My Struggle with Public Prayer

I serve on the board of a local homeless shelter. We recently developed new program space and hosted a ribbon cutting and open house to celebrate. During the planning of the ribbon cutting ceremony, I sent out to the planning committee a draft of the “line up” of speakers. One person responded by informing me that I had forgotten to include an invocation.

And, thus a new chapter opened in my long struggle with public prayer.

I have, on a number of occasions, been invited to offer prayer at various public events—inaugurations of local officials, the state senate, the state house of representatives, etc. I go, I pray, but I never like it. The instructions almost always include some kind of directive to make the prayer acceptable to all (or as many as possible). For me, it’s an impossible task, yet I go mostly because it feels impolite to say no and in order to contribute to a diversity of voices offering such “prayer.”

At one local inauguration, I got a good sense of how my prayer fit into the program when I was shuffled off to the side and told to offer my prayer from the floor, where there was no microphone. With the city council assembled on the stage, I was told, there wouldn’t be room for anyone else. And, then in the course of the proceedings, every other participant was welcomed onto the stage, with the mayor herself stepping aside so that each one could speak into the microphone. When I complained, the mayor apologized and invited me back the following year. I was invited onto the stage, but only just barely. I was told to offer my invocation from the top of the stairs. Still, no microphone. That was the last time I did that.

Then there is the state house, where leaders of various religious communities (almost entirely Christian) are welcomed warmly and eagerly. When I’ve accepted an invitation to offer prayer (with those instructions to keep my prayer from being too obviously religious) at the beginning of a session of the state senate or legislature, I’m introduced and given a prime spot to offer my prayer, and with a microphone so that all can hear. And, then, I receive a warm thank you and I’m escorted to the back, where I can exit or stay and watch the business of the day unfold.

Public prayer is a strange and complicated thing, at least for me. Personal prayers and prayers at church are particular; they are connected to my particular faith. To “water down” the prayer so that it might be more acceptable, or more tolerable, to those who don’t share my faith seems not only strange and odd, but also not very prayerful.

At the homeless shelter, the question about having an invocation is tied to our roots, as the shelter was founded by the local interfaith council (which no longer exists) 25 year ago. Although the shelter is not affiliated with any particular religious organization or group, beginning our board meetings with prayer is a tradition. Most of those who serve on the board are Christian, as is the current executive director. Prayers at the start of board meetings are overwhelmingly Christian in tone and content.

In organizing our most recent ribbon cutting ceremony, I shouldn’t have been surprised that someone mentioned that we should include an invocation. But, I was surprised at what happened next. In response, I shared some of my own concerns regarding our tradition of prayer and argued that it not a good idea to have a prayer at such a public event. I went on to share the observation that our prayers at board meetings tend to be Christian, although the board is not made up entirely of Christians. The non-Christians don’t complain, but shouldn’t we at least attempt to be sensitive to the diversity of faith traditions on the board, and even more so at a public event?

The debate, though, didn’t end there. In response to my response, a couple of people suggested that we should offer thanks to God for the “miracle” of completing our project (a problematic theology, in my humble opinion). Another person offered that surely we could find someone to offer a prayer that would be acceptable to everyone. Etc.

Clearly, I hadn’t convinced anyone of my point, but as the chair of the board, I made the decision not to have an invocation and everyone went along.

I wonder how they would feel if we lived in a place or a circumstance where the dominant religion was not Christian. Would they be so insistent regarding a public prayer if the one praying chose to offer a prayer in the language of another faith tradition, even if “watered down” for more public consumption?

For me, prayer is religious—deeply, inherently and unavoidably religious. If we are to have public prayer, I would rather it be religious, openly and honestly. And, to endeavor to invite other religious prayers and devotion at public events, allowing not only a brief religious observance but also a way of educating those in attendance of the variety of voices of faith. We could use a little more awareness and understanding, instead of assumptions or the grandstanding, even if unwitting, of one particular religious expression over others.

It would also be a good thing to rid ourselves to the notion that we can “water down” prayer and somehow have it both truly palatable and meaningful at the same time. Because we really can’t.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
This entry was posted in Misc, Other Denominations/Christians and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to My Struggle with Public Prayer

  1. Christine Bartlett says:

    I really appreciated this thoughtful piece on public prayer. It helped frame my discomfort with this practice and g Ave me some food for thought about how to respond to it in the future.

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