie says the role is "really important for the life of the borough" as the church help the council reach people they would not usually encounter.
"I think the council and the church share the same hearts and build a community for those who are down on their luck..." Rev MacKenzie
He said: "The chaplain is there to primarily support the mayor in whatever he or she wishes the chaplain to be supportive in.
"We pray for the mayor, pray for the council and the borough.
"We ensure that organisations, which don’t have the loudest voice, can know they are being prayed for and advanced.
"The church does a lot of work in the voluntary sector especially for the poorest, the vulnerable and the frail."
From giving out free food to impoverished families during school holidays to providing a space for lonely residents to find comfort, he claims the church has a lot to contribute.
Rev MacKenzie explained the church "builds a bridge" by directing anyone who needs help to the relevant councillor.
"It’s part of the tradition of the council and I don’t know if anyone has ever stood up and shouted out against it..." Chair of Kent Humanists Steve Bowen
He said: "We don’t influence the council, we pray for what the council seek to do.
"I think the council and the church share the same hearts and build a community for those who are down on their luck.
"The church is there for people of faith, no faith or other faiths."
Critics claim the ceremony and tradition of the chaplaincy is "out dated" and "exclusionary".
Chair of Kent Humanists, Steve Bowen, thinks sitting through a blessing would make him uncomfortable as a councillor.
He said: "Prayer or a blessing at the beginning of council meetings is exclusionary for councillors themselves.
"I don’t have any experience of being a councillor but I have stood in local elections and knowing that my town council opens each session with a prayer was something I thought about.
"Would I arrive afterwards or play along or object to the process?"
He added while most councillors respect the ceremony, people outside of the political sphere may not know it is happening.
Mr Bowen said: "It’s part of the tradition of the council and I don’t know if anyone has ever stood up and shouted out against it.
"Councillors in my area are mostly white, middle-class men and are very Masonic and largely Tory so they probably don’t even think about it - it’s all a bit cliquey.
"Chaplains are just seen as natural and normal."
"If you strip back religions down to the basics, it’s all about helping and supporting each other..." Gurvinder Sandher
Despite his objections to the religious involvement in council affairs, he does not believe the clergy affect the decisions made by public officials.
However Mr Bowen is also concerned the chaplains do not represent all of the community.
He said: "In rural Kent, it’s all Church of England vicars regardless of whether the ward or district may have people from other faiths like Muslims. Jews, Jains and Hindus in the population.
"Religion, and specifically the Christian religion is still the default position in our national life despite being a minority belief in the 21st century but we live in a pluralist society."
Yet this is not considered an issue for the chief executive of the Kent Equality Cohesion Council, Gurvinder Sandher.
He believes people from other faiths should respect the Christian tradition, just like the Sikh community did during the inauguration of Gravesham mayor Gurdip Ran Bungar.
Mr Sandher said: "If you strip back religions down to the basics, it’s all about helping and supporting each other. The tenants are basically the same.
"This shouldn’t be about our differences but as a way of bringing all faiths together.
"To be fair, it’s always been done in a Christian way.
"The only thing that would be a problem is if somebody wanted a different faith to be represented and it wasn’t allowed but this hasn’t happened."
In theory, there is nothing stopping other faiths from taking over the chaplaincy for a year however it is traditionally a role for Anglican clergymen.
The National Secular Society is campaigning to end prayers at councils completely as they claim the sermons are "alienating".
Find out more about their campaign here.