The unique challenges of praying in public

Praying in public? Jesus discourages it (Matthew 6:5) but clergy are called upon to do it all the time.

Most often, this happens in the worship services of the faith communities we serve and in the homes and hospital rooms of our members. More than a duty, it’s a privilege to share these intimate moments with people at milestone events in their lives — birth, illness, marriage, anniversaries and birthdays, retirement and death. It’s part of our job, such as preaching or offering pastoral care.

But there’s another form of public prayer that we’re also called upon to offer — perhaps more frequently in a capital city — that differs from the public prayers in our congregations. It’s the opportunity to pray for the opening of civic meetings and events, including the state Legislature.

The opening prayer in our nation’s capital dates back to Sept. 7, 1774, when the Rev. Jacob Duche, an Episcopal rector from Philadelphia, offered a prayer to open the Continental Congress. One of the first acts of the newly formed House of Representatives was to elect an official chaplain. The current House chaplain is the Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, S.J., a Northwest native and the first Jesuit to hold the post.

Public prayer in the civic arena is different from public prayer within a faith community. The distinction is an important one in a nation that has as one of its founding principles a deep commitment to the First Amendment, which states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Debates have raged since those words were written over how to interpret them. As always, the devil is in the details. What constitutes an appropriate public prayer in a country that is committed to both freedom for religious expression and freedom from religious coercion?

The question became more than academic when I was invited to offer the opening prayer for the U.S. House of Representatives last month.

The guidelines offered to guest chaplains begin with a reminder that the House comprises members from many different faith traditions (Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Buddhist, Muslim, and “other” to name a few). They further state that the length of the prayer should not exceed 150 words.

It must be entirely in English, “free from personal political views or partisan politics, sectarian controversies, and from any intimations pertaining to foreign or domestic policy.” I was asked to submit my prayer a week in advance for inclusion in the Congressional Record.

But the guidelines never stipulate what one actually says in the prayer. Conroy offered helpful advice in this regard that underlines the difference between praying for one’s faith community and praying for Congress. When we pray with our congregation, we are fulfilling our role as pastor by assisting people to express their faith in words that are sometimes unique to our denomination.

We are appropriately exercising our constitutional right of free expression.

However, when we pray in the civic realm, we are functioning as chaplain. The difference between a chaplain and a pastor is that a chaplain willingly suspends his or her right to free expression in order to enable others from many different religious expressions to be able to join in the prayer.

It is an act of civic restraint on behalf of a greater good. While some may question its validity, it seems to me a necessary virtue in a religiously pluralistic nation.

In the end, this is how I chose to use my 150 words:

“Holy One,

“We know you in an infinite variety of ways. By whatever name we call you, you are the One in whom we live and move and have our being.

“We ask your blessing upon the members of this House as they carry on the business of our nation at this critical time in our history.

“Give them courage in the face of immense challenges, a spirit of cooperation despite their differences, and trust in your divine guidance as they work together for the common good.

“When the path ahead is unclear, remind them that throughout the ages, your prophets and holy ones have shown us what is good; that you require nothing more of us — and nothing less — than to do justice, to have compassion for one another, and to walk humbly with you, the beginning and the end of all things.