2010. január 13., szerda

UK Parliament's secret prayers

The government's secret prayers

A centuries-old ritual still takes place in the Houses of Parliament, behind closed doors – praying


Leo Hickman
12 January 2010


There's a ritual that takes place every day at the Houses of Parliament which is said to have been common practice since 1567. Not that many outsiders would know about it, though, because it is conducted behind closed doors out of view of the public.

Before every session in both the Lords and the Commons, members stand, turn to face the wall behind them, and pray. Attendance is voluntary, but only Christian prayers are ever read out. This is the form of the Commons's main prayer, as read aloud by the speaker's chaplain:

Lord, the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit. May they never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind; so may your kingdom come and your name be hallowed. Amen.

The Houses of Parliament even has its very own, specially adapted Lord's Prayer. In particular, it asks that the royal family be blessed with "heavenly goods":

O Lord our heavenly Father, high and mighty, King of kings, Lord of lords, the only Ruler of princes, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth; most heartily we beseech thee with thy favour to behold our most Gracious Sovereign Lady Queen Elizabeth; and so replenish her with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that she may always incline to thy will, and walk in thy way: Endue her plenteously with heavenly gifts; grant her in health and wealth long to live; strengthen her that she may vanquish and overcome all her enemies; and finally after this life she may attain everlasting joy and felicity, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Almighty God, the Fountain of all Goodness, We humbly beseech thee to bless Philip Duke of Edinburgh, Charles Prince of Wales and all the Royal Family: Endue them with thy Holy Spirit; enrich them with thy Heavenly Grace; prosper them with all happiness; and bring them to thine everlasting kingdom, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Comment is Free readers who see themselves both as republicans (the "down with monarchy" sort, rather than those who adore Sarah Palin) and atheists are probably beginning to feel pretty uncomfortable right now. In this day and age, do our parliamentarians really still need to perform this ritual? Personally, it's not my cup of tea either, but I see it as nothing more than a rather quaint bit of living history. In my view, the fact that it's voluntary and not conducted in sight of the public completely dissipates the need to take any possible offence that religion is still being intertwined with our state apparatus.

But things become a little harder to ignore when you examine the role religious rituals can still play in local government. A controversy is currently afoot at Helston town council in Cornwall because Pat Woodhouse, a member of public who says she's considering standing for a seat, has criticised the town council for holding "Christian-only" prayers at the beginning of each public meeting. The distinction between this situation and what happens at the Houses of Parliament seems to be that the prayers are conducted when members of the public are in attendance. Woodhouse is arguing that if prayers must take place then they should at least reflect other religions, too.

"Let's face it, we are supposed to be politically correct now," she is reported as saying in the West Briton, the local paper. "If anyone really took offence they could criticise the council. It isn't right … With respect to the reverend who opens the meeting with a prayer, is it politically correct to only have Christian prayers at the beginning of the meeting?"

Paul Phillips, the former mayor of Helston, isn't best pleased by her remarks and has hit back: "I don't know if Helston councillors have any other beliefs [than Christianity]. I think [her comment] is disgraceful. This country fought two world wars on Christian principles. It is up to the mayor to choose their chaplain and if the mayor is of a Christian background then it is natural he or she will choose a Christian chaplain."

The current mayor Niall Devenish has also chipped in, too: "As far as I was aware the UK is a Christian country so I was therefore surprised at this comment."

The National Association of Local Councils, which represents town and parish councils, says that because local councils are "independent, democratically accountable and free-standing bodies", they are free to make their own decisions about whether prayers are conducted at the beginning of public meetings. It added that there are "no specific guidelines on this matter".

In the US, there have been a number of cases over the years whereby judges have been asked to rule on whether religious prayers should be banned from being heard at council meetings. More often than not, judges rule that only nondenominational prayers should be tolerated. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is often behind efforts to strip prayers from state or federal institutions or events.

"The right to practice religion, or no religion at all, is among the most fundamental of the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. The ACLU works to ensure that this essential freedom is protected by keeping the government out of religion."

On this point, I wholeheartedly agree with the ACLU. However, I would slightly twist that final sentence around and expressly say that religion should, wherever possible, be kept out of all forms of government – even in a constitutional monarchy such as the United Kingdom, whereby, for right or wrong, the Queen currently acts as both head of state and the "supreme governor" of the Church of England.


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