After last week’s online National Prayer Breakfast, Cardus Executive Vice President Ray Pennings reflected in his weekly Insights newsletter on how to pray in public – and pluralistic – spaces. Convivium reprints his text.
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The quip in our office over the years has been that when attending official prayer breakfasts, don’t count on a very good breakfast and sometimes there isn’t much prayer either. Since last week’s National Prayer Breakfast was a virtual event, the breakfast service was entirely on me. It seems strange to “grade” the combination of Scripture readings, music, and prayers that were offered, but I can comfortably commend the organizers for putting together a program more substantial than many others I’ve attended.
The Scriptures revolved around the theme “Our Certain Hope” and took us through the birth, life, death, resurrection, and return of Christ. MPs from all parties, including the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Speakers of the Senate and House of Commons, and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, brought greetings or participated in the prayers and readings.
I’ve been a regular at these events for a few decades. With the National Prayer Breakfast in May of each year, plus provincial and local events, I’ve probably attended close to 30. The national event is more explicitly Christian, inviting leaders “to meet in the spirit of Jesus Christ and build relationships.” I have also attended some that turned out to be very multi-faith events where the prayers amounted to carefully scripted public service memos to “whom it may concern, if you are actually out there,” entirely devoid of meaningful content. The challenge is that you aren’t sure what type of prayer breakfast it will be until after you’ve attended.
Since a 2015 Supreme Court decision ruled that State bodies (specifically a local city council, though the ruling has broad application) “cannot make use of its powers to promote or impose a religious belief,” a “Saguenay chill” has narrowed the occasions in which there are official times of prayer. Setting aside the debates about the occasions in which public prayers should be offered, I suspect I am not alone among Christian leaders who have struggled to know exactly how to respond to requests to lead in public prayer in a very pluralistic faith setting.
What sort of prayer should be offered on such an occasion? Similarly, when invited to speak in the context of worship of a faith tradition other than your own, how do you address the audience? I’ve spoken both in a synagogue and a gurdwara during official Jewish and Sikh services, and felt challenged as to how to appropriately carry out that responsibility while being true to my own Christian confession.
In preparing to pray or speak in such settings, I’ve developed four informal guidelines to shape my words.
Explicitly acknowledge the differences between faiths. Devout adherents of most faiths are conscious of the differences and do not believe that all faiths are the same. Don’t pretend they are. Naming the fact that different faith communities believe pretty different things about very important questions allows interaction with integrity and facilitates honestly listening to each other. When I pray publicly, I explain that I am praying as a Christian and I try to clarify what that means as suitable to the occasion.
Highlight the common spiritual hunger that drives each of us to our faith traditions and use the opportunity to highlight a holistic approach to life. People turn to faith traditions seeking to find answers to life’s deepest questions. This is an important part of our humanity. We are all troubled by the culture’s attempt to privatize these questions.
I look for a connection point between Christianity and some aspect of another faith. My invitation to speak at a Sikh gurdwara came in connection with their celebration of Guru Nanak’s birthday. During the worship part of the service, I stood to the side, observed but did not participate. When I was invited to speak, I took care to demonstrate both a literacy of and an appreciation for some of the civic good that has come from Guru Nanak’s life and work. I segued from this history to what the local gurdwara was doing in the community, thanking them for their good work. I noted that all faith communities try to demonstrate the principle that beliefs affect our behaviours.
Pray for the longings of the heart to be answered and ultimate truth to be found. Prayer is speaking to God, not your audience. Come as a humbled sinner in need of grace and ask the Spirit to do what we cannot do ourselves, answering the deepest longings of our souls. Augustine wisely said, “Our souls do not find rest until we find our rest in God.” While the audience may frame the hole in their heart differently than you do, we all feel the hole. A Christian prayer asks God to fill that hole.
There is no formula or checklist. In our secularized culture, talking publicly about faith in a meaningful way is a challenge. The pressure is to minimize public exposure to faith. When it occurs, many prefer a high school world religions approach. Often, this results in a compare and contrast approach to religion, observing dress codes some might find odd, curious moral self-denial at the expense of pleasure, and distinctive dietary practices. Usually, the discourse doesn’t proceed to engage with the more fundamental elements of faith.
As challenging as it is, when invited, I celebrate and participate in occasions for public prayer. It is an opportunity for those who observe these prayers to face the challenge of their own finitude and to consider what it is that only God can offer. And as a Christian, it provides an opportunity to pray, asking God to do what is so badly needed if we are to flourish. Our God hears and answers prayer; the exercise is not perfunctory or symbolic but meaningful and may result in blessings far beyond what imagine.
Convivium publishes texts that do not necessarily reflect the views held by Cardus, the Convivium team, or its editors. In the spirit of discussion, dialogue, and debate, we ask readers to bear in mind that publication does not equal endorsement. Thanks for reading. Join the conversation!