The Victorian Parliament will soon be debating whether or not to continue the practice of commencing each session with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer has always been part of my life growing up with weekly worship in church.
As a child I thought God’s name was Harold (Harold be thy name). The prayer is part of my daily devotional life. It has shaped me immeasurably, both by its content and through the mysterious chemistry of the practice of prayer.
I also think the Parliamentary practice is anachronistic and inappropriate in the current context. The Lord’s Prayer is not a generic prayer, it is a Christian prayer. Apparently Jewish rabbis commonly taught their followers a particular way to pray. Jesus, himself a Jewish rabbi, likewise taught his close followers this distinctive prayer which, with extraordinary economy of language (he had just warned his disciples against lengthy, public prayers intended to display piety), acknowledges God’s transcendence, prays that God’s will (for justice, peace, love) be done on earth as in heaven, acknowledges our creaturely dependence in the petition for provision for our basic needs (bread), prays for help to practice the giving and receiving of forgiveness; and asks for God’s help in times of trial and temptation. Some of these petitions, I acknowledge, are such that people of various religions and none, could, in good conscience, utter.
The Victorian community is extremely diverse in cultural and religious terms, home to followers of many religious traditions and, increasingly, it is home to people who profess no religion at all.
There is no denying that since colonisation Christian faith and values have shaped many of the key political and social institutions in Australia and contributed substantially to our notions of democracy, human rights, social justice and welfare.
But the often-heard reference to Australia being a Christian nation, if it ever was true, cannot go unchallenged. Contemporary Australia is a vibrant multicultural, multifaith community. What all Australians have in common, our shared spiritual heritage if we but knew it, is that we all live on Aboriginal land whose Peoples’ spiritual beliefs and practices are inseparable from the lands and waterways which sustain our very life.
The very earth and waterways which sustain our life are steeped with spirit, acknowledged by First Peoples who have generously invited us to draw from this rich spiritual heritage.
My Professor of Australian Church History was fond of saying ‘Christianity only ever took shallow root in Australia’. It has certainly contributed significant social and institutional strengths and even provided a strong basis for multiculturalism through its assertion of the equality of all people but was shamefully silent on the equal personhood of Indigenous peoples until recently.
But Christianity has been impoverished by not sinking its singular roots into the rich spiritual soil of this land and being transformed and enriched accordingly.
The assumption that the Lord’s Prayer is our common heritage is misconceived historically, sociologically as well as religiously. The alternative suggestion that Parliament commences with a time of shared silence is worthy of consideration. Those who pray would do just that. Christian Members of Parliament would probably choose the Lord’s Prayer.
Followers of other faiths would pray in their particular way. People of no faith could hold respectful silence reminding themselves of the responsibilities of their role as they prepare to legislate, maybe using phrases from the Lord’s Prayer that represent our shared values and aspirations as they prepare to lead in the interests of the whole community.
The current practice excludes people who, in ‘good faith’, cannot participate with integrity, in this prayer without feeling, at best, indifferent, at worst, hypocritical.
Especially in an adversarial Parliamentary system such as ours, a shared rite that includes all members regardless of their religious convictions in an act of solidarity that transcends political, religious and cultural differences, is surely commendable.
Interfaith networks across Australia are well-practised in crafting prayers that people of various faith communities can prayer together with integrity. If words are needed rather than shared silence we have wonderful poets and liturgical writers who would relish this challenge.
Rev Alistair Macrae
The opinions expressed in this article belong to Alistair. He does not speak on behalf of the Church.