Prayer in the Legislature: Tradition Meets Secularization

By Lanouette, Martin | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Prayer in the Legislature: Tradition Meets Secularization


Lanouette, Martin, Canadian Parliamentary Review


Since the reign of Queen Elizabeth I in the 16th century, each House of Parliament at Westminster has traditionally opened its sittings with a prayer. British colonies around the world imitated the practice in keeping with their parliamentary origins. Eventually, the various colonies became sovereign nations and developed their own prayers reflecting their history, identity and, of course, their noble aspirations. This paper looks at three options that have emerged so far to address the challenge of contemporary State neutrality. First maintain the status quo. Second seek greater openness and make the prayer more universal by alternating between prayers of various religions or having a moment of silence and reflection. Third, eliminate the practice from public institutions in the name of separation of Church and State. Arguments for each option are explored in order to better understand a subject that, while it may seem antiquated, never ceases to arouse passionate debate.

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As Louis Massicotte pointed out in his comprehensive 1982 report, the British practice of opening legislative sittings with a prayer has no equivalent in other democracies on the European continent. (1) Since the publication of Massicotte's study, which examines a significant number of countries, provinces and territories, increased international migration and the trend toward secularization in western political institutions have forced leaders to reconsider the special relationship that has existed between Christianity and the State.

Maintaining the Status Quo

In the United Kingdom many defenders of the traditional prayer are currently campaigning within Parliament itself to maintain Britain's religious heritage, particularly the group Prayer for Parliament, led by Jeffrey Donaldson, MP and member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, who advocates the importance of maintaining prayer in the legislature.

The Prayer Shield:

   offers vital information about the issues being debated in
   Parliament and that are of strategic importance to our government
   and nation. These matters require focused prayer if we are to
   change the United Kingdom and seek God's will for this nation, and
   see healthy legislation put in place.

Christians in Parliament, a group led by Conservative MP Andrew Selous, is a non-denominational organization that is open to all parties and provides a forum for Christian activity. (2) This intraparliamentary proselytizing led to a report Faith in the Future (2008) prepared by the Cross-Party Committee of Inquiry. Initiated by Tory leader David Cameron, the report supports the centuries-old Christian heritage and promotes its renewal in society.

England has opted for the status quo, although figures from the Institute for Research on Public Policy show that nearly 7.5% of the population in 2001 was born outside the United Kingdom, compared to 5.75% in 1991. In 2001, more than 72% of the population considered itself Christian. More than 1.6 million Muslims represented about 3% of the country's population but more than 52% of the non-Christian population. Hindus accounted for 1% of Britain's population (18%); Sikhs 0.6% (11%); Jews about 0.5% (9%); and Buddhists 0.3% (5%). Parliamentarians' refusal to make prayer more inclusive seems to support a consensus that is deeply rooted in British tradition. No organization or group supporting multidenominational prayer has lasted long enough to be able to change this centuries-old practice.

Australia

Daily prayer has been a standard practice among Australian institutions since 1901. In 2009, the prayer must still be recited every day that parliamentarians meet, both in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The country's demographic makeup since 1990 also reflects the trend toward cultural pluralism in western societies. According to the 2001 census, more than 69%, of the population was Christian, while about 25% had no religion and 5% was non-Christian. …

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