Why is it forbidden by law to pray, but not to sing?
Bideford is a small town and port in North Devon at the estuary of the River Torridge, not far from Exmoor National Park. In the 16th century it was Britain’s third largest port. Today it still holds a busy quay with a mixture of fishing vessels, cargo and pleasure boats. During summer it hosts a number of markets and festivals aimed at luring tourists to town.
The town has of course a council, which traditionally commenced it’s meetings with a prayer. As does both Houses in Parliament and probably any number of other councils across England.
Recently, however, The National Secular Society challenged this practice in court on behalf of an atheist member of the council, Clive Bone. The story began five years ago, when he as a newly elected member “shocked and horrified” discovered that prayers were not only said at the beginning of meetings, but was formally included in the agenda. Later he stiffened in his revolt due to a public row about his unwillingness to take part in the official service on Remembrance Day.
To the dismay of both members of Bideford Council and a huge part of the English establishment in and outside the Church of England, the matter was recently decided upon in High Court. In his ruling the judge wrote that “The duties of Parish councillors and the way in which a Parish Council must conduct its business are laid down in the Local Government Act 1972 … There is no specific statutory power to say prayers or to have any period of quiet reflection as part of the business of the Council … Accordingly, I have come to the view that the Council has no power to hold prayers as part of a formal Council meeting, or to summon Councillors to a meeting at which such prayers are on the agenda.” The judge made it clear, however, that his ruling did not affect whether Councillors hold prayers before meetings; to conduct them at the formal beginning of meetings were however not allowed, but might be allowed in case a new law concerning the functions of the councils were passed. Thus the holding of prayers in themselves were not – according to the ruling – considered an infringement of anyone’s Human Rights or to be in any way discriminatory.
Psalms and other singing
It may seem odd to most Europeans that prayers are said before or as an introduction to a public political meeting in a city council. However in Scandinavia a somewhat parallel practice me be found, which does not seem quite so easy to rule out as the English practice. The reason is that the cornerstones of the Lutheran churches are not prayer-books – as is the case in England – but “Hymnals”.
Where the Book of Common Prayer is a mixture of liturgical readings, the traditional Lutheran hymnal is – as the name states – foremost a collection of psalms, carols and songs with an addendum consisting of prayers, liturgical texts and a lectionary. However, the main part consists of the psalms and songs; the Danish authorised Hymnal numbers for instance 791 pieces of poetry. Many of these are Danish versions of psalms from the Psalter; others are patristic, medieval or reformation carols or songs rewritten by some of the greatest Danish poets (Kingo, Brorson, Ingemann, Grundtvig). Some of these are even translated into Norwegian or Swedish, although these Lutheran countries have their own poets and poetic treasures to kindle their hearts. As does the Germans, whose tradition stems from Luther and Gerhardt.
The point here is of course that in a Lutheran context the Hymnal (in Denmark even authorised by the Crown) has the same institutional role as the Book of Common Prayer. But it is primarily a book of songs. Further it often has“sisters”; in Denmark for instance the so-called “Folkehøjskolesangbogen” – “The songbook for Folk High Schools”, which contains a mixture of secular songs and religious psalms, many of them figuring in both the official hymnal and the folk-song-book
This has fostered a tradition by which it is still customary to sing at the beginning of most meetings in Danish associations; singing at council meetings will also be deemed appropriate as long as the song is not too openly a psalm; although this is seldom easy to decide unequivocally.
Just to give an example: “Her vil ties, her vil bies”- Here be quiet, here be longing - is a psalm by the pietist bishop, Hans Adolph Brorson (1694 -1764). It is a beloved winter psalm about the longing for Easter as well as spring, and figures in both the official hymnal (no. 557) and the folk-song-book (no. 48). Well known by most Danes it might accordingly be sung as an introduction to any meeting, when winter comes upon us. But in winter it will also be used at funerals in the National Church of Denmark. On top of that it is a beloved lullaby in cold and wintry weather.
The point is of course that this song is on one hand nothing but a beautiful piece of poetry and a catching tune. As such it may be song by anyone familiar with the Danish language and tradition and at any meeting. At the same time it is an ethereal prayer accompanied by a haunting melody, originally written for a private setting and as an aria. It was posthumously published by one of the sons of Brorson in a collection called “Swan Songs”.
The Book of Common Prayer
The challenge in Bideford – and elsewhere in England – is of course that although “The Book of Common Prayer” has a status in the English context, which equals that of the Danish Hymnal, it does not in the same way invite to a multitude of popular uses. Further, because it speaks less to the heart and more to the mind, a recital of a prayer may seem more demanding of its participants than a piece of music; be it ever so poetic, as is the tradition stemming from “The Book of Common Prayer” and the many look-a-likes, which came after.
The challenge here is of course that the Church of England never quite adopted the Lutheran tradition of hymn-writing, but either kept the Anglo-Catholic tradition alive, maybe mixed it up with the Methodist tradition of Wesley or accommodated the Puritan (Calvinistic) tradition, which allowed only the most stringent biblical psalms.
Either way, the Church of England never seemed to have delivered the sounding board for the particular musical mix of secular and religious singing, which became so ingrained in the Lutheran Churches in Germany and Scandinavia. Rather, the Anglican tradition unfortunately seems to widen the gap between the church and the secular society in Bideford and elsewhere. Worth pondering upon in a year, when the 350 anniversary of “The Book of CommonPrayer”, considering its poetic qualities and otherwise historical importance, will be duly celebrated.
Read about the High Court decision concerning prayer in Bideford Town
Read the response from the Town Council
Recording of “Her vil ties, her vil bies” by “Ensemble Münchhaussen, Hess, Hougaard”
Recording of the psalm in a church setting from 1954 by Boolsen-kvartetten
Read about “The Book of Common Prayer” and the planned festivities