Is it time to abolish prayers in parliament?

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”.

His Early Day Motion, titled “Parliamentary Prayers” argues as follows:

“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

Concervative MP Crispin Blunt arrives to attend a meeting of The Bruges Group, a pro-Brexit think tank, in London on January 23, 2019. - The Bruges Group are long-time supporters of...

Conservative MP Crispin Blunt has called for the end of 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

Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons, speaks during a commemorative event of prayer and reflection for the victims of the attack on Westminster and...

Reverend Rose Hudson-Wilkin is the Speaker’s Chaplin in the House of Commons.

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.

Written By: Jay Williams

First Published 07.02.19:

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