Calls have been made for a vicar to be barred from his local council meetings after he urged those who want to see Britain leave the EU not to stigmatise migrants.
The comments came as he was supposedly leading the council in opening prayers, prompting furious councillors to ask what his comments had to do with prayer.
Conservative and Ukip councillors reacted angrily to the suggestion by Rev Andrew Wickens of St Thomas and St Luke’s Church in Dudley that the referendum debate on whether or not Britain should remain a part of the European Union risked souring relations between the UK and her European neighbours, warning that arguments on migration risked alienating migrants living in Britian, the Express and Star has reported.
A UK Independence Party MEP who was present at the meeting has asked for Rev Wickens to be barred from leading the prayers at future meetings, although the local Labour MP has now leapt to Rev Wickens’ defence, arguing that he should be allowed to say whatever he wants at the opening of council sessions.
Addressing the councillors and public, Rev Wickens told the assembled group: “We are aware that before us now is the most significant decision for a generation in our country, aside perhaps from going to war. I refer … of course to the forthcoming European Referendum.
“Although this is often characterised as being pro or anti-European, this is to my mind a mistake. Those who believe in the UK should leave are not automatically thereby little Englanders or their Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish counterparts. Nor are they xenophobic as such.”
However, he continued: “What is true though in the midst of what is likely to prove a heated debate is that those who advocate leaving will need to be aware of the risks of stoking anti-European sentiment as such.
“[A]s we weigh up our minds we need to be aware of the implications of the decision and the debate for those who are most vulnerable. Again, without taking sides in the vexed political questions around immigration which all political parties face, we need to be aware left in heat of the intense debate before us that migrant groups are not further stigmatised.
“The reality is that migrants already feel vulnerable. And as what will no doubt prove a close contest develops is behoves us all to challenge those who may be tempted to exploit fears that people may understandably have.
“We need to treat with some caution appeals that will be made from both sides as to what is in the national interest or is best for Britain.”
At this point he was interrupted by Conservative councillor Chris Elcock, who called out: “Sorry, I’m a Christian. What has this got to do with prayer. Can we just have the Lord’s Prayer?”
His comment drew applause from fellow councillors, but the chair invited Rev. Wickens to continue, whereupon he added “In a debate it’s all too easy to begin talking about others in their supposed absence. How important is it therefore for us to foster those bonds of friendship that we have with our European neighbours.”
Rev Andrew Wickens with Imam Hashmi at the mosque community centre. Both in Dudley Interfaith Network pic.twitter.com/BDKQ6DVNYy
— Rob Cox (@rcox_star) June 13, 2015
Speaking later on during the meeting, UKIP West Midlands MEP Bill Etheridge, a Dudley local, said: “I was appalled by what happened at the start of this meeting. I will be complaining formally to you [Councillor Steve Waltho].”
Following the meeting, he added: “Far from the Star of Bethlehem the Chaplain seemed more focused on the stars of the EU.
“The service was utterly appalling. I have never been so disgusted during a council meeting.
“To bring politics into prayer is totally inexcusable and to dominate his service on the EU I believe was an abuse of his position.
“I will be formally writing to the mayor calling for him to be banned from attending future full council meetings.”
Rev Wickens, who chairs the Dudley Interfaith Network, has apologised for any offense caused, saying: “It is a privilege for me to serve as Mayor’s Chaplain and to lead the Council meeting in prayers.
“In this role as chaplain I have generally prefaced the prayers with a reflection as I did last night.
“If my words caused offence then that is something I regret though it was certainly not my intention.”
But local Labour politicians have lined up to defend him.
Councillor Pete Lowe, leader of Dudley Council said that he saw nothing wrong in the comments, attacking Mr Etheridge instead: “It was a less than three-minute contribution and seems to have been deliberately taken out of context by Bill Etheridge,” he said.
“I listened to the comments from Andrew last night and I don’t think he was giving a political swing one way or the other.
“He was making wider points about community cohesion.”
Mr Etheridge also came under attack by the Labour MP for Dudley North, Ian Austin, who accused him of not valuing freedom of speech.
“When I look around the world, I consider myself incredibly fortunate to live in a country where religious leaders are able to speak out. In fact, it has always been the job of religious leaders to say things politicians might not like,” he said.
He added: “I’m very surprised that some of our councillors need to be reminded that freedom of speech is one of the most important principles on which our free and democratic country is built.
“That means people have the right to say things with which other people disagree. People should debate and argue with each other if they disagree, but we have the freedom to say what we like provided it does not incite hatred or violence.”
This is not the first time right wing politicians have attacked the Church of England for preaching liberalism instead of the gospel. In January the Conservative MP for Monmouth, David Davies wrote in his blog: “How wonderfully saintly it must feel to sleep at night with an easy conscience knowing you have roundly condemned the wicked politicians and bigots who worry about mass migration without actually having to take difficult decisions yourself and live with the consequences.”