Once again some MPs have suggested the abolition of the prayers that have begun the work of parliament each day since 1558.
In some ways, although the Church of England remains the established Church of the land, such a tradition does seem out of keeping with the wider societal mood. The majority now prefer to identify as “no religion” so in a multi cultural, multi-faith, free-thinking society is such a tradition still appropriate in parliament?
In passing it should be noted that “no religion” is not the same as identifying as atheist or humanist. “No religion” is undoubtedly a rejection of organised religion but it does not mean no sense of belief or acknowledging of the spiritual in life. Frustrations with the institutions of religion can make even the most ardent believer want to classify themselves at of “no religion”.
But the abandonment of parliamentary prayers, in some form or other, would confirm the worst tendencies of what we see among many of those active in the political life of our land.
Firstly, prayer is a way of acknowledging there is something bigger than us, more important than us. Amidst the ever growing egos which seem to characterise some members of parliament, prayers offer a check on visions of self-importance. In prayer all our equal, none can presume superiority over another. It declares an allegiance greater than party. It is a reminder that failings are not just in the party opposite, that we all fall short, that we all need to amend our ways, that we all need to do better. Prayers taken seriously can help counter balance the arrogance that can all too easily infect political life.
Secondly, this time of prayer provides an essential pause in the ongoing political debate, an essential still point amidst the storms that can swirl around Westminster. We live in an age not only of instant news but also of instant response and reaction. There is too little time given to pause, think, reflect, contemplate. Yet it is in the pauses and spaces that new ideas can emerge, that common ground be found and new ways forward emerge. Prayer offers the opportunity to go beyond the party line, to provide space for a new consensus to emerge. It offers a space which is not about who can shout the loudest, offer the cleverest turn of phrase or is best at spinning facts and figures. To the most earnest and determined debater, prayers say “stop”, consider there may be another way, recognise that you might just be wrong.
Parliamentary prayers may not be shaped in the best way. They may need to evolve or offer a better quality of space in the midst of the pressures of parliamentary life, but their demise would only play to the worst tendencies of parliamentary life. Thankfully a counter motion by Keith Vaz tries to affirm some of the positive benefits of parliamentary prayers.
A parliament that has forgotten the importance of prayer is a parliament which is too full of itself, it is a parliament which has lost its way. It is a parliament concerned only with foisting opinions on others not diligently seeking the common good.
As we continue to journey through a continuing period of political uncertainty, we need less shouting and more reflection, less flag waving and more reaching out. We need spaces where individuals can see the wisdom in other people’s points of views, where there can be a letting go of long held opinions in favour of exploring new possibilities.
In a small but significant way, the presence of parliamentary prayers, symbolises the fact that amidst the cut, thrust, noise and power displays of so much of the life of parliament, there is another way.