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17 May 2012

Two out of three ain’t bad

Two out of three ain’t bad

Readers who were around in the 1970s may recognise this month’s Wales PQ title as being that of a popular 1977 song by Meatloaf. Notwithstanding its poor grammar, the title aptly sums up Welsh government policy positions on religious issues in Wales in recent weeks.

The first was the Welsh government position on collective worship. As readers of PQ will be aware, the Alliance in Wales fronted a seven-week campaign in the form of a National Assembly for Wales e-petition calling on Welsh government to protect collective worship as a legal requirement for Welsh schools. The petition had a tremendous response, becoming one of the most popular in the Assembly’s history and dwarfing the rival British Humanist Association petition, which had called for collective worship to be abolished.

Halfway through our campaign, the government issued a statement that they had “no intention at the present time to make changes to the primary legislation relating to collective worship”. We immediately saw this as a victory and first minister Carwyn Jones confirmed this by re-iterating this position in the 27 March meeting of the Faith Communities Forum.

A second policy position, also favourable to Christians, was that of Welsh government support for an NHS-funded chaplaincy service. The NHS currently spends £1.3 million a year on chaplaincy services in Wales and this has come under attack from the National Secular Society’s Alan Rogers, who is campaigning for chaplaincy services to be charitably funded. On the surface this may sound like a worthy aim, but the ideology behind Mr Rogers’ thinking is a belief that there should be no public funding for religion and that there is no place for religion in public life.

An article on Rogers’ campaign appeared on the BBC website on 20 April, implying that he had support for his views. In response, the Alliance wrote to the minister for health, seeking assurances that Welsh government would continue to fund chaplaincy services through the NHS and informing her of widespread support for this position from Wales’ faith groups. A response was received on 9 May which included the following:

“Mr Alan Rogers has written to the Welsh government on numerous occasions about this matter. We are therefore aware of the concerns Mr Rogers, and that of the National Secular Society, has regarding the costs incurred by Health Boards in providing spiritual care services.

“As made clear by our spokesman, we regard
hospital spiritual care services as a good investment, which play an important role in supporting and counselling patients, relatives and staff. It's also available to people whether they have religious beliefs or not. NHS organisations in Wales are responsible for the planning and delivering of these services locally, in line with the standards we have issued.

“For these reasons, we believe the best way to ensure patients and staff throughout Wales have the appropriate access to those services is to continue to support them.”

The third policy position of the Welsh government involving religious issues in recent weeks is concerning council prayers in Wales. A judgment in February involving Bideford Town Council and the National Secular Society made it illegal for councils to hold prayers as part of the formal agenda of meetings. 

The UK government immediately responded, with Eric Pickles stressing the importance of freedom to worship and announcing that he would fast-track through a “general power of competence” that would effectively overturn the Bideford judgment, enabling councils once again to include prayers as part of their council meetings if they so wished.

Welsh government, however, declined the offer from UK government for this general power of competence to be extended to Welsh councils (local government being a devolved area). They cited existing legislation – the power to promote wellbeing as found in section 2 of the Local Government Act 2000 – as being sufficient, with no need for anything more. Welsh councils, however, saw things differently and, without the general power of competence to support them legally, each one of the 13 (of 22) councils that had prayers included on the agenda of meetings at the time of the Bideford judgment subsequently removed them.

The topic is tabled for the agenda of the next Faith Communities Forum in the autumn and the Alliance will also be writing to the minister for local government asking for Welsh government to legislate on the issue, having gathered evidence from all 22 councils in Wales. Although we hope for an improvement in the situation, as things stand a precious freedom for faith to be expressed in the public sphere has been lost.

These three issues are an interesting snapshot of Welsh government and the degree to which their policies are Christian-friendly. The National Assembly for Wales and Welsh government were birthed in a more secular age and, as such, there is an absence of religious conventions and not much immediate outward evidence of Christianity. It would be very wrong however to conclude that these institutions are hostile to Christianity. As well as there being a number of Christian politicians and platforms such as the Faith Communities Forum and the Cross-Party Group on Faith to express our faith, we could do worse than judge its attitude towards Christianity by looking at the three issues in this article and see Welsh government’s support for collective worship and an NHS-funded chaplaincy service.