Bideford in Devon is the sort of place that you can ignore for most of your life. Then, let its name once pass before your eyes just once and you start to notice it everywhere. Strange really, especially since its name is a sort of homely English one and hardly on a par with the nearby and much more dramatic Westward-Ho! (and, yes, believe it or not, the exclamation mark IS a part of the name).
In some strange way it is this very Englishness of the place that strikes me in the recent controversy over whether the town council can be allowed to say prayers before their meetings. A High Court ruling has stated that it is not legal for prayers officially to be part of the council's proceedings. This is because the Local Authorities Act 1972 - I'm never without my copy and neither should you be - gives local councils no power to summon councillors for prayer. The ruling does not, however, ban informal prayers - a boon for all those who threw up their hands at the ruling, muttering, 'Dear God!' Reaction to the ruling has been mixed, from joyous jubilation among that declining band they call the Nation Secular Society to high-minded condemnation from Anglican bishops and archbishops. Few others appear to care very much.
There are two things about the case which strike me as noteworthy. First, there is the desire to chase out of public life all open expressions of religion. Let us not doubt for a minute that this is the agenda of the NSS who have funded much of the court case. Not only is it un-English; by that very fact it is what I'm going to call 'anti-Bidefordian'. Historically, our public life is not an abstraction, like that of the French. Our ceremonial comes from tradition, rather than the Ministry of Ceremonial. Historically, we rule on laws with the use of precedent. I think they still don silly hats in Parliament for certain ceremonies and use medieval French. And why not indeed? Silly hats ought to be worn on all solemn occasions, as the clergy have long since understood.
The point about such things is that they offer no tangible, rational pretext which can be easily understood by the mind of the technocract, the bureaucrat, or any other kind of crat. They just are. And their just being is one of the guarantees that something humane rather than something ideology ridden is in control of the nation. I could blame - indeed, I do blame! - this growing tendency on our closeness to Europe, since its own legal and civic traditions are so differently constructed from our own. But as Chesterton says, a madman has not lost his reason; he has lost everything except his reason. Personally, I believe 'Englishness' somehow is in contact with that enormous truth which is not the celebration of irrationality but the condemnation of self-certified pure reason that somehow manages to disappear up its own back alley as it breathes out the fumes of a rationalised vision of life.
Now, the second thing that strikes me as un-English and anti-Bidefordian in this case is the reaction of those who deplore the court's ruling. The case has been lost and so a certain amount of whinging is quite justified. But, by this very fact alone - the legal issue - should this ruling really be seen as another sign of the dechristianisation of the nation? I see here one of the effects of rivalry gone bad. How easy it is - and how few of us realise it - to be drawn onto one's enemy's territory in any dispute! In the reaction of those disappointed by the ruling, there is the hint of the assumption that the law should operate for Christianity like the secularists want it to operate for secularism. Bad mistake! And a very modern one, if I may say so.
Multiplicatio legorum corruptio republicae: the multiplication of laws [shows forth] the corruption of the republic. If no classical author wrote it, then they should have! One of the surest signs of our currently parlous condition is the turning of the legislature into some kind of Victorian mill. The raggedy MPs work their fingers to the bone passing laws that serve those far wealthier than most of them - like the bankers. In administration there are only means, no ends, as Sir Humphrey Appleby once said. But that's the thing: Appleby was a bureaucrat!
So what is the English thing to do for Bideford's councillors? Surely, to have the prayers informally! Abandon the bureaucrat's safety net of legal provision and walk the line that requires that happy cooperation that distinguishes civilisation from barbarism - whether it be in grass skirts or in legal robes. After all, I'm sure that's what they would do in Westward-Ho!