Parliamentary prayers chaplain house of commons prayer
Freedom of Religion

Parliamentary prayers give strength and instil humility: they impose nothing and exclude no one

“If MPs don’t want to attend prayers, they wait outside for five minutes until they are over”, tweeted Nadine Dorries MP, in response to those who are agitating anew for parliamentary prayers to be abolished. “It is the only five minutes of the day when the chamber sits in peace and harmony”, she added. “It is a special, earthing time for the many who do attend, reminding us why it is we are there.”

Fellow Tory MP Tracey Crouch concurred: “TBH I’m really only a big occasion church goer but I love, value & draw strength from the parliamentary prayers said before we sit each day and Rev Rose has an amazing knack of saying something apposite. It would be awful to see them scrapped.”

“Spot on”, tweeted Home Secretary Sajid Javid (no doubt a little pressed for time).

Their fellow Tory MP Rachel Maclean agreed: “Please keep our prayers. They’re not compulsory for any MP. As a Christian I find them so valuable to focus on what all of us, from all political parties, are trying to do. I need to hear the ‘still small voice of calm’.”

“And the Church of England is still the established church”, Therese Coffey MP reminded everyone, “so perfectly acceptable for prayers at the start of proceedings, which are entirely optional.”

Labour’s Barbara Keeley MP added some cross-party support: “Agree with Tracey @tracey_crouch – I also value and draw strength from Parliamentary prayers each day. Rev Rose is an amazing chaplain to the Commons and we should keep these few minutes of reflection at the start of each day.”

And from another place, Baroness Nicholson tweeted her contentment with parliamentary prayers, mainly because Their Lordships get an episcopal elevation: “Even better in the Lords; our Bishop led prayers help us all to focus on matters outside ourselves and for the others’ good. Needed by all in politics.”

All, that is, except for Tory MP (and new patron of the National Secular Society) Crispin Blunt. He is rather sick of it all (or has suddenly decided to be sick of it all at the behest of the National Secular Society), not least because he can’t reserve his seat on the green benches unless he attends the prayers, which he says make him feel “uncomfortable”. And so, the Times reports, he has tabled an EDM:

So the freedom to hold parliamentary prayers must give way to the freedom to be free of them, even though they are not mandatory.

“The proposal isn’t to stop you praying”, explained Labour councillor David Boothroyd. “You can pray if you want but do it out of the formal sitting. Religious liberty is a broad concept, not a narrow one: holding prayers in the formal sitting is imposing them on those who don’t wish to take part.”

So praying in the Chamber where non-praying Members may wish to sit is imposing prayer upon them.

“That’s the whole point. They are NOT imposed”, retorted Rachel Maclean. “It is private, not televised as the formal sittings are. Many MPs can and do choose to enter the Chamber only after prayers are finished. We are talking about 3-4 minutes only.”

Councillor Boothroyd wasn’t having this: he wants secularist-humanist-atheist types to get their 3-4 minutes back. “They are imposed if they are taking place in the Chamber when all MPs are summoned to the sitting”, he snorted. “Forcing non-believers out of part of Parliamentary sessions makes non-believers lesser citizens.”

Non-believers are not forced out: Members are perfectly free to enter the Chamber at the commencement of prayers, and sit and observe should they wish to do so. What they are not free to do is interrupt proceedings once they have begun by noisily coming and going, so the Chamber is locked. Yet parliamentary prayers must be abolished, they aver, because they force non-believers out of a formal part of a formal session: prayer is absolutely nothing to do with business.

Except that parliamentary prayers have been part of the business of Parliament for 500 years. The Palace of Westminster is not a ‘secular’ space from which God is excluded; it is a royal palace, housing St Mary Undercroft, a royal peculiar. The Church of England is established (like it or not, that is the Constitution), and three quarters of MPs taking their seats swear their Oath of Allegiance to the Head of State (who, like it or not, happens to be Supreme Governor of the Established Church) on a religious text (250 choosing to do so on the Authorised Version [which is heartening]). Parliamentary prayers are open to politicians of all faiths and none; the Rev’d Rose Hudson-Wilkin is chaplain to MPs of all faiths and none. Parliament is her parish; MPs are her parishioners, and she serves them and ministers to them all – including Crispin Blunt.

He pretends that his gripe is with using parliamentary prayers as a seat-reservation device: Members who attend prayers get to reserve a seat for the following session, but (importantly for Mr Blunt) Members who would have attended prayers if they hadn’t been in (say) an unavoidable committee also get to reserve a seat: they would have worshipped in spirit and in truth if they could, but democracy comes first. Mr Blunt therefore dissembles: he writes ‘Committee’ on his pink card and spends another hour in Annie’s Bar. He resents having to do this (not least because it may cause people to doubt his integrity: if he is prepared to lie about his spirituality in order to get a ringside seat, what will he say to get your vote?).

This is not, of course, anything to do with seat-reserving: the National Secular Society wants the Church of England to be disestablished; Bishops ejected from the House of Lords; the Queen to be stripped of her religious role, and the whole Anglican edifice to be dismantled. Crispin Blunt chipping away at parliamentary prayers with his cantankerous chisel is simply the first step: the super-objective is secular hegemony.

Parliamentary prayers are (it must be said) a little quirky. Members enter in procession with the Chaplain and Speaker who both kneel at the Table of the House while Members stand at their places with their backs to the Chamber, facing the wall. The practice is thought to derive from parliamentarians’ swords preventing or hindering kneeling: it was simply easier to face the wall, kneel on the bench, and let your sword rest on the back of the bench behind you. Whatever the origins, turning away from the Chamber facilitates apprehension of the transcendence and immanence of God, rather like closing one’s eyes in church. The mind is more easily focused on personal motives or the needs of others, or on the reality, wonder and joy of life, or on the honour and weighty responsibility of being a legislator.

Parliamentary prayers clearly edify those who participate, reminding them that, while Parliament may be constitutionally omnipotent, there are limits to the exercising of power: pride will be judged – if not by God, by the Ballot Box. The prayers thereby become a check on vanity, on self-centredness, on the urge to lord it over others, and on the relentless drive for personal success and greasy-pole-climbing. Some MPs seem to have more appetite for attention-seeking than for service, and prayers are an opportunity to check one’s own propensity to be puffed up or stiff-necked.

At heart and in essence, parliamentary prayers are an expression of submission to something greater. For theist Members, that greater is God; for non-theist Members, it is the greater force of life and love which mitigates the temptation to self-absorption and self-love. The prayers exhort both Christ-centredness and the Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right aspiration, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Why should there be any need to deny this good or defy this transcendence with a crass EDM coup just to make a few MPs feel more comfortable?

Crispin Blunt might retort that other (modern) UK legislatures haven’t incorporated these absurd exclusively Anglican-Christian anachronisms. MSPs, AMs and MLAs don’t need to invoke God to remind them of the limits of their power or the object of their allegiance. The Scottish Parliament, for example, has a weekly ‘Time for Reflection’, when representatives of religions and belief systems may address the Parliament. During the 1999 debates about what form the MSPs’ time of prayer or reflection should take, SNP leader Alex Salmond observed:

…those of us who have experience of the Westminster Parliament would not want to reproduce the nature of prayers in that institution, where they have been described as a meaningless ritual. That is not altogether true, because prayers in the Westminster Parliament can be meaningful as a means for people to reserve their seats for the day. However, I am not certain that that is the best reason for people to take part in what should be a solemn observance of worship.

And the SNP’s Dr Winnie Ewing added:

By all means let us rule out the House of Commons model. I was there for eight years. Lord James Douglas-Hamilton said that there was no compulsion to attend prayers, but I found that there was: if I wanted a seat, I had to pray. That was not a very dignified situation, but there were not enough seats to go around. We are blessed here – we all have a seat and a desk – so that will not happen.

There were some comic elements at the House of Commons, the first of which was that we were locked in to pray. The first time I went to a question time, I found everybody queueing. When I asked old Mr Emrys Hughes what was happening, he said that members had been locked in to pray. That sounded very strange.

The second comic element was that members turned their backs on one another during prayers, as if there was something shameful in praying. The third comic element was that the prayer was always the same:

“Let all the nations rejoice and be glad.”

I liked it, but it was the same every day.

We should have a new model and we should embrace all the cultures and religions that have chosen Scotland as their home.

Labour First Minister Donald Dewer confirmed the curious seat-reservation obsession:

At Westminster, the vast majority of people who do not have a religious faith hang around in the corridor during prayers. As soon as prayers are over, there is an almighty rush to get into one’s seat. There has to be a gap between the end of prayers and the start of business to allow the large majority of members – I suspect – to get to their seats.

…We are all a little ambivalent about these matters. I was much entertained by Dr Ewing’s account of her experience of having to pray in order to get a seat in the House of Commons. The implication of that was that if she could have got a seat without praying, she would have done so, and yet she stresses the absolute necessity of having prayers before every meeting.

Crispin Blunt would no doubt prefer Westminster to adopt the Scottish Parliament’s informal interfaith or multi-faith (and no-faith) diversity because it is more inclusive and would permit him to reserve a seat without having to lie about his whereabouts. So here’s a proposal (or three) for the House of Commons Procedures Committee:

i) Allow members to reserve seats whether they attend prayers or not: it is time to separate divine communion from sedentary banalities. Better still, end the practice of reserving seats altogether: make it first-come-first-seated, which would be more equitable. Even better, allow the building to shape the legislature: cut the number of MPs to the seating capacity of the Chamber, so no one has to stand while their colleagues drone on.

ii) Make it clear that Members may be participants in parliamentary prayers by standing, or participant-observers by sitting, and that both postures are acceptable to God (whether they believe in Him or not).

iii) Remind Members that parliamentary prayers flow from the British Constitution, which affirms that the Head of State is also Supreme Governor of the Church of England, and by swearing their oaths they swore allegiance to the Monarch and to her heirs and successors. The Queen-in-Parliament fuses Church and State, the temporal with the spiritual, for she is as much concerned with her subjects’ souls as she is with their bodies. There is, for her, no spiritual-secular distinction: human government involves doing God:

The Queen’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction (Article XXXVII).

These few procedural tweaks would blunt Crispin Blunt’s chisel and frustrate the National Secular Society’s axe-grinding. If he still feels ‘uncomfortable’ or ‘excluded’ by the practice of parliamentary prayers, he needs to understand that not all have reached his superior level of secular enlightenment, and that some Members find prayer an edifying therapy and worthwhile exercise for sifting the moral reason of centuries and discerning the reality of truth in a parliament of fading dreams. They are a reminder that there are limits to human moral competence; that God’s voice might just be worth hearing when major ethical issues are being debated or momentous decisions contemplated. If it assists him, Crispin Blunt might compassionately view people of faith as being somehow ‘intellectually disabled‘, and he wouldn’t want to discriminate against the poor in spirit, would he?