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House of Lords: Prayers

Volume 726: debated on Thursday 31 March 2011


Asked By

To ask the Chairman of Committees what consideration can be given to widening the scope of House of Lords Prayers into devotions encompassing other Christian traditions and the faiths that are represented in the House.

My Lords, as noble Lords are aware, the Prayers read at the beginning of each Sitting of the House are read by one of the Lords Spiritual. The Lords Spiritual sit by virtue of being representatives of the established church, and the Prayers reflect that. Any changes to alter the Prayers would need to be considered by the Procedure Committee and agreed to by the House. There are currently no plans to alter the arrangements for Prayers.

In Wales, we do not have an established church, but is it not time for Prayers in the House, including the present Prayers, to reflect the diversity of the different faiths and denominations that we have not only in the House but in the United Kingdom? Is this not an opportunity for us to consider having a minute of silence and reflection in addition to the Prayers?

My Lords, the practice of Prayers in the House is believed to have started in about 1558, and was common practice by 1567. The present form of Prayers probably dates from the reign of Charles II. Recent changes to the form of Prayers included allowing a choice from a range of Psalms, which was agreed by the House in 1970, and again in 1979, and one or two other minor changes. It might be a little premature to consider changing them now.

As a Welsh non-conformist, like the noble Lord, may I assure the Minister that many of us are wholly satisfied with the timeless sentiments and superlative prose of the present Prayers? However, may I ask the Bishops’ Bench to consider one little matter as an act of fellowship and togetherness—that at the end of Prayers we all repeat the Grace, as happens in the other place?

I would need to discuss the latter point with the Bench of Bishop but I entirely agree with what the noble Lord said in the first part of his question. I do not believe that there is anything in the Prayers which could possibly be seen as offensive to members of other religions.

My Lords, I hope that we will take on board the point which has just been raised. The noble Lord, Lord Roberts, makes an important point about how the House is to demonstrate its inclusivity while retaining what is good and worthwhile in its living heritage. In this year of celebration of the King James Bible, and its continuing inspiration 400 years on, will the Chairman of Committees comment on whether our Prayers, which date from the same era, also embody virtues which are simple, eternal and unifying?

I am sure that the right reverend Prelate is right. If there are further recommendations for changes to the Prayers used, I would be happy to look at them.

Does the Chairman of Committees agree that he has expressed the view of most Members of the House, though not all? I agree with him entirely that we must not interfere with the rights of the Lords Spiritual. At the same time, I believe in the idea behind this Question. We can best meet it by respectfully and humbly offering advice to the right reverend Prelates either in private or in public. Is he aware that I have put down a Question for Short Debate which contains the suggestion that we have a debate on the ecumenical movement between different churches and faiths? May I suggest that we have it in the dinner hour as the noble Lord would then be in peril of hearing me speak, which would get him out of purgatory?

The noble Lord makes some interesting points, but I am not sure that any of them require an answer from me.

My Lords, I declare an interest as an honorary vice-president of the British Humanist Association. Without commenting on the established church, I will say that my personal preference is that we should not have Prayers at all. If we have to have an opening ceremony in which religion may play a part, will the Chairman of Committees make sure that the views of humanists are properly taken into account?

My Lords, the noble Lord questions why we have Prayers. It is a strength and a defining feature of the House that its practices are a matter for its own governance. These customs and practices can be altered, but after consideration by the Procedure Committee and then by the House as a whole. I remind noble Lords that attendance at Prayers is voluntary, not compulsory.

My Lords, may I assure my noble friend that the concerns of humanists are entirely met by prayers by Christians in this Chamber every day?

Does the Chairman of Committees accept that there is a feeling that we need to move forward on this? Perhaps I might suggest that we bear in mind the sentiments best reflected in Hymn 279 in the Primitive Methodist Hymn Book, which begins:

“When wilt Thou save the people?

Oh God of mercy, when?

Not kings and lords, but nations,

Not thrones and crowns, but men!”—

and I include women in that.

I am grateful to the noble Lord for informing me of the contents of that hymn, but I am not entirely sure I agree that it is the sentiment of the House that we should move on this matter.

The noble Lord has properly reminded the House of the traditions of its ancient past. However, with regard to the immediate future and the anticipated reform of the House, can he confirm that there have been consultations with the representatives of Christian denominations other than the Church of England, and indeed on a wider basis, with regard to the future composition of spiritual representation?

My Lords, I thought that we might come to the arguments about reform of the House. I am pleased to say that I have not taken part in any consultations on reform of the House. I understand that we will see proposals for reform fairly shortly. It will then be in matter, if and when there is a new House, for that House to decide whether it wants Prayers and, if so, what form of Prayers it wants.

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Swansea, spoke for many of us when he endorsed the present form of Prayers and made the plea for the Grace to be said together. However, will my noble friend agree that many in this House who are not of the Christian faith, such as my noble friend who sits beside me who is a Hindu, warmly welcome the sentiments contained in the Prayers and the majesty of the language in which they are uttered?

My Lords, may I suggest to the Chairman of Committees that we introduce variety in the Collects? There is a wonderful range of Cranmer Collects. Could he say how the committee represents the church's views? Is there a permanent member of the committee from the church?

My Lords, the noble Earl wrote to me about the possibility of using different Collects. I have the matter in hand and I will come back to him in due course, after I have consulted the Bench of Bishops.