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There has been much debate in the past week or so about the prayer said before each sitting of Parliament, which last week didn’t include reference to Jesus or the Queen, as it has done in the past. Speaker, the Rt Hon Trevor Mallard, has indicated he is open to feedback on changing the prayer and I wanted to add my thoughts into the mix.
I can understand the concern around the archaic language of the parliamentary prayer and the desire to pray in te reo, which I heartily commend. I would, however, encourage our parliamentarians to consider again the desire to drop the name of Jesus in their traditional prayer.
The question of being fair seems to be the driving concern of Mr Mallard’s desire to leave Jesus’ name out, but will it really be so? What I find in talking to people of many different faiths who come and settle in New Zealand, and who enjoy this country’s freedom to worship whomever they might, is that almost without exception it is this freedom and the lack of persecution — especially religious persecution — that they enjoy the most. And where does that come from?
It comes from the ethic derived from the person and work of Jesus Christ — the one whose life has also inspired the creation of the central institutions of most of the Western democratic world — modern medicine, science, education and even, dare I say it, modern democracy.
Ah no! I hear you say. That was invented by the Greeks. So it was, but it only flourished once planted within a Christian world view. It is the commitment to selfless service and to the betterment of all which Jesus promoted in his life, death and resurrection which inspired the egalitarian basis of modern Western democracy. It is Christ who has made religious tolerance possible, so why would one want, in the name of such tolerance, to delete his name from the prayer of those who represent us in Parliament?
When we speak Jesus’ name, we speak of both the understanding and humility which makes room for other beliefs even though we may not share those beliefs. The effect of removing his name from the prayer is to buy into a universalism which, so far from promoting unity, encourages the exclusive individualism of a fundamentalist belief. That’s the danger.
In a funny sort of way, much the same could be said of the notion of no longer praying for the Queen. Our tangata whenua have taught me much about our attitude towards the past. Maori spirituality brings the past into the present as a living element of existence.
The acknowledgement of our ancestors, whose communal efforts have bequeathed to us the world we now inhabit, is vital in a world besotted with the illusion of progress. While we may, with hindsight, be critical of our forebears, we cannot deny our link with them and this is extremely important for us as a modern society. We cannot deny our past, both its dark places and its triumphs. This is what shapes us.
To pray for the crown by praying for the Queen acknowledges the history of our present constitutional status, honours those who gave it to us, and lifts up all who now participate in it. The Queen is a vital link to that past and to incorporate her in our prayer is to invite God, in a very real way, to redeem the present.
Finally, to the issue of representation. It is true that not all New Zealanders are Christian, so is it not fairer to pray a more general prayer to which all other faiths can subscribe?
It is this last part which I believe contains a flaw in the argument. The ‘‘neutralising’’ of the prayer by removing the name Jesus from it enthrones the assumption that one can esteem all religions by naming none of them — that to pray in general will show respect to all and therefore be more acceptable. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The assumption that we can somehow deal with religious difference by proclaiming a ‘‘neutral space’’ where no god is named and no heaven defined, where every colour is grey and music has become one note, is a mistake. This approach subsumes your religion into mine and suggests that I know and understand your faith enough to say that it is no different from mine.
General prayer to a general god does not acknowledge that it is the life of Christ which is one of the very best examples of inclusivity in our culture. Let’s continue then to acknowledge our past and to name the one who has helped us make this society one in which all people of all faiths can live alongside each other in peace.
- The Rt Rev Richard Dawson is Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand.