Don't say a prayer for me now... but should we save it for some time after?

When Trevor Mallard read out a new, revised prayer at the start of parliament this year, I started writing about some of the questions it raised for me. It's taken a while to get it down, but I wonder whether we shouldn't be giving this some deeper thought

 Arguing about the prayer that open parliament each day is as old as parliament itself; it was the first order of business in the first session (after the election of the speaker) when New Zealand's new parliament opened in Auckland, May 1854. The issue was much the same as today's - finding a ritual that's inclusive.

Last week Speaker Trevor Mallard opened parliament with a new prayer, one which removed Jesus Christ from the wording. He argued it excluded those of other faiths and those of no divine faith at all. He wanted to be inclusive, but was open to changing back if "a big group of New Zealanders" felt strongly about it. About 400 people protested and prayed outside parilament in opposition to the decision.

Tension over the prayer dates back to that very first parliament on a wet day in Auckland 164 years ago, as historian and theologian Allan Davidson has written. Otago politician and Presbyterian James Macandrew (once held in contempt of parliament for failing to remove his hat!) moved that the House's first act be "a public acknowledgement of the Divine Being". Dr Walter Lee offered a counter motion that "prayers not be offered up". James FitzGerald (the first leader of the first cabinet) worried what a prayer would mean for Jews or Unitarians who might one day be elected. Concerns were raised about not letting Catholic and Protestant ill-will spill over into this new government.

A motion opposing public prayer was defeated and Macandrew's was carried, but alongside another motion insisting "a perfect political equality in all religious denominations". The Speaker was to say the prayer so that specific clergy from specific denomninations didn't taint that perfect equality. No favouritism, guaranteed.

Now, that concern about Jews and Unitarians - or these days atheists, agnostics, Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and others - predominates and Mallard has chosen to remove references to Jesus Christ, "thy holy name" and "true religion" from the prayer. 

It's interesting to note that it still beings "almighty God" and ends "amen". I'm not sure how inclusive that is beyond the Abrahamic faiths which adhere to a single and almighty God. Amen, as far as I know, is limited to Christianity, Judaism and Islam. But Mallard's intent mirrors that of our first parliament and sends a signal of inclusivity that rings true to many, me included. It even harks back to the Treaty of Waitangi and Bishop Pompellier's victory in convincing Governor Hobson to verbally promise he would protect all faiths equally.

We may not have it written in a consitution, but it's clear that in the New Zealand tradition, no government has the right to impose religious beliefs on the people. 

But does that make it the right decision? Does a prayer amount to such an imposition? Should we not think harder about this?

Christianity is an easy mark these days. Out of fashion, dwindling in numbers and lumped in with all sorts of problems from the 'bad old days', it's lost a lot of its clout. The moral failings of values politicians (and their supporters) around the world, and especially the conservative stripe of Christianity that is still so influential in US politics has painted the whole faith as one of condemnation and cruelty.

But let's see if we can't step outside this moment in time and that knee-jerk reaction to dismiss the prayer at the opening of parliament so easily and try looking at it in other ways. 

Some alternative views are a waste of time and not worthy of much discussion, such as the bizarre view offered by a conservative clergyman on Morning Report, that the removal of Jesus from the prayer could be a step down the road to Sharia law. For crying out loud.

But there are reasons to stop and ponder if this is as straight forward a decision as some claim.

Those who think the ejection of Jesus is a no-brainer have seen the Christian prayer as an affront, archaic or exclusive of anyone who does not believe in a Christian god. Something that, because it does not mean anything to them, is to be rapidly disposed of. Something that was once vital to the people of this land, but is now marginal.

It's interesting to compare that attitude to the ongoing arguments over the place of te reo in our institutions. It too is archaic and not understood by the majority of New Zealanders. It is precious to many; an affront and marginal to others. But it is increasingly - and rightly in my opinion - seen as a wonderful piece in the New Zealand jigsaw and an important expression of our diversity and character as a nation.

It is also, of course, indigenous to and inseparable from New Zealand, something Christianity is not. I'll come back to that point later, but I'd note that the first Christian service was conducted in this country 204 years ago; I'm sure passing sailors were praying not to be swept onto these shores long before that. Its history here runs deep.  

As Fiona Wright has written in this article for New Zealand Centre for Public Law:

"Nineteenth century New Zealand did not follow England in establishing a national church, but early law-makers were predominantly Christian. Accordingly, Christianity helped to shape New Zealand's culture, tradition and law. Its influence is still evident".

My question is an obvious one. We make space for te reo and tikanga in parliament. We spend time and money ensuring it has a place in our most powerful institution on a daily basis. Can we - should we - not permit a minute or so for a Christian prayer? (And potentially those of other faiths?). 

Indeed, tikanga Maori and spiritual values are often combined, as Wright points out. We have made room for karakia such as this and indeed a growing expression of Maori spirituality, which is tightly tied to Christianity. So where does that leave the argument that we need to de-Christianise the prayer for the sake of our secular state? Do we also try to de-spiritualise tikanga?

I'm not trying to set up a battle between tikanga and prayer; indeed you could raise some of the same points about the use of sign language in parliament or any attempt to bring other faiths and cultures into our increasingly diverse public life. I simply use it as an example, to ask how we find a consistent position on how we express our different world views in our parliament, where we are meant to come together for the common good. 

The comparison between a faith and a language has limitations of course, so I'll be interested in the comments below. But what both share is a culture that runs deep in the story of this country.

While Christianity is not indigenous to this land, it is to our democracy. Western democracy – especially the Westminster universal suffrage that we enjoy – is born of many ideas and movements, but Christianity sits at its heart. The men who signed the Magna Carta were Christians, in part wrestling with questions around the supposed divine right of kings. It was the faith of Christian men and women that drove the fight against slavery and the idea that all men are created equal (overcoming other Christians who used their faith to champion oppression). Later, Christianity was also at the heart of the suffragettes movement, and later still in the civil rights movement.

As important as the separation of church and state is, democracy and Christianity are intertwined ideas. Perhaps our democracy would have evolved without Christianity, but the fact is that it didn't. So that faith is bound into our consitution like no other. For example, would we even have a bill of rights and the ideas it rests on if it weren't for the radical teachings that we are all made in the image of God and Paul of Tarsus had not written, "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus"? 

Nowadays, democracy is practiced in many countries without a Christian tradition. But given the place of that faith in our tradition, perhaps a short prayer is fitting.

Still, we come back to that vital separation of church and state. It's not to be taken for granted. To fuse the two together is to put both in jeopardy of being tarnished and undermined by the other. As much as we don't want the government to impose religous beliefs (something Thomas Jefferson enshrined in the US constitution), equally no church wants to be tied to something as temporary, whimsical and partisan as politics and government (something Jefferson's successor James Madison stressed).

But while some might toss around this notion in discussion of the prayer, it seems as likely that the prayer will undermine the separation of church and state as its removal will foster sharia law. Could it not be seen simply as a hat tip to the origins of our political system and - at a time when 'mindfulness' is all the rage - a moment's quiet reflection before a the day's jousting begins; a chance for our leaders to summon what Barack Obama might call their "better angels"?

All this is worth considering, in my view, because the altered prayer as it stands seems to satisfy no-one and nothing. It is a collection of words now with little meaning and no champions. It is neither fish nor foul. Christians cannot own and take pride in it, yet neither can those of other faiths. For those of no faith it is still an appeal to some phantom divinity that has no more or less meaning that it did last year. 

The end result surely is that it withers on the vine. It fades away. If that's the intent of those seeking change, then it's a cynical and disrespectful move indeed. 

I've argued that Christianity can claim a special place in our democracy. But if the goal remains to de-Christianise the prayer specifically and parliament in general, while still recognising the place of other faiths and spiritualities in New Zealand, mightn't there be a better choice?

Surely if we are genuinely seeking an honourable and inclusive solution, we go the other way. Rather than remove Jesus, why not make space for MPs of other faiths to lead parliament in their prayers? Let people of faith genuinely humble themselves before their God as they seek to serve. It will be meaningful to them and, even if you see prayer as nothing more than an ancient form of mindfulness, that at least has some psychological use. Atheists and agnostics can ignore the beliefs of others in almost every walk of life these days; is it such a big ask to sacrifice a minute or two at the start of parliament to make room for minorities who have a different way of expressing themselves? Why not honour faith the way we do language?

Maybe the statement of inclusion involved in removing Jesus from the prayer is too powerful and important to other minority cultures in New Zealand. Maybe the time is right. But I think the casual and thoughtless approach to the issue thus far does not do justice to our country and our history. We have little ritual left these days and we should not dispense with what we have more easily than we would knock down a historic building or cut a road through an ancient forest.

So before the Speaker comes to a definitive conclusion on what to do with the prayer, let's look at this from a range of angles and keep that tradition of arguing about such things alive and well in Aotearoa.