Conservative MP Crispin Blunt has called for an end to this tradition.
Crispin Blunt – a Conservative MP for Reigate – has recently fronted a call to bring an end to parliamentary prayers.
Currently, every sitting in the House of Commons and House of Lords commences with a prayer. In the Commons, the Speaker’s Chaplain reads the prayer, while in the Lords, this is led by the Lord Spiritual, a senior bishop. Attendance is voluntary during these pre-sitting prayers.
Prayers in parliament date back to 1558 and have been common practice since 1567, according to the parliament website. The prayer addresses the Christian God. It asks for the Queen, her government, and MPs to be guided by the spirit of God and to put personal interests aside to “improve the condition of all mankind”.
But Blunt wants to see the end of this long-standing tradition. With the backing of three other MPs and the National Secular Society, Blunt argues that prayers “are incompatible with respecting freedom of religion”.
“That his House recognises religious worship should not play any part in the formal business of government; believes that government meetings should be conducted in a manner equally welcoming to all attendees, irrespective of their personal beliefs; notes that Parliamentary Prayers are not compatible with a society which respects the principle of freedom of and from religion; and urges that prayers should not form part of the official business of Parliament; and that the Procedures Committee considers alternative arrangements.”
But should the United Kingdom abandon an activity which dates back to the 16th century? Is is time to abolish a tradition rooted in Christianity and make the transition towards secularism?
The argument for abolishing parliamentary prayers
There is no denying that there has been a seismic shift in religious belief in society from the 1500s to the modern day. In a 1680 consensus, nearly 95 per cent of British people declared themselves as ‘Nominal Anglicans’ (via British Religion in Numbers). ‘No religion’ was not even an option.
But in September 2017, a survey by British Social Attitudes (reported via The Guardian) found that more than 50 per cent of the UK population are not affiliated to a religion. Moreover, just 15 per cent identify with the Anglican belief – which was the bedrock behind the formation of parliamentary prayers.
Society is becoming increasingly secular, while Anglicanism is decreasing in popularity at a similar rate. As a result, these prayers are only relevant to a minority of the UK popularity. Can we justify keeping parliamentary prayers if the BSA finds that less than 50 per cent of society is religious?
The argument for keeping parliamentary prayers
Prayers are deep-rooted in British tradition; some might argue that this is a good thing, others might counter that by claiming it is an outdated tradition. But nonetheless, abolishing prayers would see the end of a piece of British history dating back nearly 500 years.
Furthermore, prayers are voluntary. In his argument, Blunt argues that “compulsory Parliamentary prayers to reserve a seat are incompatible with respecting freedom of religion”.
But MPs are not obliged to attend parliamentary prayers. Having the alternative option of non-attendance allows one to exercise the right to religious freedom. Consequently, Blunt’s claim that prayers infringe upon one’s freedom of religion is mistaken.
In addition to the above-discussed debate surrounding parliamentary prayers, I would add that worship inside the workplace seems unnecessary. Prayers are deeply personal, allowing the individual to build and reflect upon their own relationship with their God of their faith. There are very few professions where communal prayers are held at work. Prayers are not for everyone, especially when one’s notion of God and worship varies from person to person in today’s society, let alone compared to the UK’s ideal in the 16th century.
But there should also be discussion of reforming parliamentary prayers, rather than abolition. In parliament and in society as a whole, the dynamics of religious belief are ever-changing. But this unmodified 16th century tradition fails to cater for a multi-faith element within these prayers.
In parliament today, there are several religions represented. Although official figures are not available, the religious diversity in parliament is evident. The Muslim News reports that there are 15 MPs who believe in Islam, while Preet Gill became the first female Sikh MP in 2017. There are a handful of Jewish MPs, including former Labour leader Ed Miliband, who describes himself as a “Jewish atheist”.
If prayers are to continue, we must consider reforming the practice to reflect our multi-faith society and to ensure they are inclusive of all MPs who have the option of turning up.
However, having said this, society is currently in turmoil as Brexit clouds nearly every political discussion that takes place in the UK today. There are bigger problems that need addressing before discussing whether to abolish or reform parliamentary prayers.