Key Points:

Groups, cultures, societies, and nations use rituals as expressions of identity and to mark transitions such as beginnings.

The daily opening of Parliament has been marked for more than 150 years by the speaker saying a prayer. This ritual marks a transition from informality to formality. It has signified that the proceedings which follow should be seen by the Members of the house, as the prayer says, within a bigger context than "private and personal interests".

Whether the prayer has any effect on the conduct of the business that follows is questionable. The meaning of the ritual for some is as much in the doing as it is in the hearing.

Because of its theistic appeal to "Almighty God", and the Christian formulation, "through Jesus Christ our Lord", the prayer is increasingly seen as exclusive of those who do not believe in God or are not Christian.

The prayer originates from the first session of the New Zealand Parliament in Auckland on May 24, 1854. Immediately after the election of the speaker, James Macandrew, the Otago politician, businessman and Presbyterian elder, proposed "That it is fit and proper that the first act of the House of Representatives shall be a public acknowledgment of the Divine Being, and a public supplication for His favour on its future labours".

For Macandrew, the "House of Representatives, being the first embodiment of a New Zealand nationality, should be consecrated". Dr Walter Lee proposed a counter motion, "That the House of Representatives be not converted into a conventicle, and that prayers be not offered up."

James FitzGerald, the Christchurch politician and Anglican, raised concerns about the difficulty of having prayers in the future if Jews or Unitarians were members.

Others, including Edward Gibbon Wakefield, supported opening sessions with prayer, arguing from the example of other countries that "he should be sorry, for the sake of decency, that New Zealand should be singular in this respect among the Christian countries of the earth" if it did not begin its parliamentary sessions with prayer.

Dr Lee withdrew his motion. An amendment recognising the "importance of religious observances" but opposing public prayer stated that the House "did not commit itself to any act which may tend to subvert that perfect religious equality that is recognised by our Constitution". This was defeated by 20 votes to 10.

Macandrew's original motion to say prayers was carried. Another motion indicated that "the House distinctly asserts the privilege of a perfect political equality in all religious denominations, and that, whoever may be called upon to perform this duty for the House, it is not thereby intended to confer or admit any pre-eminence to that Church or religious body of which he may belong".

Similar issues were raised at the first meeting of the upper house, the Legislative Council. They agreed from the outset to have the prayers read by the Speaker and later wrote this into their standing orders.

One week after prayers were approved, the House of Representatives approved a motion introduced by Macandrew, and seconded by Henry Sewell, an Anglican from Christchurch, which also adopted the practice of the Speaker reading an opening prayer. The form of prayer was drawn up by a Committee and agreed to by the whole House.

The parliamentary debate expressed concerns over the exclusion of Jews, hinting then at what in today's world is a wider concern that the prayer excludes people of other faiths and those with no religious commitment.

Samuel Revans in 1854 opposed parliamentary prayers because he feared they would "lead the House away in a retrograde direction from the free spirit of the Constitution" which he thought was intended to exempt New Zealand "from the causes of heartburning on religious questions which being interwoven in the old institutions at Home could not be so readily got rid of."

The adoption of prayer in New Zealand was influenced by British parliamentary conventions.

Westminster democracy, however, was adapted to a colonial context without an established church, and the neutral speaker replaced the ecclesiastical chaplain.

Effective ritual binds people together in a common experience with which they can all identify. Just how far our common identity is being redefined in New Zealand is reflected in the questioning of our traditional ritual of opening Parliament with prayers.

Tradition is in tension with our growing multicultural, secular society. Finding public rituals that express what we hold in common today is something we should be striving for rather than perpetuating words and practices which reinforce exclusion.

* Rev Dr Allan Davidson teaches church history at St John's College and the University of Auckland.