A Wiltshire council has banned the phrase "singing from the same hymn sheet" because the age-old saying might offend atheists.

Workers at Salisbury Town Hall can no longer utter the ancient cliche because its religious connotations could hurt the feelings of unbelievers.

The directive, found in Salisbury District Council's Editorial Style Guide and published on its website reads: "Avoid office and council jargon wherever possible, including phrases such as 'moving forward' or 'singing from the same hymn sheet'.

"Say what you mean; so instead of 'moving forward', try 'in the future'. Not everyone understands these phrases - some can actually cause offence (what would an atheist want with your hymn sheet?)."

Salisbury has also told staff to avoid 'gender-specific roles' such as 'cleaning lady' and 'ten-man team', in favour of the descriptions 'cleaner' and 'ten strong team'.

Colin Slee, the Dean of Southwark, said the guidelines showed the writer had no grasp of what was important in faith.

He told the Sunday Times: "This is complete nonsense and yet another example of political correctness being dictated by someone who doesn't understand religious faith."

Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society said he was not hurt by the phrase, which he uses himself.

Salisbury council leader Paul Sample said he would be investigating the paper, which had not been before cabinet.

He told the Mail on Sunday that the document was an 'own goal' which would be investigated on Monday.

In a statement tonight the council said it had not forbidden staff from using particular phrases, but merely offered 'advice and guidance'.

It said that asking employees to think before using certain expressions was 'not political correctness but common courtesy'.

The hymn-sheet phrase was an 'illustrative explanation' to help workers consider whether their documents would understood by everyone reading them, it explained.

Chief executive, Manjeet Gill said: "We produced an editorial style guide in response to feedback from the public that that we - and many other public bodies - often use too much jargon in favour of plain English.

"There are inevitably times when we need to consider the words we use carefully, especially to ensure that we do not cause offence. Our editorial style guide gives many helpful tips to our staff to help them when it comes to writing and we do ask them to avoid using jargon. But the guide is just that, a guide.

"We are proud that our overall aim is to make all of our written communications to the public clear and understandable."

The full statement reads: "Salisbury District Council has not banned the use of any phrases in its written communications.

"The council has an editorial style guide that offers advice and guidance to some of our staff who regularly write for the public.

"Like many councils across the country, we have recognised that communicating what we do to the public is one of the most important roles we have. It is crucial that when we do communicate with the public they understand clearly what we are telling them.

"The council has made great strides in recent years to ensure all our communications are in Plain English, clear, consistent and understandable to all who read it. We do ask staff to think about how statements and phrases might be interpreted by the public and do ask them to consider not saying things that could offend people - that is not political correctness but common courtesy.

"The reference to the hymn sheet and atheists was included in the guide just as an illustrative explanation. It was included to help staff think about what the purpose is of certain phrases, and if they will be understood by all.

"Nowhere in our guide does it say 'you must not use the phrase 'singing from the same hymn sheet' as this is offensive to atheists'. This one 'for example' reference is designed to get writers to think. It certainly does not mean the council has banned the phrase 'singing from the same hymn sheet' or that we believe the phrase is offensive."