The parliamentary prayer

Andrea Vance writes that New Zealand’s parliamentary prayer is up for review again:

Parliament could get a new prayer after the election in September.

A review of standing orders, the rules that MPs must adhere to, was published this week, putting the prayer back on the agenda.

The review recommends MPs be asked their views on changing the prayer read by the Speaker at the opening of a sitting of the House.

The wording of the present devotion has not changed since 1962. MPs voted in 2007 to retain the prayer, after a petition asked that it not be specifically Christian.

“We acknowledge that not all members identify with the practice of reading a Christian in prayer at the opening of a sitting of the House, although it is a tradition of very long standing,” the review says. …

In my view, the parliamentary prayer is long overdue to be changed. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the prayer, it’s read each day by the speaker before the sitting of parliament.  This is it:

Almighty God, humbly acknowledging our need for Thy guidance in all things, and laying aside all private and personal interests, we beseech Thee to grant that we may conduct the affairs of this House and of our country to the glory of Thy holy name, the maintenance of true religion and justice, the honour of the Queen, and the public welfare, peace, and tranquillity of New Zealand, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We’ve had a prayer at Parliament since the first session of Parliament in May 1854. It seems silly that in a society as diverse as New Zealand, we still have a Christian prayer. Our public institutions should reflect the New Zealand population at large, and this archaic prayer alienates people from other religions, as well as the growing proportion of New Zealanders who aren’t religious at all. According to the 2013 census, only about 43% of New Zealanders are Christian, and I’m sure a significant proportion of those Christians would feel uncomfortable foisting this prayer on the rest of us. As Allan Davidson has argued:

Tradition is in tension with our growing multicultural, secular society. Finding public rituals that express what we hold in common today is something we should be striving for rather than perpetuating words and practices which reinforce exclusion.

The issue was last looked at by Parliament in 2007, when sitting MPs voted to retain the current prayer, presumably because “we can’t mess with tradition!”.

There seems to be pretty widespread support from people such as Green politicians Gareth Hughes and Keith LockeDavid Farrar of Kiwiblog, media consultant Bryan Edwards, and the Catholic archbishop John Dew to reform the prayer.

From here, I think we have a few different options for reform. We could change the wording to something more inclusive (preferably non religious), we could introduce a system with alternative prayers on different days, or the prayer could be scrapped altogether.

Update: The Speaker David Carter, in his finishing address for the 50th Parliament on 31 July 2014, went out of his way to say something about the Parliamentary prayer at the end of his address. Here’s what he said:

…if I am fortunate enough to continue this role I intend to progress three particular challenges. Firstly, modernising daily prayer in a manner that is acceptable to the vast majority of members of Parliament, [laughter in the House] but with strongly held views this may not be as easy as it sounds. …

That sounds promising! But I guess it all depends on what parliamentarians, with their “strongly held views” think…

Further reading

Updated 24 September 2014

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