If your local government is considering some changes to its traditions regarding public prayer, it might be worth your time to consider what’s happening in New Zealand’s national Parliament (below) right now. Speaker David Carter has proposed a change to the prayer being used to open each working day and hopes to bring it before his fellows for a vote.
The current prayer, adopted as part of the daily routine in 1962, references “Almighty God” and “Jesus Christ our Lord.” The prayer goes on to ask the aforementioned deity to grant “that we may conduct the affairs of this House and of our country to the glory of Thy holy name,” and it calls for “the maintenance of true religion and justice.” It ends with an old-fashioned Biblical “Amen.”
One might imagine that New Zealanders of a non-Christian faith (or none at all) might not feel particularly included in this particular facet of government proceedings.
That’s particularly relevant in a country where the 2006 census showed that only 55% of the population identified as Christians (including the Maori Christian population). Those numbers represented a slight decline from the prior census, five years earlier. Most of those people appear to have shifted into the “No Religion” category, which showed a corresponding increase in size. Census numbers also reveal increasing Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Sikh populations in New Zealand, which demographers mostly attributed to immigration.
The proposed new prayer is bilingual — English and Maori — and makes reference to Indigenous beliefs and traditions throughout its opening paragraph. The prayer invokes broadly-accepted secular values, including “the maintenance of justice, the honour of the Queen, and the public welfare, peace, and tranquility of New Zealand.” Some of these values were highlighted in the 1962 prayer as well, but the new version cuts out explicitly religious values (like “the maintenance of true religion”) and subtly shifts emphasis to place responsibility for those values on individual human choices, rather than the intervention of a deity.
Not all religious references, though, are scrubbed from the updated prayer; the opening still addresses “Almighty God,” albeit in Maori (“E te Atua Kaha Rawa”). Participants are asked to “acknowledge the need for guidance,” but they needn’t affirm that such guidance ought to come from a deity. The prayer closes with the word “Amine,” the Maori translation of “Amen.”
If online comments from the readers of Stuff.co.nz are any indication, the changes don’t go far enough. Many are saying that they see no need for official prayer at all in a secular democracy. Members of Parliament, however, are being asked to choose between the old prayer — references to Lord Jesus and all — and the new one, with no amendments allowed. There is no option to put an end to parliamentary prayer as a whole, whatever the voting public might think about it.
This more inclusive, more secular affirmation is a better way to start the parliamentary day. But it seems that the people of New Zealand — especially the non-Christian half, or the 34% with no religious beliefs at all — still have quite a long way to go before they can truly say their government represents their wishes on the subject.
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