Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 2 August 2014

Commons should sing from Belfast Lord Mayor's hymn sheet

Lord Mayor Mairtin O Muilleoir's decision to appoint eight chaplains from different religions is a welcome piece of news from Belfast after weeks of negative headlines. It also highlights how differently religious diversity is treated at Westminster.

For Parliament remains very much a Church of England institution, and there appears to be little appetite for embracing other branches of Christianity, never mind Buddhists, Muslims, Jews or the Baha'i community.

Commons business begins each day with prayers led by the Speaker's chaplain, a job that is only open to Anglican priests, usually one hand-picked by the Dean of Westminster Abbey.

The Press and the public are barred from the galleries for prayers, which last for around three minutes.

Tradition dictates that MPs stand facing the wall behind them, overcoming the historic problem of kneeling to pray while wearing a sword.

There is an added advantage to be gained from attending – MPs can place a 'prayer card' which reserves their seat in the chamber for the rest of the day's sitting.

Westminster politicians don't seem to care much about the lack of religious diversity in their ceremonies. The last time someone tabled a Commons motion complaining about the practice was in 1993.

The most recent MP to speak out was Jo Johnson who complained during a 2011 debate on modernising Parliament that "institutionalised worship in the main chamber is not a good use of everyone's time".

He added that the existing parliamentary rule that bars those who have not sat through prayers from reserving their place "arguably discriminates against people of other faiths".

The Church of England has even greater prominence in the Lords. Twenty-six bishops, including the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, have full speaking and voting rights. Only they can lead prayers, which like the Commons come before the day's business.

No other faiths are formally represented in the Upper House, though recent governments have ensured the Chief Rabbi is given a seat.

Appointing Roman Catholic bishops has been considered, but has proved too problematic.

Parliament should take note of what happens in the US Congress, where guest chaplains from all faiths are invited to preside over prayers at the start of business.

Another solution would be to do away with prayers in the chamber altogether.

When it comes to recognising and respecting religious diversity, it seems Belfast's Sinn Fein Lord Mayor has set a fine example for Westminster to follow.

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