Elections pose even more problems than usual for people who prepare and lead prayers in their churches. That is never more true than in situations like the present: divided politics, polarised societies, and partisan journalism. There is a sense that the skeleton that has largely underpinned the body politic is, if not exactly broken, in a state of advanced osteoporosis.
So what should those who lead prayer say, if they are to enable the church as a whole to agree in prayer? The problem is that the phrases that unite are often sufficiently anodyne to disguise a multitude of meanings.
“We pray for wisdom.” “We pray for politicians who will unite society.” “We pray for a politics which will regain the trust of the country.” All these are indeed to be wished and prayed for, but people offering those prayers may have diametrically different ideas about what will regain trust, what will unite society, what will indeed be wise.
“May those who vote, and those who are elected, look to the interests of all sectors of society and not only their own.” “May those who work in the media be passionate about truth, and expose and reject fake news.” These are getting more specific, while still being to a large extent unitive.
It would be hard for Christians to pray for a politics that promoted only the interests of “people like us”, although our prayer may not be fully connected with our voting intentions. It would be hard for anyone to do anything other than pray for truth in the media, although people may have very different ideas of what constitutes “fake news.” Many of us have become too acclimatised to our own social media bubbles.
So would it be a step too far for us to look to the Christian conservative philosopher and man of letters, Edmund Burke? In his speech to the electors of Bristol in 1774, long before the days of inclusive language or universal suffrage, he observed:
Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion. … Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.
Could Christians unite around praying for parliamentarians of independence, principle, wisdom, discernment and courage? For elected representatives who are willing to stand against their party whip, and against their electorate’s expressed feeling, if the detailed debate and their informed conscience compels them?
It is more specific than many prayers we might make. It is less obviously partisan than many petitions we might offer. It may not give us the Brexit result we want – whichever result that might be. Or, indeed, victory for the party we are most inclined to.
But perhaps it could be a step towards restoring both integrity and trust. To pray for this, and mean that prayer, could help dispose us to place more trust in parliamentary process. To pray for this and have that prayer, at least in part, answered (whether by God or the electorate), could strengthen politicians to put what is right above the party line and above what is expedient or popular.
So, I suggest, this is what we might pray (the language still needs a bit of polishing, but I think the content is more-or-less what I’m arguing for).
O God, source of all life and authority,Doug Chaplin (Prayer published under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence)
you create and order the world for your children,
and call them to live in a just and peaceable society:
hear our prayers for those who stand for parliament,
and all of us given the responsibility to vote.
Give us people of integrity, courage and conscience,
who will discern with care and wisdom,
deliberate with respect and honesty,
and decide in sincerity and truth.
As they give us their best judgement,
so may we give them our just respect,
and together may we live and work for a world
in which all may share in the common good,
through him who placed our interests
ahead of his own well-being,
even Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.