It surprises many visitors to this country that so many official functions, large and small, begin with a prayer. A few years ago, it was three prayers: one said by a Christian, one by a Hindu and one by a Muslim. This has now been contracted into a single “universal prayer” recited by someone from one of the religions on a given occasion. Questions about this tradition have arisen today, prompted by concerns expressed about the use of prayer in schools.
This is not the first time that objections have been raised about this, although some of the earliest have been that these are Christian prayers being said in state-run educational institutions. The answer to this, it seems, was not to completely eliminate prayers in these unequivocally secular contexts, but to create a prayer that all religions could identify with.
Most commentators viewed our penchant for praying in inappropriate settings as a colonial hangover, which it undoubtedly is. The British House of Commons always has prayers, although attendance is not obligatory, and it is likely from there that our National Assembly, for example, took its reply. The tradition dates back, it is believed, to 1558, although the modern form of invocations originates from the time of Charles II in the 17th century.
The British are notoriously reluctant to shed long-established traditions, but for all this there have been calls in recent years for the abolition of pre-session prayers. More recently, a group of multi-party MPs backed a motion saying parliamentary prayers are “not compatible with a society that respects the principle of freedom of religion and religion”.
Regarding the local schools specifically, the prayers first took hold because the colonial authorities initially left education in the hands of the churches, and they continued to run a large number of schools even afterwards. the law making primary education compulsory in 1876. One suspects that in the historical period, at least, worship practices in general assemblies of schools run by the Church varied according to the denomination concerned. Government-run institutions followed the standards of religious schools, although reflecting a Church of England bent, but what is perhaps a little surprising is that the practice of holding Christian prayers survived the nationalization of schools by Burnham in the 1970s.
On the accusation that Christian prayers had no place in the school system, the education ministry recently issued a statement stating that any function organized by the ministry or any of its departments, it was the universal prayer or a silent prayer that had to be recited, with the exception of events organized in indigenous communities. “[N]o religion, ethnicity, gender, etc. is or should be seen as dominant over the other, ”he said.
This came in response to a letter in this journal from Swami Aksharananda saying that the prayer uttered by the most outstanding CSEC student in 2020, Bhedesh Persaud, when the CXC results were announced last week, was Christian, and that this was discriminatory given the other religions in the country. The ministry denied that it was a Christian prayer, saying it was the universal prayer and that it was the same as that recited in the National Assembly. The Swami was quick to point out that there were intrusions into the ministry version that were not found in the one used in the National Assembly, namely, the inclusion of “heavenly father” and “amen”, ” the signing of the end of Christian prayers. “To date, the ministry has offered no explanation for this discrepancy.
Of course, the question arises as to whether there can be a meaningful concept of a universal prayer. Some letter writers have addressed this issue, notably Mr. Ferlin F Pedro, who alluded to the fact that the three great religions were not monolithic in terms of beliefs; they included denominations and sects within them. In addition, there were other denominations besides the main three, such as Buddhism which was not theistic, as well as members of the community who did not adhere to any religion at all. The government, he wrote, should not seek to be able to issue memoranda prescribing which prayer people should use.
The fundamental point, as more than one writer has made clear, is that Guyana is a secular state. In order to fully respect freedom of conscience and worship, it must necessarily be. As such, there should be no religious expressions in any of our state functions, and certainly not in our schools, which are educational institutions for secular subjects, not places of religious education. While we can teach children about religions in school, like we would teach them about cultures or social history, we do not teach them religious precepts, even implicitly. And what exactly do they learn with universal prayer? It does not concern all religions or any of them; it is a bureaucratic creation conceived in a vacuum by who knows who. The appropriate people to decide on the religious education of children are the parents, not the schools.
The problem is that there cannot be true freedom of conscience and worship in our circumstances unless Guyana is recognized as a secular state and its institutions reflect this fact. That aside, it is not as if, even on a practical level, it emerges exactly what benefit, according to the authorities, is conferred by the recitation of prayers, universal or not, in any setting associated with a State. Could anyone demonstrate that it makes a difference in academic performance, for example? Or that it has an inhibiting effect on the behavior of our members of Parliament who are periodically rude and even vulgar?
One has to wonder if our main parties have been reluctant to align Guyana with its so-called secular credentials because they believe there might be a political cost to doing so. One does not wish to be accused of atheism because of its association with communism, and the other does not wish to upset the majority of its voters. As such, they both tinker around the edges with universal prayers and the like.
The most succinct letter on this subject came from former President Donald Ramotar, who wrote that it was a matter of freedom of conscience. This, he said, “also means the right not to believe, the atheist. This right must also be respected.
He added that the problem should not be limited to schools. “The state as a whole should end these practices in all government functions and the so-called universal prayer in the National Assembly should be discontinued. This is how we can properly respect the religious beliefs or lack of religious beliefs of all our people. It is the only truly democratic way.
While that roughly sums it up, it doesn’t mean politicians are listening. To stop the narrative of universal prayer in the National Assembly would require agreement on both sides of the divide, and that level of cooperation is not on the horizon any time soon. While the government would not require it in any legislative way, it would probably also prefer to have the support of the opposition before it ceases to say the prayer in schools.
Given the pace at which we are able to organize ourselves to act together, the House of Commons may well succeed in the National Assembly, despite the ancient tradition.