Thursday, November 09, 2017

An improvement of a prayer

The prayer recited at the opening of each session of the New Zealand Parliament is changing, dropping references to the Queen and Jesus Christ. There are Members of Parliament who want this change, and others who don’t, as is always the way with such changes, both because it goes “too far” in removing religion, and because it "doesn’t go far enough". Overall, this is long overdue, and while it doesn’t go far enough, it’s a vast improvement.

Parliament's Speaker is consulting with Members about the prayer, but has started using the new version in Te Reo already, which displeases some Opposition MPs. Even so, this is a good way to get the feel of the new prayer in its real-life context, and that’s a good thing.

The original version was:
Almighty God, humbly acknowledging our need for Thy guidance in all things, and laying aside all private and personal interests, we beseech Thee to grant that we may conduct the affairs of this House and of our country to the glory of Thy holy name, the maintenance of true religion and justice, the honour of the Queen, and the public welfare, peace, and tranquillity of New Zealand, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I always loathed that prayer, and had three main objections (apart from their being any prayer at all). First, the people of New Zealand and the country are mentioned only obliquely and at the very end (“and the public welfare, peace, and tranquillity of New Zealand”). Who are MPs serving? The prayer made it sound like it was all about the Queen and the church she heads.

Second, and most obviously, the prayer mentioned Jesus Christ, when New Zealand has many different religions, including not only different flavours of Christianity, but sizeable numbers of non-Christians (plus atheists, agnostics, and non-theists, of course).

Finally, the phrase “the maintenance of true religion” is derived from the British tradition in which the Queen is “defender of the faith” because the UK, unlike New Zealand, has an established (which means official) church.

The overt religiosity of all that also bothered me.

For many years, when I watched "Question Time" I'd mute the TV when the prayer was being said. I firmly believe that a prayer doesn't belong in a governmental setting, which is and ought to be totally secular, independent of all religions, and neutral on the very question of religion. I always felt that if religious MPs want to get together before the proceedings—and I never saw any evidence that many did—they could have a private prayer outside the Chamber, elsewhere in the building or wherever else they wanted—that'd be their business. But it just doesn't belong in the People's House.

Despite that, I think the proposed prayer is a real improvement:
Almighty God, we give thanks for the blessings which have been bestowed on New Zealand.

Laying aside all personal interests, we pray for guidance in our deliberations, that we may conduct the affairs of this House with wisdom and humility, for the public welfare and peace of New Zealand.

It’s better because it talks about New Zealand in the first sentence: No one would mistake that for a prayer from the United Kingdom or wherever. The second sentence is obviously drawn largely from the old prayer with some improvements, such as, taking out the reference to the Queen.

Constitutional arrangements dictate the structure of New Zealand’s government, but Members of Parliament are the servants of the people of New Zealand, not the Queen. While the Queen can dismiss Parliament, she can’t choose who will serve within it—only the people of New Zealand can do that. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but one day New Zealand will be a republic. In fact, in most respects, it already is in all but law.

I think a further improvement would be to change “for the public welfare and peace of New Zealand” to “for the people of New Zealand and the welfare and peace of the nation” or something similar because the people ought to be mentioned specifically. Still, the fact that New Zealand is mentioned in the first sentence is a vast improvement, and the proposed phrasing IS shorter than my version, so there’s that.

Personally, I don’t care what people believe or don’t—that’s their business, not mine. While I’m automatically suspicious of all religious conservatives, and for very good reasons, I nevertheless don’t pre-judge them or their potential service as an elected representative. All politicians ought to be judged on their performance, and if they put their religion ahead of their public duty, that will be obvious very early on—if it wasn’t already obvious from their election campaign.

My objection to a prayer before a governmental meeting is about ensuring all people, the religious and nonreligious alike, are served by their government. Having a religious prayer at the start of official government business isn’t even remotely neutral, it’s the exact opposite: It’s taking religion’s side. By not having a prayer, all sides are included equally, since the religious are still free to pray privately (as my mother demonstrated to me when I was a child).

I know that New Zealand won't drop a religious prayer any time soon—fidelity to tradition among the parliamentary descendants of the British Empire is still very strong. But it is a discussion we ought to be having as New Zealand continues to evolve into a nation very different from the one it was a century ago, let alone the one from which it was born.

The proposed prayer in Te Reo Māori:
E Te Atua Kaha Rawa, Ka tukuwhakamoemiti atu mātou, mō ngā karakiakua waihotia mai ki runga o Aotearoa.Ka waiho nei I ō mātou pānga whaiarokatoa ki te taha, nei rā ēnei e īnoi atu anamō Tō ārahitanga, I roto i ō mātouwhakaaroarohanga, ā, kia whakahaere aie mātou ngā take o Te Whare nei, I rungai te mōhio, me te whakaiti mō te oranga,te maungārongo, o te tūmatanui o Aotearoa.


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