Faith, spirituality and the role of a Councillor

Only a week or so ago, I sat down at our Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council Annual Meeting. I sat thinking whether I did the right thing. I sat wondering whether, after a 6 year gap, it was the right decision to stand again. One of the Labour Councillors, a really decent guy, said to me: “Michal, you’ve done it before. You really wanted to do it again? You are crazy”. There were a few moments before the meeting, when I was reflecting on sacrifices that many of the Cllrs have to make. Most of us have to work, full or part-time. There are plenty of evening meetings and our presence at home, or lack of it, will be felt. In my case, with 3 school-aged daughters, my conscience was searching for an answer for this question. The beginning of the meeting was really powerful. The Full Council meeting is the only meeting of the Annual Calendar which begins with the prayer. A short prayer, read out at the beginning of the meeting, had such a huge impact on me. I felt once again a “calling” to public life and that I am not alone in fulfilling my duties as a Councillor. Moreover, our prayer reminded me about my most important part of my role as a Councillor; being at the service of others.

I must admit that when I decided to stand, I promised myself that I will do my best not to be passive and complacent but pro-active, driven and creative. Since being elected, I’ve been trying to initiate a number of meetings with local groups and organisations. A number of these meetings are already set up and our diaries (there are two Liberal Democrat Cllrs in my ward) are getting busy!

This morning (Sunday, 29th May), we were invited to a meeting of Quakers (Religious Society of Friends). I had an opportunity to work with Quakers before; we’ve organised two events to mark International Peace Day. Before the meeting one of my friends was teasing me a bit and said: “You can’t be a Quaker; you don’t like silence!” This morning, when I walked into the Quaker Meeting House in Welwyn Garden City I was invited to take part in a moment of reflection. We were sitting in silence for 45 minutes. Only one member of the congregation felt compelled to say something. I must admit that I don’t remember when I was last sitting in silence for such a long time. It was simple, and yet so profound and enriching. For me, it was an opportunity to reflect on my own journey but more importantly, it was a moment, which enabled me to look beyond my town, city, country, or continent. It was a moment of feeling grateful for what I am. Equally, it was also important to embrace the suffering of our global family; war in Ukraine, poverty, injustice. It was so clear to me that because of the pace of life, constant bombardment of information, detachment from the latest news; we rarely have the opportunity TO BE in the moment. Do we at all question ourselves? I also wondered about my journey and the legacy that I might want to leave behind me.

I know that I didn’t have to be elected to visit Quakers. However, being elected gives me additional encouragement to see opportunities to learn, listen and build dialogue with other people. After 45-min long reflection, we sat down, had a delicious breakfast and continued to talk; this time about local and global issues. The subject which came up a lot was the war in Ukraine and much needed support for Ukrainian refugees, which started arriving in Welwyn Hatfield. We talked about democracy, the importance of voting and being part of civic life, in all its shapes and forms. It was nice to receive positive feedback; “you sound passionate and genuine”. It was an important reminder. Politics is often not about “scoring points” but more about being real and authentic. I look forward to many more similar meetings, which will help me to grow as a person and as a fellow human being. Thank you Quakers; I will be back; for my own sake and wellbeing.

P.S: Toast and tea were delicious!

* Michal Siewniak is a Lib Dem activist and councillor for Handside ward, Welwyn Hatfield.

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9 Comments

  • I attended my first Quaker meeting in 1972, not at all sure what to expect. An hour later, I was still shellshocked. During the meeting Friends had given ministry about the evils of the Vietnam war and the Biafra struggle for independence from Nigeria. As a then confirmed member of the CoE this was not what I was used to. 50 years later, as a 25 year member of the Religious Society of Friends, I am constantly amazed at the range and depth of Ministry and commitment to peace.

  • Mark Frankel 31st May '22 - 8:18am

    I’m a Quaker (a member of Kingston & Wandsworth Area Meeting) and a LibDem. I’m doing a PhD on the Quaker and Liberal MP T. Edmund Harvey (1875-1955).
    https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/ptr/departments/theologyandreligion/research/postgraduateresearch/profiles/frankel-mark.aspx

  • Andy Boddington 31st May '22 - 8:49am

    I am of the firm belief that acts of worship should be separated from the business of government. The 2019 census showed that 39% of people in the UK had no faith.
    Michal is lucky to only have one prayer a year in his council.

    Shropshire has a prayer at the beginning of every full council. It is intensely hypocritical. A Conservative chairman prays to make the right decisions and to help the people of the county. Then the Conservatives steamroller through decisions that disadvantage the poor, damage the environment and waste taxpayers’ money.

    If people have faith fine. If people want to allow their faith to influence their political decisions fine. But there is no place in meetings funded by the state for religion.

  • Andy Boddington 31st May ’22 – 8:49am……….I am of the firm belief that acts of worship should be separated from the business of government…….

    Religion, of any kind, should be kept out of politics..Rees-Mogg and Duncan-Smith are two of the most openly ‘religious’ members and yet foremost among those lacking in ‘humanity’..

  • Chris Burden 31st May '22 - 3:26pm

    Thank you, Michael. Well put and positive. Not sure comments by Andy Boddington and expat were warranted here. Michael was not banging on about faith generally or about forcing on everyone prayers before council meetings, but giving his personal reflections on the experience. As good Liberals, I’m sure Andy and expats should respect and tolerate this, at least. There is no room in the Liberal Democrats for intolerance of anything except intolerance. Leave that to the Labour Party.

  • Andy Boddington 31st May '22 - 4:50pm

    @Chris Burden Prayers in my experience are held after the councillors have taken their seats in the chamber. It is not practical for councillors to leave the chamber. So prayer is imposed. My main point was there is no place for religion in governance. Religion is a private matter. If councillors want to say a prayer in private fine. Being liberal does not mean having to listen to prayers in a public meeting. It means allowing people to pray according their religion in their own spaces. And the hypocrisy of prayers ahead of a meeting that will make damaging cuts to vulnerable people is unbelievable.

  • Paul Holmes 31st May '22 - 8:11pm

    Agree absolutely with expats and Andy. Holding a religious act after a meeting has started means imposing that collective religious act on all attendees, with no respect for individual personal belief or conscience.

  • Richard Church 31st May '22 - 8:24pm

    There is nothing intolerant in asking for those with religious views not to impose their religion on formal council business, it’s actually the imposition of those prayers that is the real intolerance. Andy Boddington is absolutely right, if some people want to have prayers before a council meeting then fine, let them do that, but don’t expect others to join in or be required to leave the meeting. Do it separately from the meeting, and invite people to attend if they wish. I have recently rejoined local government in a completely different authority a hundred miles from where I was previously a councillor and I am mightily relieved that on my new authority there is no religious ritual that I have to join in if I am to be part of the full meeting of the council.

  • Robin Bennett 31st May '22 - 9:46pm

    Those of us who are religious have come to respect the widely-accepted view about separating religion and politics. But the huge impact that the opening prayer at his council had on Michal, and his reflections on how his faith grounds his sense of service, are – for some of us – moving and inspiring.

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