Earlier this week, a pro-life charity worker, Isabel Vaughan-Spruce, was arrested for the 'offence' of praying silently in an abortion facility buffer zone. Videos of Ms Vaughan-Spruce being arrested show that she was not holding a sign, giving out pamphlets, or speaking to anyone out loud. She was arrested for praying, all on the basis that her prayer could be seen as ‘intimidation’.
This occurred in the same week that the Public Order Bill was debated in the House of Commons, considering Amendments that had been passed in the House of Lords. In its current state, the Bill will make it illegal for anyone within a 150m buffer zone to “influence any person’s decision to access, provide or facilitate” abortion services, or cause “harassment or distress”.
Andrew Lewer MP, Conservative Member for Northampton South, attempted to move an amendment that would allow “silent prayer” to be permitted outside abortion clinics. However, this amendment was beaten by 299 votes to 166. Therefore, once this Bill receives Royal Assent, “silent prayer” outside of abortion clinics will become a criminal offence.
Abortion is clearly a very sensitive issue and not one to be taken lightly. Mothers that attend these clinics are clearly going through very hard and emotional times in their lives. For some, abortion can feel like one’s only choice, despite the fact that a change in circumstances, such as finance or emotional support, might have otherwise changed their decision.
Abortion numbers have been increasing since the pandemic, with studies suggesting that the cost of living crisis and its consequences on financial insecurity have led to parents having to make extremely difficult decisions. First and foremost, in a case like this we should be praying with real compassion for the mothers that are having to go through abortions in the first place, whatever their reasoning might be.
Yet rather than focus on the injustice of Ms Vaughan-Spruce being arrested, the question I think this story raises is: how do our nation’s MPs view prayer?
For Christians, prayer is critical in our relationship with God. The Bible gives countless examples of prayer, from David’s written songs of praise and prayer in the Psalms to the apostle Paul praying for his friends, ministry, and valued church families, and many more. Prayer is how we speak to God, the creator of the universe and the saviour of our souls. What’s more is that we no longer pray out of fear and trepidation, with a curtain separating us from the presence of God. On the contrary, when one of Jesus’s disciples asks Jesus how we are to pray, he instructed us to pray to our ‘Father’ (Luke 11:2).
Our relationship with the Lord is seen through the lens of one of our closest, most valued and loved relationships. Whilst for some, their Father will not be someone who shows them this love and value, we can have all confidence that the Lord ‘hears us’ and calls us to be his ‘children’ (1 John 5:14; 3:1). Prayer is our conversation and our active sign of relationship with our loving, heavenly Father.
We live in a nation and a political moment where this religious literacy has been lost. Prayer has been weaponized and politicised, being viewed as a method of intimidation and cruelty. Without understanding or having empathy for what prayer is, our nation’s very leaders have come to the conclusion that prayer must be evil and unkind, rather than a conversation and act of faith between us and a living God.
What’s perhaps most remarkable is that the only difference between prayer and thought is the very existence of a living God. Atheism and a denial of God must render prayer as useless thought that bears no consequences. To reject God is to believe that no one is on the other side listening to prayer. Therefore, how can thought be harmful?
Might I be so outrageous to suggest that MPs have recognised the existence of a powerful God through this vote?
If prayer really is so powerful, evil, and intimidating, it must be because it has an effect. There must be something, or rather someone, on the other side of our prayers for them to be so ‘dangerous’ and powerful enough to bring change.
A clear need for this situation is to pray for our MPs themselves. There is clearly a spiritual undertone behind this decision to illegalise silent prayer. Perhaps there is a recognition that prayer really does hold power. Many Christians will have different responses to this decision from our Parliament - whether that be anger, despair, or approval for their choice. However, let us use this to pray that they would be pointed closer to the Lord and that they would pray to Him themselves rather than criminalise others for doing so.