I have always found the Christian prayers before a sitting of a house of parliament to be a curious event. After all, section 116 of the Australian Constitution precludes the legislature from ‘imposing any religious observance’. Having grown up in a liturgical Christian congregation, and having learnt the Lord’s Prayer as a child, I can’t claim that I was ever jarred by it, as Greens Senator Richard Di Natale claims he was, but I certainly found it odd.
Less odd, however, are the responses to the senator’s proposal to amend standing orders and do away with parliamentary piety (I should specify Christian piety, because the obligatory indigenous piety appears fairly safe). Di Natale himself has come out as a lapsed Catholic which is code for ‘… so you can’t accuse me of being anti-Catholic.’
Government Senate Leader Eric Abetz has objected to the proposed changes on the grounds of tradition. And there’s Senator Penny Wong who, in a move straight out of the Uniting Church playbook, has said nothing about the obvious theological questions, preferring to take the moral high ground on whether the media is the appropriate forum to resolve this. Oh, and from the practising Catholic Prime Minister, nothing. Quieter than he was at Cory’s book launch.
It would be different, of course, if Kevin Rudd was still in the chair to Madam Speaker’s right. The Member for Bonhoeffer and the nation’s 26th Prime Theologian would have seized this opportunity to correct wayward pastors and priests, live on national television where necessary.
But predictable political (and ecclesiological) stereotypes aside, here’s this Christian’s three reasons why the Lord’s Prayer shouldn’t be used to open sittings of the Parliament.
Firstly, it’s bad for the country. Amazingly, around 60 per cent of Australians still identify as Christian, although this is hardly reflected in the pews of a Sunday. But in any case, that leaves 40 per cent of Australians not identifying as Christian, in any sense of the word. If we were ever a Christian nation (a debatable proposition), we’re certainly not now. And so for the legislature to persist with a daily Christian ritual is as preposterous to me as it is offensive to almost every non-Christian Australian.
And offence causes division. And division — especially religious division — causes conflict and violence and hatred. These are things which religion causes, and I’m OK with that. In fact, Christianity explicitly promises division of a most profound kind. But neither the eternal sword of God’s judgment nor the earthly divisions inherent in our religiously pluralistic society are the business of government. Our elected representatives and our common institutions must resist every hint of religious bias, especially on the stated basis of tradition.
Secondly, it’s bad for the church, not that you’d know it given the multitude of letters to editors from clergymen of all stripes and the requisite opprobrium from the Australian Christian Lobby. For the most part it is all well-intentioned, but it’s usually based on the erroneous assumption that this is what influence and a seat at top table looks like.
Our MPs, however, have been reciting Christian prayers for 113 years, church attendance has never been lower, Islam has never been more popular, abortion rates have (almost) never been higher and same-sex marriage has never been more imminent. Oh, and we still steal, lie, gossip, quarrel and celebrate our greed. That influence thing doesn’t seem to have worked; at least it isn’t working now. Instead, Parliament flagrantly mocks God when it invokes his very words for its perfunctory theatrics before mocking him further in so many of its deliberations and proceedings.
Christians, according to Jesus, are meant to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (see Matthew 5). They are, Jesus says, meant to know the difference between what is God’s and what is Caesar’s, and to treat things accordingly (see Matthew 22). The Christian church is commissioned by Jesus to be about making disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that Jesus commanded (see Matthew 28). Instead, one Greens senator flags a proposed minor change to standing orders and Jesus’ disciples start predicting the end of Christendom. Only 400 years late.
The reality is that clinging to artefacts of established religion is neither a means to influence nor a strategy for evangelism. Our fidelity to the words of the Lord must not be sacrificed on the altar of influence, because while his words are real, the influence is only imagined. And the sooner we realise that, the sooner we can let go of that which has no warrant in Scripture and be freed for that which Scripture commands.
Thirdly, it’s bad for those who say it, Christians and non-Christians alike.
In almost every survey to determine the most trustworthy professions, politicians are to be found well down the list. Based on my own experience and friendships, I don’t agree, but I’m hardly surprised by the result. The public perception is that they will do anything — lie, cheat, mortgage their mothers, pray a little prayer — for political advantage. And this whole episode draws attention to one area where a good many of them are untruthful, or at least insincere. Daily, it seems, non-Christians MPs willingly and publicly perjure themselves not only before the high court of Parliament, but before the high king of heaven.
If the words of Jesus’ prayer are worth saying, surely his words which preface it are of at least some use (Matthew 6: 5-7):
When you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others…And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases.
What about Christians parliamentarians, you might ask? Is publicly reciting the Lord’s Prayer for them not a legitimate expression of their Christian faith? Jesus, again (Matthew 6: 6):
When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
Amen to that.
Chris Ashton has degrees in theology and church history and is an elder in the Presbyterian Church of Australia.