Call it prayer, or not, but make it worthy of the times

Many years ago – as I often say these days – I had occasion to be sitting in the Press Gallery at the Ontario Legislature.

I was kept busy covering the local controversy surrounding Niagara Escarpment development control in the early 1980s.

That’s by way of background to explain why I was in the Legislature’s Press Gallery one day in 1981 – if memory serves – looking down on that venerable seat of power and authority in Ontario. I believe it was because a local petition was scheduled to be presented to the Legislature.

But after all these years the one thing that still stands out clearly in my mind’s eye is how little the formal opening of the session that day, with the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, meant to the vast majority of the MPPs. It meant even less to members of the Press Gallery.

There I was sitting alone, wondering why just two or three MPPs had taken their seats though the time had come for the session to begin. The Speaker was in his chair, and so were members of the Legislative staff in their formal attire

Then, I heard the Lord’s Prayer being recited, somewhere down below, but by whom I could not see. Then it was over.

And then suddenly the various doors of the Legislature were thrown open, and the Members of the Provincial Parliament began streaming in with much hustle and bustle, rattling of papers, here and there stopping briefly to exchange greetings, smiling and laughing, as they made their way to their seats.

It was as if the Legislative chamber had suddenly come alive.

Likewise, the doors of the Press Gallery flew open at the same time, as if on cue, and in came all its usual members, to their various seats. Whether pre-assigned, I know not, but I can still see the look I got from the woman who came over to the seat I was in – it was hot enough to melt rock – as she said, “that’s MY seat.”

It seemed to me then, as it still seems to this day, that the recitation of the Lord`s Prayer had nothing to do with that life.

 Why do I remember the circumstances surrounding the formal, Lord’s Prayer-opening of the session that day so much, when the outcome of the actual reasons for my being there that day have faded from memory? I don’t know, except memory is an interesting thing.

I have some feelings about religion. I’ve even shared them here on occasion, perhaps too many times[ I certainly would never want to impose them on anyone. I don’t think my religious sensibilities were offended that day.

But the sheer hypocrisy of it was startling – the recitation of a prayer almost no one was interested in hearing, let alone take to heart.

I understand the provincial Legislature still opens its sessions with the Lord’s Prayer. To be honest I don’t know if the scene today would be the same, or different. That was the one and only time I’ve ever been there.

I do know the Liberal government of former Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, considered eliminating the Lord’s Prayer, in favour perhaps of something more inclusive and appropriate for the province’s increasing multicultural and multi-religious population. But the public outcry at the time put a stop to that.

Perhaps a recent Supreme Court decision will prompt the present provincial government to take another look at it. The ruling stems from the routine use of the Lord’s Prayer to open municipal council meetings in Saguenay, Quebec. The practice was challenged by a secular-rights organization.

In a majority decision the court said the practice infringes on freedom of conscience and religion. Canadian society has evolved and given rise to a “concept of neutrality according to which the state must not interfere in religion and beliefs . . . The state must instead remain neutral in this regard,” it said.

The ruling may appear to affect only municipalities. But the spirit of it clearly could be taken to apply in the broader provincial and federal government context.

Owen Sound city council has acted quickly to respond to the Supreme Court ruling by passing a motion earlier this week to remove the “faith blessing” or moment of silent reflection from the start of its meetings. A public meeting before the passage of a change to the city’s procedural bylaw must still be held. It’s tentatively set for May 11. That could be an interesting meeting.

Grey County stopped opening its council meetings with the Lord’s Prayer several years ago. Since then it has used a prayer that says, “God give us the strength to make wise and good decisions.”

But that’s now likely to change. County Warden Kevin Eccles told me others in the county government have left it up to him to come up with a response to the court ruling. Lucky him. “What I’m going to suggest is a moment of reflection,” he said.

It’s whatever the members might want to do, including a prayer of their choosing, or moment of silent reflection. He said if someone prefers to pray, he would suggest it be “more to yourself,” rather than out loud.

I’ve always been, and remain, a firm believer in the separation of church and state. But recently I’ve been thinking, and writing about the urgent need for people the world over to find a way somehow to focus their spiritual energies to help us through these troubled times in a new spirit of tolerance and understanding.

Call it prayer, or not. But a “moment of reflection,” or a private, silent prayer here and there are not enough when the times call for a powerful, universal expression of hope for the world and its future.

Simply say, for example, with one voice, “Let us rise in hope, and promise in good faith with each other to do all we can here, now, to help make this a better world.”

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2015.

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