Saying grace is an old Christian tradition where a short prayer is said before and / or after a meal; it’s meant to sanctify the food and then offer thanks up to the deity of your choice.
As an atheist, I wouldn’t partake in such a tradition; it’s a religious expression, and Christians should feel free to say grace as often as they wish. I should also be free to not say grace, even at the same meal. Religious freedom extends to not taking part just as much as others are.
I’m not averse to saying thank you for a decent meal, but I’ll usually express my appreciation to the chef, or just frequent the restaurant again and tip well. Washing and cooking the food sanctifies it in my house, as that’s what keeps the germs away. A blessing is not getting food poisoning.
It was with a glad heart that I read an article in the Belfast Telegraph about the new Lord Mayor of Belfast, Nuala McAllister. She it, it seems, an atheist; something that is still very much a minority view in Ireland, and her actions at the dinner to celebrate her installation rather excited a lot of comment. There was no formal grace either at the start or at the end of the event. The evening progressed uneventfully enough, with dinner being served to all the invited guests and, I imagine, a few speeches being given along the way. It was a political event, entirely like any other political event – just without grace being delivered as an integral part of the evening. As she is an atheist, and as the evening was about her and her appointment as Lord Mayor, then it would have been hypocritical of her to have a prayer as part of the formal evening’s agenda.
The Alliance representative hasn’t yet spoken publicly about this, and good for her; she shouldn’t have to. In an ideal world, each person’s religious faith – or lack thereof – would be a matter entirely for themselves, and she shouldn’t need to comment. It wasn’t a religious event, although people of faith were attending, and there was no derogatory commentary about religion being made.
Indeed, the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Dr Noble McNeely, said he led prayers at his table when it became apparent that it wasn’t on the agenda for the evening. He added: “I understand why people feel disappointment that there was no grace said as part of the proceedings on Saturday.”
Can he? I can’t understand it. Why were people disappointed? Their Christian faith wasn’t repressed. They weren’t mocked for being faithful. They were allowed to say grace at their individual tables if they wished, and if people wanted to partake, but it wasn’t part of a political event’s agenda – because there was no need for it to be. Politics is secular; it must be, to avoid playing favourites. Where one religious sect is given priority over the others, then divisions begin and deepen, with jealousies rife on the basis of “My god’s bigger than your god.”
Free Presbyterian minister Rev David McLaughlin said that he will be contacting the Alliance Party to express his “extreme displeasure” at the Lord Mayor’s actions. I hope they laugh him out of the room, but not before reminding him that he’s a minister of a church! What was stopping him asking the people at his table if they wanted to say grace, and leading anyone who wanted to join in?
Having a faith forced on you by someone else is repugnant and immoral, and little gestures of clear-mindedness, like the one shown here by the new Lord Mayor, is a step in the right direction. In a country cleaved in two by religious hatred and sectarianism, it’s refreshing to know that people are putting country before faith and showing what a new vision of their culture could look like. It would be an open, tolerant society that allows people to worship privately. People would not be forced to say grace, but could if they wished it; it should never, ever be a part of society’s laws or prevailing politic winds.
I applaud Nuala McAllister for her actions, as well as for her class; she hasn’t been demeaning, arrogant, or rude. She has merely got on with the job and shown herself as – rightly – above other peoples’ petty rivalries. Good on her.