Parliament needs more ritual, not fewer prayers

What would change if morning prayer was removed from Parliament? Bastl F./Flickr

In January, Greens Senator Richard di Natale sparked another round of the never-ending debate as to whether or not the Australian Parliament should open with prayer. Under standing orders, each sitting of the House of Representatives or Senate begins with the reading of two prayers: a prayer for the Parliament, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Needless to say there is a variety of views on whether these prayers should be retained. Reformers such as Senator di Natale point to recent census figures and the rise of “no religion” and non-Christian religions in Australian society as a reason to dispense with these prayers. Conservatives see these prayers – written in seventeenth-century English – as a link to traditional values. Some politicians don’t want to rock the boat and simply want to avoid offending Christian or conservative voters.

Many Christians value the traditional acknowledgement of God at the beginning of each day’s proceedings. Some Christians want the prayers removed because not all members of Parliament profess Jesus as Lord: to read Christian prayers in such a context suggests hypocrisy rather than faith. Other people of faith want the prayers either removed or extended, because religion should not be confined to a token moment at the beginning of the day.

The inclusion of prayer in Parliamentary ritual, however cursory, is a reminder that something more is – or should be – going on in our society than the mere transaction of business.

So if we removed the current requirement for the same two Christian prayers, day in, day out, what should replace them? Is it enough that, like the worst kind of committee meeting, there is no moment to pause and reflect on wrongs we have done or hopes for the future?

Human beings need rituals. Most of the world sets its time according to a seven-day week, for no reason other than inherited tradition. In Parliament, government and opposition sit on opposite sides of a chamber, organised to represent both unity and division.

Rituals remind us of the ideas and practices we see as important, transcending the immediacy of the daily grind. Only recently has an acknowledgement of country been added to the opening ritual of Parliamentary sittings. This is a powerful way of representing the extraordinary shift in non-indigenous Australian culture and attitudes in the last 25 years, and an emerging commitment towards meaningful reconciliation.

All our Parliaments, not just the Commonwealth Parliament, could use more ritual, if that ritual effectively promoted some higher ideals. Few Australians seem to doubt the need to lift our vision as a nation, to widen the imagination of our people and our political leaders beyond individual, partisan, or short-term concerns.

So let’s imagine that the Lord’s Prayer and the prayer for Parliament were removed. What if instead the day opened like this?

An acknowledgement of country: this is a land with a long history of careful stewardship and the land and its elders deserve respect.

A minute of silent contemplation: our politicians are committed to the risk of intentional reflection and self-assessment.

A prayer or poem drawn from Australia’s many religious and literary traditions led by a member of Parliament: we acknowledge the need for imagination, forgiveness, and hope that can transform the everyday.

A song or hymn sung by all: we express and reflect our values not as individuals but as a richly diverse collective, using our bodies as well as our minds.

But would any of this make a difference?

The Lord’s Prayer is not exactly a conservative text, regardless of one’s religious faith. It is recorded in the gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke in the New Testament and attributed to Jesus himself. Its reading in a Parliament is a serious matter: the petition “your kingdom come” anticipates the displacement of worldly rulers with the coming of God’s reign.

Those who pray the Lord’s Prayer place themselves under an onerous requirement, to be forgiven as they have forgiven others. It is a charter that excludes all who seek to exercise power for its own sake.

Yet, just like the National Anthem with its claim that “for those who’ve come across the seas we’ve boundless plains to share”, there is not a great deal of evidence that the Lord’s Prayer is having any impact on the decisions of our Parliament.

Might this have less to do with the specific content of the Lord’s Prayer and more to do with the fact that no-one is really listening any more to a token ritual that has barely changed in more than a century?

Let’s invest a little more energy then in our Parliamentary ritual. Let’s use some of our cultural creativity, and see if we can’t collectively reinvigorate our political life by spending just a few minutes each day to express in silence, poetry and song why we live in a society that aspires to more than survival.