Saying Grace

Saying grace is an old Christian tradition where a short prayer is said before and / or after a meal; it’s meant to sanctify a meal and then offer thanks up to the deity of their choice afterwards.

Well, I’m not averse to saying thank you for a decent meal, but I’ll usually show my appreciation to the chef, or just frequent the restaurant again and tip well. Being an atheist, I don’t subscribe – as you can imagine – to the need of thanking a being that I don’t believe exists – what would, after all, be the point? And as for sanctifying my meal; washing and cooking the food sanctifies it in my house, as that’s what keeps the germs away.

But I’m not actually that fussed when people choose to say grace over their own food; it’s a personal choice, after all. If an individual at a dinner party or a restaurant wants to sanctify their food – if that’s important to them – then they are very welcome to do so. It’s a free country, and everyone should be free to choose how to follow their precepts.

It was with a glad heart, therefore, that I read an article in the Belfast Telegraph today (although it actually appeared yetserday) about the new Lord Mayor of Belfast, Nuala McAllister, who seems to caused some believers to get rather castigated by her decision not to say grace last Saturday night at her installation dinner. She didn’t announce anything at the beginning of the meal, nor did she make any public pronouncement afterwards; 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 like many others before and since.

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; what is there to talk about? 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. 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; an open, tolerant, plural society that allows people to worship privately and say grace if they so wish, but not forcing anyone to take part, and not – I repeat, not – making it a part of the prevailing politic winds of the day.

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.

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