Does prayer still have a place in Parliament?

Written by 14 Dec 2012 on 14 December 2012 in Opinion
Gary Streeter MP sings the praises of a religious opening to each parliamentary day, but Labour peer Norman Warner cautions against placing God at the heart of policy

This article is from the January 2013 issue of Total Politics

I can think of three reasons at least why we should maintain the tradition of praying at the start of each parliamentary day and other formal occasions. 

In doing so, let me make it clear that I am not the world’s greatest fan of formal repetitive prayer. The act of praying should really be an intimate act of conversation between each individual and his or her maker, sometimes collectively, but mainly on a one-to-one. Merely barking out pious words, no matter how profound those words may be, runs the risk of stripping an act of relationship of its spiritual essence.

With that rather large caveat, my reasons for maintaining prayer are as follows:

It is good to be reminded at the start of every session that we are elected to serve a cause greater than ourselves, greater than our own self-interest, greater than our party. In our prayer time, we are reminded that God is the supreme authority to whom we give account, not the chief whip. We will serve our time at Westminster for just a few years, but the values and principles of God are timeless. It is good to be reminded of them. Furthermore, in a hurly-burly life, even a few moments of reflection can have a positive effect upon the participant. It is an opportunity to get things into perspective. The words that the Speaker’s chaplain reads out are very powerful and can impact on even the most hardened political soul.

Our country is founded on a solid Judeo-Christian foundation. Almost everything that we value – individual worth, care for others less fortunate, the rule of law, personal freedom and so on – flows from that heritage. It is what makes this country great. Those wishing to rip up this heritage would bring with them the chaos that comes from uncertain boundaries and flimsy foundations. Although each generation must take the country forward and modernise, daily prayer at Westminster and formal state occasions is a marker that we will not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Engagement by men and women of faith in public life is vital if we are to cherish these timeless values in the public square. The fabric of the Palace of Westminster is peppered with references to our spiritual heritage, not least in the central lobby where biblical images and verses are proudly on display. Should these also be removed in favour of glossy vinyl? Those who hate all forms of religious practice in public life offer nothing positive in exchange for ripping out the existing furniture.

Bear with me on this one, but prayer might actually work. Even in its lifeless formal format, calling upon God to do positive things in our midst might actually invoke Him to do just that. You say, “ ...evidence to the contrary”, to which I respond – how bad might things have been if we had not? If you believe in the God of the Bible, you must believe that prayer changes things. Jesus constantly encouraged us to pray to the Father and we are promised that he will hear our prayers. Therefore, can it be unhelpful to pray that parliamentarians will be guided by selfless principles, that our royal family will prosper, that our government ministers will be wise? I consider it wholly desirable. Prayer changes things. Prayer works. 

I understand those who object to formal prayers. If I were an atheist, I would probably feel the same way. However, they do have the option of standing outside the chamber for the three minutes or so while prayers are being said, and many do. I realise many militant atheists have sworn to drive all aspects of religion out of public life. We should not bow to the tyranny of this tiny minority. 

We have to do what is right for this great country that we are privileged to serve. For the reasons I set out above, it is in the national interest that we continue to acknowledge God at the start of every parliamentary day.

Gary Streeter is the Conservative MP for South West Devon and chair of the Christians in Parliament APPG

No, says Norman Warner
Religion and politics are uncomfortable bedfellows and can produce a toxic mix. Representative democracy faces major challenges on electoral participation, trust in elected representatives and the authority of governments to implement unpopular but necessary change. Western democracies are struggling with adjusting to globalised economies, multi-ethnic and religious migration flows, ageing societies and economic and fiscal constraints. The last thing any of them need is a hefty dose of faith-based dogma. If we want social cohesion to survive, we need to be emphasising rational analysis, cooler heads and tolerance, not the reverse.
Four years as a minister and 13 in the House of Lords has exposed me to the ability of those with strong religious beliefs to place them ahead of wider public benefits in deciding public policy. This has happened with topics such as stem-cell research and medical advances, abortion and women’s safety and choice, assisted dying for the terminally ill, and employment discrimination. Those with strong religious beliefs expect legislators to place faith-based dogma ahead of rational analysis and wider social considerations.
Nothing illustrates this more than publicly-funded faith-based schools, where religious protagonists expect the taxpaying public to fund schools with restricted entry and curricula. After the 2001 Bradford riots, the Ouseley Report referred to the “virtual apartheid” between different ethnic/religious groups. When the Accord coalition of moderate Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and humanists was formed in 2008 to suggest a more balanced approach to faith in schools, it was treated to a vitriolic attack in religious papers from the Church Times to the Jewish Chronicle. Yet currently we’re pursuing education policies which encourage faith-based education that shields growing children from a wider spectrum of views.
Many of the challenges we face depend on exploiting scientific discoveries. Religion and science have an uneasy relationship over science teaching and advances, and creationism flies in the face of that advance. If political leaders take too much notice of religious leaders in cutting areas of science, they will deny their populations the benefits of that progress. This was well brought out in the saga of embryos and stem-cell research: in the US, a religious-minded president banned the use of embryos in publicly-funded research, thereby damaging US research and medical developments. Scientific advances can raise moral dilemmas, but these are best wrestled with by politicians rather than caving in to religious bias and fanaticism.
Much of the justification for the involvement of faith-based groups in framing public policy decision-making has rested on the high proportion who tick a religious box in the 10-year census. Yet in the 28th report of the British Social Attitudes study in December 2010, one in two people said they had no religion, rising to two out of three among 18 to 24-year-olds. Membership of the Church of England has fallen to under 30 per cent, with only eight per cent of those members attending church weekly. Over 60 per cent of people never attend a religious service.
We are a secular country, with our younger people becoming more so. Despite this, the PM has now appointed a cheerleader for mixing politics and religion: Baroness Warsi, the new minister for faith and communities, complete with a publicly-funded SpAd. She is on the record as saying the government does “do” and “get” God, so we must assume that Cameron shares her views. However, those standing for election in 2015 might want to reflect on a 2006 Ipsos MORI poll, which showed religious groups topping the list of groups considered by the public as having too much influence on government. 
In the growing number of constituencies with small majorities and an electorate with more appetite for throwing out incumbents, parliamentary candidates might reflect carefully about the political advantages of appearing to suggest that God is on their side.
In a civilised society we need to respect other people’s views and their right to express them. If people want to pray to a god, that’s fine by me providing they do not try to pressurise me into doing the same or secure disproportionate influence for their beliefs on government policy and tax-funded services. Religion is a private affair rather than a legitimate ideological weapon with which to belabour politicians.
And prayers should not take place in main chambers of Parliament. Prayers are private, for practice in a designated place of religious worship. Politicians wanting to pray should do so somewhere on the Parliamentary estate that allows for different religions. Making such a change would be fairer to those with different religious beliefs.
Norman Warner is a Labour member of the House of Lords and chair of the all-party parliamentary humanist group

Tags: Debate, Gary Streeter MP, Houses of parliament, Issue 54, Lord Warner, Prayers

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