Friday, 1 April 2011

Humanist concerns "entirely met" by House of Lords prayers

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Relevant: the House of Lords
Lest you should think that the House of Lords is an archaic institution in dire need of reform, we really should bring you up to date on the discussion held there yesterday on the subject of the Anglican prayers read at the start of each day by one of the 26 Church of England bishops that hold seats in the House.

Commencing proceedings was Lord Roberts of Llandudno, who stood to pose a key question:
"To ask the Chairman of Committees what consideration can be given to widening the scope of House of Lords Prayers into devotions encompassing other Christian traditions and the faiths that are represented in the House."
There followed a conversation which, particularly at a time of major public service cuts and British involvement in a new foreign conflict, was clearly so crucial that a failure to find time for it in the highest chamber of the British legislature would have represented an abrogation of democratic responsibility. You will need to consult that great record of parliamentary proceedings, Hansard, for the full transcript, but, to give you a sense of the significance of the occasion, we reproduce here a sample of the discussion that ensued:
"The Chairman of Committees (Lord Brabazon of Tara): My Lords, as noble Lords are aware, the Prayers read at the beginning of each Sitting of the House are read by one of the Lords Spiritual. The Lords Spiritual sit by virtue of being representatives of the established church, and the Prayers reflect that. Any changes to alter the Prayers would need to be considered by the Procedure Committee and agreed to by the House. There are currently no plans to alter the arrangements for Prayers.

Lord Roberts of Llandudno: In Wales, we do not have an established church, but is it not time for Prayers in the House, including the present Prayers, to reflect the diversity of the different faiths and denominations that we have not only in the House but in the United Kingdom? Is this not an opportunity for us to consider having a minute of silence and reflection in addition to the Prayers?

The Chairman of Committees: My Lords, the practice of Prayers in the House is believed to have started in about 1558, and was common practice by 1567. The present form of Prayers probably dates from the reign of Charles II. Recent changes to the form of Prayers included allowing a choice from a range of Psalms, which was agreed by the House in 1970, and again in 1979, and one or two other minor changes. It might be a little premature to consider changing them now.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: As a Welsh non-conformist, like the noble Lord, may I assure the Minister that many of us are wholly satisfied with the timeless sentiments and superlative prose of the present Prayers? However, may I ask the Bishops' Bench to consider one little matter as an act of fellowship and togetherness-that at the end of Prayers we all repeat the Grace, as happens in the other place?

The Chairman of Committees: I would need to discuss the latter point with the Bench of Bishop but I entirely agree with what the noble Lord said in the first part of his question. I do not believe that there is anything in the Prayers which could possibly be seen as offensive to members of other religions".
This demonstration of the indispensable relevance of the House of Lords in 21st century Britain was marred only by a point raised by Lord Hughes of Woodside, who deigned to question the very necessity of conducting prayers in the House:
"My Lords, I declare an interest as an honorary vice-president of the British Humanist Association. Without commenting on the established church, I will say that my personal preference is that we should not have Prayers at all. If we have to have an opening ceremony in which religion may play a part, will the Chairman of Committees make sure that the views of humanists are properly taken into account?"
An extraordinary, impertinent request, you will no doubt agree, which can only leave us thankful for Lord Elton, son of Godfrey Elton, 1st Baron Elton, who rose to settle the matter and, it might be argued, defend the very dignity of the mother of all parliaments:
"My Lords, may I assure my noble friend that the concerns of humanists are entirely met by prayers by Christians in this Chamber every day?"
The baron is, of course, quite right. The concerns of humanists – particularly their concerns over the privileged position of religion in British public life – are most adequately met by the Christian prayers conducted in parliament at the beginning of each day. To suggest otherwise is, surely, to take leave of all rationality.
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