Vol 11 No. 46 Public Prayer

Dear folks,

Many of you will be aware of the Canadian Supreme Court ruling against the municipal council prayer in the Quebec town of Saguenay. They used to open their council meetings with prayer. An article by Canada Post summing up the piece can be found at cbc.ca.

This issue has a long and complicated history in this country as Bruce Clemenger, President of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, commented in his article on the topic: “The question is whether abstention is the best way of accommodating religious pluralism while respecting freedom of religion and conscience. The court commends abstinence, but in this case it stopped short of imposing it.” The court may have stopped short of imposing it, but for various real and imagined motives, many government groups in the country have begun to seriously question the place of prayer in public life.

There is a confusing picture in Canada: On the one hand a chaplain prays at the “ramp ceremony” when a deceased Canadian soldier is placed on a plane to return to Canada; on the other hand no such prayer occurs when the repatriated soldier arrives at Royal Canadian Air Force Base Trenton, ON. The Remembrance Day service in Ottawa has public prayer because it is in fact not a public but a private event sponsored by the Royal Canadian Legion and not the government of Canada. This is why the only “prayers/speeches/homilies” (it’s hard to describe what they were) were given by the Chaplain General Guy Chapdelaine and an Ottawa Jewish leader Rabbi Reuven Bulka. Yet as you could see from the televised event the Governor General and our Prime Minister were both present. When our present Governor General David Johnston was installed at a formal state-sanctioned event in the Senate Chamber he and his wife Sharon held hands and bowed their heads as their former Anglican priest prayed for them. Johnston swore his oath of office on a Bible and had the Bible autographed not only by himself but by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Beverley McLachlin, and the Prime Minster of the day, Stephen Harper. The number of bowed heads in that Senate Chamber was both profoundly moving and puzzling considering the over-stated success of secularism in Canadian culture.

Consider the contrast in responses to David Johnston’s prayer and Winnipeg Police Chief Devon Clunis when he simply called on Winnipeggers of all faiths to pray as a way to reduce crime. He also told people to back that prayer up with action as all of us will be better engaged in terms of creating a safe environment in Winnipeg, MB. Contrast the “no comment” in the media and in the public sphere on David Johnston’s prayer at his installation and the fire storm of withering denunciation and ridicule that descended on Police Chief Clunis, in particular from the Winnipeg Free Press and the CBC. I know this will offend some but I wonder in part whether the contrast is also religious and racial profiling. David Johnston (who is someone I deeply admire) is a Harvard-educated college president, white, wealthy, and Anglican. Chief Clunis is a police officer who rose through the ranks, (no college president is he), black, and Alliance. I wonder why David Johnston, whose prayer was much more “specifically Christian and exclusive” if you like, got nary a grumble.

So much for contrasting opinions in our country, the Christian community in our country is also divided in much kinder and subtler ways. Lorna Dueck, a powerful voice for the faith in this country, wrote a Globe and Mail article entitled “No Prayer Rule? A godsend.” She’s got a point. So does my friend Bruce Clemenger, when he writes “Will Religious Observance Be Allowed at Government Functions?

Regardless of where you come out in this area, the country is in transition. We do not have a formal separation of church and state like the Americans, nor do we have the constitutional introspection and legal precedent set by a constitution which is viewed by some as nothing less than sacred writ. We are, however, in the midst of great social reflection and change in this matter. A new social contract is somewhere on the near horizon. It will be a social contract that will make neither the secular perspective extinguish faith from public life in this country, nor will it provide those who embrace the status quo any kind of long term comfort.

May we as Christians be wise in our interactions, honouring of the Lord and His presence in every sphere of life, and thankful that in so many ways we live in a wonderful, passionate, and passionately free country. Thanks be to God.


In Christ,

Jeremy Bell