This week I attended the National Prayer Service in the Washington National Cathedral on the day after the Inauguration. The service was beautiful and moving, a dignified end to a whirlwind of parades and inaugural galas. However, as we sat in the pews of the National Cathedral, with its soaring vaulting and stained-glass windows, I couldn’t help my mind from racing with questions around the issue as to whether a national prayer service is appropriate?
Can you gather together a room full of rabbis, priests, pastors and imams to actually pray together for a national leader? Are we being disingenuous to sit together in a church as prayers are offered for our country that do not reflect our own beliefs? Can we pray together without leaving each other out? Does prayer even belong in a national setting?
On the National Cathedral website, the spokeswoman of the Presidential Inaugural Committee said, “President Obama’s own faith has played an integral role in his life, his commitment to service and his presidency, and this important tradition will celebrate the values and diversity that make us strong”.
That statement, and for that matter most of the press covering the National Prayer Service, seems to mix a multitude of issues. President Obama, a person of faith, wants to worship in his “own faith” with his ministers in his tradition; so, how do we respect his tradition? How do the faith leaders of the National Prayer Service decide on appropriate prayer to respect Mr. Obama’s traditions, while still “celebrating the values and diversity that make us strong”?
The issue of appropriate prayer in interfaith settings has been the subject of discussion recently among CCAR members, with colleagues and scholars sharing many thoughts on all sides of the questions:
Do we try and find a common prayer? Or do we pray in parallel, each along the lines of our own traditions?
For me the answer is simple—we each pray in our own tradition. The opportunity to gather with religious people of many faiths in the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul (the National Cathedral’s actual name) requires us to open our ears, minds and hearts to respect someone else’s tradition, to allow each to pray in his/her own way, and to appreciate the celebration of diversity and inclusiveness. The success of inclusivity at the National Prayer Service from the diverse group of clergy and other religious leaders comes from the commitment to gather together in support of something harmonious and peaceful.
In this instance, as President Obama’s tradition involves his belief in Jesus, we respect this tradition and do not expect him and his clergy to expunge the name of Jesus from their prayers, just as we do not expect clergy of other faiths to pray from our traditions. When there is a Jewish president, the rabbis leading the service should expect and deliver the same—a service guided in Jewish tradition, with clarity as to our expectations of other clergy.
You can call it a National Prayer Service or a joint prayer service or whatever you like. But as each of us sit in the National Cathedral or in our churches, or synagogues, or mosques, or even in our own living rooms, we each invoke our own prayers in our hearts to guide President Obama through his second term.