Lord’s Prayer Down Under
The new president of the Australian Senate wants to end a 121-year daily tradition for the upper chamber in her nation’s Parliament. She wants that august body to stop saying the Lord’s Prayer.
“On the one hand we’ve had almost every parliamentary leader applaud the diversity of the Parliament, and so if we are genuine about the diversity of the Parliament we cannot continue to say a Christian prayer to open the day,” Senate President Sue Lines explained last week. “Personally, I would like to see the prayers gone. I’m an atheist. I don’t want to say the prayers. If others want to say the prayers, they’re open to do that.”
She acknowledged it’s not something she can just order since such a change requires a vote from the full Senate. But that likely won’t occur since many of her colleagues disagree. In fact, the leaders of her own Labor Party insisted the policy would not change, saying they “share the view that the prayer should continue to be read at the commencement of each sitting day.”
Member of Parliament Bob Katter went further as he claimed Lines’s comments proved Christians were being persecuted — and his other “evidence” included investigations of sexual abuse allegations against Anglican Archbishop Peter Hollingsworth and Catholic Cardinal George Pell. So, Katter held up a Bible and called on people to support that book despite the persecution (and with an incoherent reference to the Holocaust).
“You believe in this book, you’re going to be persecuted. They’re coming for you. So, stand up,” he declared. “Six million people were sent to the gas chambers in Germany because they believed in this book.”
“Is it an unreasonable thing to quote from a book that more than half the population is committed to? In Australia it is,” Katter added as he criticized Line’s suggestion they not open with the prayer. “And now we have been told today by some that we cannot say prayers in the Parliament. We can show allegiance to some lady in England, but we cannot say prayers.”
Let’s put aside the question of whether Australia should continue to recognize Queen Elizabeth II as head of state (though as patriotic, red-blooded Americans, we say they should ditch the monarchy and maybe also dump some tea in the harbor because, well, freedom). But the question of prayers in Parliament deserves greater attention — especially as some Australians quickly pushed back to defend the governmental readings of the prayer.
Political commentator Samantha Maiden argued the reciting should continue since “it’s part of the Christian tradition of Parliament.” She added, “You are not required to say the prayer if you don’t believe in it, you don’t have to turn up. I just think it’s part of history and I don’t have a problem with that remaining in situ.”
While it might be that true that members of Parliament could skip the prayer that’s read each day of session in both the House and Senate, Maiden’s remark isn’t true for Senate President Lines, who literally has to stand at the podium and read the prayer as she leads the chamber. Thus, she’s already stood there reciting the words she doesn’t believe in this act of political theater.
This prayer practice and the new debate around it offers fertile ground for thinking about faith and government — with lessons not just for our friends down under. So, in this issue of A Public Witness, we take off on an Australian adventure. We kick things off like kangaroos to discover the relationship between church and state for the Aussies. Then we curl up like koalas to reconsider the wild text known as the Lord’s Prayer.
Sir George Pierce, one of the first senators for an independent Australia (and a founder of the nation’s Labor Party), didn’t care about the religious beliefs of his colleagues. From his perspective, “the principles and precepts” of the Lord’s Prayer warranted agreement by every senator “even if uttered by atheists.” He made those comments in 1901 as the nation gained independence and the newly-formed Australian Parliament debated whether and how to begin its proceedings with petitions to God.
Thus, the debate over the propriety of the Lord’s Prayer in Australia’s legislative chambers is far from a new flashpoint. Jarrod Jolly, a lawyer and official within the Australian government, in 2015 documented the history of the Lord’s Prayer and other prayers in the country’s House and Senate since 1901.
While various proposals for revisions arose over time (mainly about whether or not to modernize the language), it wasn’t until 1997 that a legislator seriously pushed to end the practice. Sen. Bob Brown motioned that the public reading of the opening prayers — including the Lord’s Prayer — be replaced with a moment of silent prayer or reflection.
The body referred the motion to the Procedure Committee, which considered it and reported back: “It is clear that many senators who join in the prayer regard its retention as important, but among those who do not join in the prayer there does not appear to be a strong view that its proposed abolition is a significant question which should occupy the time of the Senate.” A majority of senators followed that recommendation and voted down Brown’s motion.
Jolly noted the issue went dormant for almost a decade. In 2006, Sen. Lyn Allison suggested that if “[the government] is serious about a secular state” it should “take steps to … abolish official parliamentary prayers.” Her motion received only seven votes of support (out of 76 senators).
Another attempt to alter the practice came in 2014. Sen. Richard Di Natale revived the 1997 proposal of Sen. Brown to instead begin each day’s deliberations with a moment of silent prayer or reflection. This time the motion was not even referred to the Procedures Committee. Di Natale, a member of the Australian Greens, explained that his party was “doing this because we live in a country where there is a clear separation between church and state. We live in a country of many different faiths — in fact, a country where many people have no faith — and a modern Australian parliament should reflect that.”
Yet, Jolly noted, Sen. Eric Abetz, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, “described the move as part of the Australian Greens’ ‘ongoing attempt to rewrite our history and deny our heritage’.”
The latest effort by Sen. Lines has met with similar cultural outrage. Natalie Barr, an Australian TV host, asserted that “people will think they are coming after all their stuff and all our traditions.”
And the leader of the opposition in the Senate, Simon Birmingham, defended the practice with words echoing Sir George Pierce from 121 years earlier: “Even those of us who are not of faith can benefit from the period of reflection these commencement traditions allow for and should respect rather than unwind them.”
More Than Just Tradition
During the short-lived 2006 Parliament debate over the Lord’s Prayer, then-Prime Minister John Howard criticized those seeking to stop the reciting of the prayer, labeling the effort “an absurd proposition which shows a total misunderstanding of the nature of the separation of church and state.”
His words are interesting because the Australian Constitution clearly creates a principle of church-state separation with language partly borrowing from the U.S. Constitution: “The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”
Three of the four clauses clearly show the Aussies cribbing from the U.S.’s founding document. But the added one seems particularly relevant when it comes to requiring the person opening the day in Parliament to read the Lord’s Prayer: the Constitution prohibits “imposing any religious observance.”
Simply put, requiring a government official to recite the Lord’s Prayer seems like imposing religious observance — especially when an official says they don’t believe it and don’t want to say it.
Of course, we’re not sure those rushing to defend the reading of the prayer actually believe it either, at least not in that setting. Do they mean to suggest that the Parliament should recite the words and live them out?
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us. That might be a pretty damning request for a nation that’s detained refugees on other islands for years in conditions full of allegations of human rights abuses and where some refugees have even protested by setting themselves on fire.
We could probably walk through other lines to find other ways the members of Parliament don’t actually think the government intends what it’s leaders say when they recite the Lord’s Prayer. But that’s not the point because the defenders are pushing the prayer as some sort of mythical tradition and not because they desire to implement it.
Perhaps that’s where the wisdom of Sir Adye Douglas, a Tasmanian politician at the time of Australian independence, comes in. He argued against following the tradition of the House of Commons in the United Kingdom in opening business with prayer since it becomes a “mere farce” and “nothing does more harm to religion than to make an outward show of it.”
That’s precisely what happens when the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer is defended as just a tradition instead of recognized as a religious observance. In many respects, this is a danger of Christian Nationalism. It uses the veneer of religion to preserve the social power and privilege of a particular group without actually being committed to Christianity’s tenets.
Australia is admittedly much different than the U.S., though Australian Anglican theologian Michael Bird acknowledged in his Substack newsletter Word from the Bird when writing about U.S. politics that “you can find Christian Nationalism in other parts of the world, even in Australia in certain forms.” And in a Christianity Today interview earlier this year, Bird even addressed the issue of the Lord’s Prayer in Parliament.
“Australia is not a secular country — it’s a multicultural democracy with a secular government,” he explained. “Having a secular government (as opposed to being a secular country) might mean sacrificing certain customs to protect that secularity. So maybe, for instance, we shouldn’t have the Lord’s Prayer recited at the beginning of parliamentary sessions, which is an example of religious privilege, not religious freedom.”
Australian Baptist theologian Frank Rees similarly sees the secular nature of Australia impacting this debate about the Lord’s Prayer.
“The time of colonial occupation (late 18th century) coincided with the development of secular thinking and a highly individualist kind of Christianity, and the settler population has always held an ambiguous relationship with ‘religion,’” he told us. “Though until recently the majority may have identified as ‘Christian,’ this was more nominal than active.”
“As we have moved into a more secularist mindset, as fewer than 50% now identify as Christians, and as we become genuinely multi-cultural, multi-racial, and welcome and include other faith traditions, such things as the prayer at the commencement of each day in Parliament is questioned,” Rees added. “Most members of Parliament either ignore it or accept that it may mean something to some others, so let it be.”
He told us that ending the prayer reciting could be “a powerful step” toward “a genuine discussion of what are our fundamental values and social vision.” But he doesn’t see that occurring anytime soon.
“I doubt whether the current level of political debate, if we could call it that, has anything like the capacity to engage in such a discussion,” he explained. “Though it is important to note that there are many committed Christians who also would accept the removal of the prayers, on one or both of two grounds: out of respect for those who do not find this appropriate; and because they see it as perfunctory and not meaningful, and as such dishonoring of the true purpose of the Lord’s Prayer.”
Back in February, we wrote about the Lord’s Prayer showing up in another strange place: political protests in the Missouri State Capitol. The alarm sounded then was that “followers of Jesus should be wary of our sacred words and symbols being exploited for partisan political purposes.” Christians used a prayer taught by Jesus to focus his disciples on the Kingdom of God as a weapon to advance their ideological agenda.
Like Missouri, the controversy in Australia is about the presence of the Lord’s Prayer being misused in the halls of power, but the nature of the concern is far different. Instead of inappropriately fueling partisan passions, holding fast to tradition empties the Lord’s Prayer of meaning and, ironically, mocks those who faithfully pray its words.
We asked Duke theologian Will Willimon for his interpretation of the debate in Australia since he co-authored Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer & the Christian Life with Stanley Hauerwas. In that book, they see the prayer as essential to understanding the Christian faith, writing, “So, if you are asked, ‘Who is a Christian?’ the best answer you can give is, ‘A Christian is none other than someone who has learned to pray the Lord’s Prayer.’”
“In my travels among the church down under I’ve been envious of the way that many Australian Christians understand that there’s a difference between Jesus and popular, constitutional democracy,” Willimon told us. “I do worry that Christians [in Australia] might come to think that prayer in Jesus’s name is something that any thinking, caring, affirming Australian can do without practice and discipline.”
That captures the essence of the problem. The Lord’s Prayer is not meant to be a national tradition. Jesus intended it to shape the hearts, minds, and lives of Christians in order to serve the reign of God. The legislators might perceive the prayer as a harmless ritual, but Christians pray its words as a plea for the world to undergo radical change.
“There’s little chance that the Australian politicians know how much trouble they are taking on when they pray like Jesus taught us,” Willimon added. “All politicians ought to get nervous when Jesus speaks of a ‘Kingdom’ coming.”
Indeed, Christians should be rather skeptical, perhaps even fearful, when political leaders want to co-opt the church’s rituals and language. Politicians inevitably seek to reappropriate such sacred moments for human ends, reducing the meaning and power of the Christian message. The role of the Australian Parliament (or U.S. Congress) is to serve the common good of the people it governs. That’s an important mission but not one we should mistake for creating heaven on earth.
To be clear, the best way for protecting the integrity of the legislature’s work and the vitality of the Church’s witness is to stop elevating politics and government to a status that rightfully only belongs to God. Sinful, messy legislatures should be the subject of our prayers, not the ones authorizing them.
As Rev. Michael Jensen of St. Mark’s Anglican Church Darling Point in Sydney, Australia, recently put it, “I am not wedded to the Lord’s Prayer and it doesn’t cook my breakfast either. I mean, I am wedded to the Lord’s Prayer, but not particularly having the Lord’s Prayer said in Parliament.”
As a public witness,
Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood
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