John Parker on the Dishonesty of Inclusive Prayers
Once I accepted an invitation to give the benediction at the graduation of the Medical University of South Carolina. I was delighted that a school like MUSC was still willing to invoke the Name of God and ask his blessings on those who are to be sent out into the world to practice the work that the school has trained them to do.
Having driven past the university’s beautiful St. Luke’s Chapel (named after St. Luke, the evangelist and physician) hundreds of times, I began to consider what words might be fitting for these medical students. I sat at my desk, reviewing ancient books of Christian prayers, to write the most appropriate one for those commencing the next step of their professional medical lives.
Two days later, I received by mail a delightful letter, thanking me for agreeing to deliver the benediction and inviting me to a number of related festivities. Included with the letter, though, was a memorandum from the Office of the President of the Medical University: “Guidelines for Invocation and Benediction at Public Functions,” guidelines to which I would be required to conform in order to bless the graduates.
The first was a reasonable request for any public speaker: “Appeal to the larger spiritual virtues that all faiths have in common: love, faith, hope . . . peace, goodness.” The second was acceptable, although dripping with political correctness: “Use inclusive language: forbears rather than fathers, . . .” etc.
The third was a problem. Here is the text (the boldface appears in the original):
Steer clear of parochial, exclusively defining religious names, concepts, practices, and metaphors. A good rule of thumb to remember is that you come representing the entire faith community, not just your own group. The prayer should therefore not be offensive to anyone, whether Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, etc. For example, when opening or closing, an inclusive choice would be “Holy God, Holy One, Creator, Sustainer,” rather than “Allah, Jesus, Holy Trinity,” etc.
In four sentences, the Medical University of South Carolina, in its effort to “set a tone of reverence at our public assemblies” and “bear testimony to [our] richly diverse religious and cultural heritage” and somehow to make generic and inoffensive any public benediction or invocation, sanctioned officially one religion over all others: American pop-religion—a tray full of cafeteria-style faith, which takes nice-sounding “religious” words from this group and that, pleasing to the ear but without real content.
I sent my prepared benediction to the Office of the President, wanting to embarrass neither myself nor the staff of the Medical University at graduation. I soon received a polite call from the same office, during which I was un-invited to bless the graduates.
The truly Christian benediction (the only type of benediction I am authorized by my archbishop and my ordination to give) is not permitted. Thus, the university, hoping to display its “religious heritage” and seeking to demonstrate its “pride in . . . diversity,” actually shows itself to be selectively inclusive. Inclusion in the Medical University’s public religious expression is limited to those who will show no conviction at all.
No Good Word
The heritage of the Medical University is, to some degree, Christian. Its chapel is not “generic” by any stretch—it is named for a Christian saint, adorned with his stained-glass image, and topped with the Cross of Christ. These have been the marks of a certain faith. Not a generic faith.
Only a certain faith offers what people truly want and need, while a generic faith cannot—which we often see, ironically enough, in the world into which these graduates are being sent. Someone suffering from a third heart attack doesn’t want to hear about spirits that sustain us or a “god” who is with us in our suffering. He wants—even needs and expects—the blessing and grace of God in that moment.
His heart longs for some assurance that even if his body won’t be okay (sometimes it won’t), Someone is reminding him, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” This is the very same assurance and grace this Orthodox priest hoped—and was invited—to offer to the graduates who will care for such a soul.
To require a Christian priest to say little more at a benediction than “the Sustainer bids you to peacefully love your neighbor” or “May the Holy One be with you always” is effectively the same as asking a surgeon to say to a man dying on the operating table, “Don’t worry, everything is all right.” It is not a truthful word, and the dying man (and we are all dying men) needs the truthful word.
Doctors, nurses, indeed all hospital personnel and those for whom they care need, like all the rest of us who are struggling to live in this dying world, a true, good word—a real benediction in the fullest sense of the term. Why can we no longer give it to them?
Within the walls of a hospital, a sterile, antiseptic environment is critical for the care and recovery of patients. But the sterile, antiseptic “benediction” the guidelines require is a “good word” to no one, blesses no one, offers no promise of divine aid and comfort to men and women who will need it desperately. Such selective inclusivity removes every particular faith to a space well off to the side, where it can do no harm to the secular ideal of “inclusivity,” but can do no good either.
In the end, to ask a Christian pastor to bless a gathering in this way is little more than having some person in religious clothing stand in front of a crowd to say a few generically religious words, hoping to give some religious legitimacy to a public gathering. Not only is there no power or grace in it, it is devoid of any essential meaning.
A True Prayer
That May, I did offer my prayer for the graduates of the Medical University of South Carolina, though not in their presence. I prayed:
“O Lord Jesus Christ our God, Lover of Mankind, Physician of our souls and bodies, who in pain bore our infirmities, and by whose wounds we are healed:
“Who gave sight to the man born blind, who straightened the woman who was bent over for eighteen years, who gave speech and sight to the mute demoniac, who not only forgave the paralytic his sins, but healed him to walk, who restored the withered hand of a troubled man, who stopped the flow of blood of her who bled for twelve years, who raised Jairus’s daughter to life, who brought the four-days-dead Lazarus to life, and who heals every infirmity under the sun,
“Do now, O Lord, give your grace to all those here gathered who have labored and studied hour upon hour, to go into all the world, and also to heal by the talent you have given to each of them. Strengthen them, by your strength, to fear no evil or disease; enlighten them to do no evil by the works of their hands, and preserve them and those they serve in peace.
“For you are our God, and we know no other. And to you we send up glory together with your Father who is from everlasting, and your most Holy, Good, and Life-creating Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.”
John Parker is priest-in-charge of Holy Ascension Orthodox Church, a mission parish of the Orthodox Church in America, in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. He earned his MDiv (2001) at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, and his MTh (2004) at St. Vladimir?s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.