Universe Column for September 12th 2004
by David Alton
Each day, both Houses of Parliament open with prayer. In the Commons, as they pray, MPs turn and face the wall, traditionally this was done to avoid distracting one another. In the Lords a Bishop reads a psalm and then leads Peers in the Lord’s Prayer. Peers say their prayers kneeling on their red benches. Both Commoners and Peers pray for the Royal Family and the good governance of the nation.
Inevitably there is a predictable and repetitive feel to this daily ritual but many who attend prayers do so because they believe in their accountability before God and because they also believe in the power of prayer.
As the House of Lords reassembled this week – and began their proceedings in this time-honoured way – I was wondering how their Lordships would have reacted if the duty-Bishop had ditched the usual words and had instead uttered a prayer recently used at the opening session of the Senate in Kansas.
A local clergyman, Joe Wright, had been asked to initiate proceedings with a prayer. It was assumed that he would stick to the usual formulation. Instead, this was the prayer he decided to offer:
“Heavenly Father, we come before you today to ask your forgiveness and to seek your direction and guidance. We know Your Word says, ‘Woe to those who call evil good’, but that is exactly what we have done. We have lost our spiritual equilibrium and reversed our values. We confess that we have ridiculed the absolute truth of Your Word and call it Pluralism.
We have exploited the poor and called it the lottery.
We have rewarded laziness and called it welfare.
We have killed our unborn and called it choice.
We have shot abortionists and called it justifiable.
We have neglected to discipline our children and called it building self esteem.
We have abused power and called it politics.
We have coveted our neighbour’s possessions and called it ambition.
We have polluted the air with profanity and pornography and called it freedom of expression.
We have ridiculed the time-honoured values of our forefathers and called it enlightenment.
Search us, Oh, God, and know our hearts today; cleanse us from every sin and set us free.
Guide and bless these men and women who have been sent to direct us to the centre of Your will and to openly ask these things in the name of Your Son, the living Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen!”
The Kansas legislators gave an immediate response. Several walked out during the prayer in protest. There were rumblings and complaints about introducing controversy into the proceedings.
Yet, it might give us all pause for thought to reflect that in 6 short weeks, Central Christian Church, where Rev. Wright is the pastor, logged more than 5,000 phone calls responding to his prayer – with only 47 of those calls responding negatively.
The church has received requests for copies of this prayer from many parts of the world, including India , Africa and Korea . I wonder when a letter last arrived at Westminster asking for a copy of our parliamentary prayers.
Perhaps the real moral of the story is that prayer should never be anodyne; and it should be relevant, reflecting our personal and collective needs. By reducing our beliefs to a series of mindless platitudes we may not upset anyone but nor are we likely to convince them either. Didn’t GK Chesterton have a point when he wryly remarked that it doesn’t take long for us to move from believing in everything to believing in nothing? If our prayers for the nation are simply an attempt to hit the lowest common denominator our prayers will become equally banal