• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Invocations at Secular Events

A friend writes:

I have been asked to say grace at our company’s anniversary dinner.  It is a secular Canadian company.  The people who will be attending the dinner come from different cultural and religious backgrounds.  I felt awkward about this and asked for the rationale behind it.  The person in charge of the program simply says she wants this to be an opportunity for us to give thanks for the success we have enjoyed in the past 70 years of our company’s history.  And besides, she says, she has had no complaints when other people said grace in our company’s previous annual dinners.

What is your opinion on this?  Is there a way I can do it in a winsome way or does this violate the spirit of respect in a pluralistic society?

I have been through this issue myself, in several modes. I was asked by our varsity basketball coach to pray before our games during my last year of high school. I did as I was asked, praying the usual athlete’s prayer for safety, good refereeing, our best performance, and the like. But I was surprised to be asked. Northern Ontario in the mid-1970s was already pretty secularized and most of my teammates didn’t go to church.

A few months later, at our graduation dinner and dance (the equivalent of our “prom”), the president of the student council asked me, with about a minute’s notice, to offer a prayer before the dinner began. I was class valedictorian as well as leader of the only Christian group at the school, so I didn’t feel I could refuse, so I prayed a generic prayer to “God” and asked for the most general of blessings–but my qualms were growing.

And that’s the last time I’ve said yes. The University of Manitoba asked me a few times to pray at their convocation, as did the University of British Columbia when I came out here. And by then, I’d made up my mind. Prayer is a wonderful thing, and too wonderful to be a sort of vestigial gesture to Canada’s past or a way of adding a bit of extra solemnity to a secular occasion.

Worse, it marginalizes a lot of people: people who don’t believe in God, people who don’t believe in the particular kind of deity being prayed to, and people who do believe in God of that sort and don’t like the idea of an all-purpose prayer on behalf of an institution that otherwise pays no serious attention to God’s Word in its operations–such as the University of British Columbia, or my high school basketball team, or my friend’s company.

So no, I wouldn’t agree to pray. Prayer is too great to be sprinkled on a secular occasion. That’s why I’m against formal prayers also in Canadian legislatures, city councils, school boards, and the like.

There’s no comfort to be had, furthermore, in “no one objecting.” We Christians need to object: It’s our sacred rite that is being exploited to vaguely “dignify” a secular institution.

And it’s inhospitable to subject other people to a rite they don’t share. Do you want to have to stand quietly through a Sikh or Mormon or Hindu prayer if you work for a secular company that happens to be dominated by those sorts of believers? Of course not. Let’s model the kind of neighbourly citizenship that we hope our neighbours will extend to us whenever and wherever they attain the cultural power we have previously enjoyed.