To everything there is a season and a time for every harebrained, prejudicial, bad-religion-cloaked-as-mediocre-politics decision under heaven to get public scrutiny. It's the back-and-forth dance of religious freedom we do, a dance for which democracy is the chaperone.
With a recent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in Greece v. Galloway, this time the dance floor is in town and city council meetings. The court ruled in favor of Greece, N.Y., a town that can't be bothered to let the prayers opening its public meetings reflect the spiritual diversity of its community.
Instead, town officials claim that everyone is welcome while keeping a very short list of prayer providers that conveniently excludes non-Christian leaders. When confronted with complaints by non-Christian residents, the town chose to do nothing. How very welcoming. And the Supreme Court let it stay this way.
For centuries, chafed spiritual seekers have fled to America because the conscience of their souls would not and could not convert to a rigid, state-enforced religion. America waffles between being the global refuge of religious freedom and a laboratory striving to patent yet another ill-fitting spiritual cage to force on others. The side of the waffle the country lands on usually is dependent upon the decibels of clamor a moderate populace is willing to raise on behalf of whatever minority will most likely be smothered by a forced spirituality.
Having public governance meetings opened by a religious person can feel like forced spirituality. So, who fills that role — and how — matters. There's been plenty of discussion since the Greece v. Galloway decision on the ramifications of inviting sectarian prayer into government meetings. But no one — not the Supreme Court, the commentators, not the parties in the case, particularly not Greece — seems to know the difference between a chaplain and clergy. This ignorance promotes ongoing muddying of church and state waters as well as undermining the purpose of opening in prayer at all.
The clergy are called to lead through the history and doctrine of their specific denomination or tradition to give answers to proponents of the religion. Clergy have an agenda, and we want them to — they are the leaders of their religions and build the religious homes in a community. You ask the Catholic priest what the sacrament means and he explains it to you — according to Catholicism, not any other religion. You want to raise your children Jewish, you join a Jewish community and are led by the rabbi.
Meanwhile, chaplains are called to work in diverse environments such as prisons, hospitals and the military. Modern chaplains are trained to discern through reflective listening and careful conversation with their temporary congregants their deepest hopes and desires for resolution. Chaplains are not to proselytize their own beliefs, but instead facilitate spiritual reflection and help people find their own comfort. The chaplain's agenda is to be a nonanxious presence who accompanies people on one small leg of their journeys working through such questions as: What do you value? Where is your pain? And how can I help you?
What do we want in our public meetings: clergy or chaplains? USA Today recently reported that 73 percent of registered voters polled favor nonsectarian public prayer to begin meetings. That suggests a chaplain. One of the arguments in the Supreme Court case is that nonsectarian prayer is bland. That suggests the unfettered polemics of clergy. I believe people don't know what they want because there aren't enough examples of chaplain prayer in the public realm.
Professionally, I'm both clergy and chaplain. I believe that when asked to open events such as these, the invitation is extended to my chaplain side. I feel my role is to remind the gathering of our best selves and our hopes for democracy. Bland? I hope not. But I'll take bland over divisive and offensive any day. The universal prayer that the meeting not last all night long is understood. Something like this:
It is the practice of this governing body to join together in an inclusive prayer to begin our meetings. Please join me in a spirit of hope and in your own spiritual beliefs as I share these words of invocation.
In this time of promise and possibility with the responsibility of decision crafting ahead of us, let us recall that we are not gods, nor immortal; not the final word, nor the salvation. Tonight we serve as the embodiment of hope for this community — all of our community.
May that hope call us to be true representatives of the tens of thousands who aren't present. May our decisions be guided not by the promise of riches or the vanity of legacy, but instead by the goal of well-being for all, including our most vulnerable brothers and sisters. Where there is suffering, let us bring compassion and act responsibly to alleviate it. In the face of struggle, injustice, disparity and desperate need, may we never become the town that chooses to do nothing.
May our civic pride never dim the beacon of equality, which is our civic duty, and let this gathering not diminish but instead personify the American dream. In our debate, considerations and decisions today, may we be guided by that which is beyond our will and whims — known by many names, but at its core is eternally peace.
Peace be with us tonight in our hearts, in our deliberations, and in our community. May we treat each other with kindness. May we benefit the common good. May it be so. S
Alane Miles is an ordained minister and hospice chaplain.
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