By Linda Hart Green
“Will you offer a prayer, Reverend?”
I have been asked that question countless times over many years and the answer was always, “Yes!” I am fortunate that prayer comes easily for me. Of course, there were extremely difficult times like at a graveside after an untimely death or at the bedside of someone critically ill. I have prayed at weddings and graduations and building dedications and ordinations. When I was in my mid-30s, I took an administrative position over 110 churches in the greater Boston area. I was often called upon to pray at a variety of functions without prior notice. There was no time to get nervous. I had churches from different language groups where prayers had to be translated. I prayed in grand historic churches and in small ones that met in a rented basement. I attended two or three services or events per Sunday. It’s a good thing I was younger and full of energy then. Praying in those situations felt like the right thing to do.
But I have never been asked to join in a prayer in a city hall meeting by a member of the audience.
A speaker during the public comment portion of a recent Fernandina Beach City Commission meeting asked if the gathered group would join in the Lord’s Prayer. The mayor asked the assembled group if it was okay with them and many shouted, “No!” But before any decision was made, the speaker started the prayer and many joined. I bowed my head out of respect but could not pray. The situation felt awkward and uncomfortable to me.
I come from the historic Baptist tradition, which championed the separation of church and state. City hall did not feel like the right time or the right place to pray during the public comment period. People present had strong feelings about the issues being discussed based on their religious viewpoints but it was a government meeting, not a church service. I think we need to be careful and discerning when the lines between what is government and what is religion get blurred.
We also need to be respectful and remember that not everyone shares the same beliefs and practices. Did you realize that there are 30 different churches on Amelia Island? And there are probably a few more that I missed when I was counting. If we were supposed to pray and believe the same way, wouldn’t there just be one church?
(I realize every city commission meeting is opened with a prayer led by a local Christian pastor, but I believe a secular prayer led by leaders of the various religious traditions represented on our island is the most appropriate way to continue this ritual.)
At last week’s commission meeting, if the prayer led by the member of the audience at that time and place was meant as a positive witness or as an effort to evangelize, I think it had the opposite effect. That made me sad because prayer is an important part of a life of faith.
If you watched any of the recent coronation ceremonies, you saw that it was the Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England, who placed the crown on the king’s head. That’s not how we do things on this side of the pond. Not having prayer as part of government is not unpatriotic. It is recognizing that in our country, religious and civil authority is separate. The separation between church and state protects freedom of conscience and allows for the flourishing of a multicultural democracy that protects the rights of all its citizens.
If you invite me to your church, I will gladly pray with you. If your religion is different from mine, I will respectfully listen while you pray in your way to the God of your understanding. I will pray in private for the well-being of my community and for all its citizens. Just don’t ask me to pray in city hall during someone’s public comments.
Linda Hart Green is Pastor Emeritus of Emmanuel Church, Ridgewood, N.J., and co-owner of Shady Ladies Art Studios and Gallery in Fernandina Beach. She holds an M.Div. and a Certificate in Pastoral Leadership Development from Princeton Theological Seminary.