Examining the place of the Lord’s Prayer in Australian Parliament
As the balance begins to shift in Australia towards a dominantly non-Christian population, the religious practices embedded within our parliament are increasingly called into question.
Since 1901, parliamentary sittings have been opened with a reading of the Lord’s Prayer. Despite being a consistent subject of controversy, the practice has been retained in federal and state governments across Australia – all but one.
In 1995, the ACT Legislative Assembly voted to modify their opening statement to an invitation to pray or reflect in silence.
Michael Moore, a former member of the Assembly, was one of the motion’s most vehement supporters.
“The reality is that what you’re doing by starting with a prayer is you’re putting a divide in, because you are excluding some people.“Michael Moore
The argument here is twofold. Firstly, a government that aligns with Christianity fails to represent the almost half of Australians who are either of another faith, or of no faith at all – a number that is exponentially increasing.
Underscoring this is a more potent conviction that a religiously-affiliated parliament negates the implication of a secular state. Australia’s approach is one of ‘inclusive secularism’, whereby the church has no power over the state, but religion is still included in the public sphere. However, some argue that this line is too vague.
“We talk about separation of church and state, and yet when you start the very sitting with a church prayer, then it indicates very clearly that you don’t have that separation.”Michael Moore
For those like Michael, a complete separation of church and state is required to ensure that those of any or of no faith are granted equal access and representation in our government. This is what the omission of the Lord’s Prayer represents.
Numerous efforts to amend or abolish the Lord’s Prayer in parliament have failed, on the recurrent consensus that it provides ‘comfort and inspiration’ to those who choose to join, and is harmless to those who do not. Moreover, the prayer is viewed as a symbolic acknowledgement of the Christian values on which our democracy was founded.
Reverend David Campbell is a Senior Minister at the Presbyterian Church of Saint Andrew, located a stone’s throw away from Australian Parliament House. The church holds regular services for parliamentarians, and Reverend Campbell attests for the value that the Lord’s Prayer contributes to parliamentary practice.
“I would want to hold on to the Lord’s Prayer in parliament not just for the sake of maintaining the tradition … [but] I believe the message of the Lord’s Prayer has had tremendous relevance over the years, and at no time more greater than the present time.”Reverend David Campbell
Despite the demonstrated stronghold that the Prayer has in our parliament, the argument is far from put to bed. The controversy has recently been reignited, when Senator Sue Lines contested her obligation to read the prayer as President of the Senate. Her adversaries have labelled the move as a ‘war on religion’, and Labor leaders have affirmed that the historic tradition is here to stay. But as more and more Australians diverge from the Christian mould, the campaign to rid our parliament of its religious roots gains traction. This matter of moral ambiguity now becomes a question of preserving our past, or embracing our future.