Sunday, May 06, 2007

National Prayer Event

From the Victoria Times Colonist May 6/07

OTTAWA -- It's a Parliament Hill event that attracts hundreds of people every year and almost no publicity. Many participants want to keep it that way.
Scores of MPs and former MPs were among the more than 600 diplomats, priests, pastors, teachers and students from across Canada who flocked to three meeting rooms on the hill this week to attend the annual National Prayer Breakfast, a non-denominational Christian affair marking its 42nd year. But this was not piety on parade. Nor was it the religious right trying to flex its muscles.

Retiring NDP Bill Blaikie, a United Church minister, plans to write a book about the relationship between faith and politics after he leaves Ottawa: "[The prayer breakfast] hasn't been the big P political vehicle that it has been in Washington, and that is to its credit."

In Canada, politicians tend not to wear their religious beliefs on their sleeve, and the yearly gathering reflects that reticence. Participants say they are glad the event is more low-profile and less political than the one held in Washington, D.C., for the last 55 years. That gathering, which now attracts thousands of people, has almost always starred the U.S. president of the day.
NDP MP Bill Blaikie says organizers of the Canadian event have got it right.

"It hasn't been the big P political vehicle that it has been in Washington, and that is to its credit," said the retiring MP, a United Church minister who plans to write a book about the relationship between faith and politics after he leaves Ottawa. Beyond the breakfast, though, Blaikie says he's frustrated by a seeming taboo on talking about the role of faith in politics. "Politics tries to operate as if that elephant isn't in the room," said Blaikie, who was first elected in 1979.
"So a lot is missed as to why people do things the way they do and why they believe what they do." Blaikie also says he's growing impatient with a stereotyping of Christians that focuses on the Christian right and forgets the Christian left. "It's partly because Christians on the left over time have developed a way of speaking that isn't always explicit about where they are coming from." Left-wing Christians need to let it be known "there's more than one way politically to be a Christian in the world."

Liberal MP Karen Redman, a Presbyterian and former chairwoman of the prayer gathering, says the breakfast is a chance to celebrate her Christianity in a respectful, nonpartisan environment without getting dragged down by debates over such contentious issues as abortion and gay marriage that divide people of faith. She says, however, she sometime fears her religion is getting "wrestled away from me" because of assumptions made about people who identify themselves as Christian. "When people ask, are you Christian, you say to yourself, 'Now, where is that coming from?' "The right and true answer is 'Yes, I am a Christian,' but don't assume I'm against gay marriage, against women's right to choose. Don't visit this whole spectrum of decisions automatically on me because I say, 'Yes, I am a Christian."

This week's gathering over fruit, muffins and coffee was clearly a comfortable forum for Christians of all political stripes. "Our breakfast flies below the radar of social issues," said chief organizer Jack Murta, a former cabinet minister in the Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney.

Unlike their U.S. counterparts, Canada's elected officials don't make religion political.
"The prayer breakfast is not about political parties. It is not about who is right and who is wrong."

Representatives from each party made appearances on the podium, but their remarks were limited to reading from scripture. The only party leader on hand was the NDP's Jack Layton.
The politics-free event is not, however, to everyone's liking.

Charles McVety, president of Canada Christian College in Toronto and an outspoken player on the religious right wing, says he gave the prayer breakfast a pass this year in part because it's not political enough. He says he prefers to use his trips to Ottawa to directly lobby MPs on specific issues.

"[The breakfast] has traditionally been very non-political," said McVety, who, as head of the Defend Marriage Coalition, led a campaign in the last federal election to elect evangelical candidates opposed to same-sex marriage.

"I'm not belittling the power of prayer, but faith without works is dead."
Bruce Clemenger, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, said the breakfast is a quiet celebration of faith that has never been seen as a lobbying opportunity. But, like Blaikie, he says there should be more open discussion about the role faith plays in politics.


Lucas said...

It's uniquely Canadian to be able to believe strongly in something yet express our beliefs diplomaticaly. In the US religion is a political tool that often leads to fanatical policies. In France it is the opposite: religion is legally forbidden from mingling with politics and as a result faith has lost its place in the national psyche. I hope that what we have here could be considered a happy medium that sees people of all faiths praying for God's hand in the government without any individual agenda being pursued.

Tim said...

I'd agree with you Lucas. In my mind the two extremes are polarization (America) and exclusion (France). Neither one offers an attractive option.