A little while ago I was at a function where I was asked to say a ‘secular’ grace. I refused and said that as a Christian minister I could not pray without directing my prayer to God.
I confess that at the time I was not at all as to what a ‘secular’ grace was. The very expression seemed to me a nonsense. For the word ‘grace’ comes from a Latin word (gratia) meaning thanksgiving. When we say ‘grace’ before (or in some cases, after) a meal we are thanking God for his provision of food, drink, and friends.
However, I have since discovered that there are some atheists who appreciate having a ‘pre-meal ceremony’ and who as a result have developed a form of words where there is no reference to God. For example the humanist writer Nicolas Walter has written the following ‘grace’:
“Let us think thrice while we are gathering here for this meal.
First, let us think of the people we are with today, and make the most of the pleasure of sharing food and drink together.
Then let us think of the people who made the food and drink and brought it to us, who serve us and wait on us, and who clear up and clean up after us.
Finally, let us think of all the people all over the world, members with us in the human family, who will not have a meal today”
In principle there is nothing objectionable to such a form of words. But how much more satisfying it is to bring God into the occasion!
Last week, however, the issue of a secular grace was raised at my Rotary Club. Since its foundation my club has always began its breakfast meetings with a member saying ‘Grace’. The precise form of Grace has varied – but normally ‘Grace’ has taken the form of a prayer to the Almighty. But one of our members, who is a convinced atheist, questioned whether the prayer should be directed to God, and in particular whether the prayer should be offered ‘in the name of Jesus’. Rotary, it was said, is a secular organisation – and as a result there should be no specific mention of God. Furthermore, the argument went, bringing God into a Rotary meeting fails the Rotary ‘Four Way Test’: viz., ‘Is it true? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendship? And will it be beneficial to all?’
As far as Rotary is concerned, it is true that Rotary clubs are ‘non-religious, non-political, and open to every race, culture and creed’. As a result no Rotary club can commit itself to a particular faith or a particular political party. However, I see no reason why individual Rotarians are not free to express their religious or political convictions at their meetings. – provided, of course, we are respectful of the views of others. Indeed, on one occasion, with the blessing of the other members of my club, I spoke to the club on ‘Why I am Christian’. As for ‘praying to God’ or ‘praying in the name of Jesus’, I was pleased to discover that Rotary International put out a statement in 2015 which said that it leaves questions of religious prayer up to local clubs. “Each Rotary club uses its own judgment in conducting its meetings in a manner that reflects Rotary’s principle of tolerance and emphasizes shared Rotarian service ideals and projects”.
It so happens that most of the members of my club are convinced Christians. But if some of our number were Muslims or Jews, I would have no difficulty in inviting them to say Grace in a way which they felt appropriate; nor would I have difficulty in inviting an atheist saying a ‘secular’ Grace, if that was their wish. In turn I would expect the same courtesy to be extended to those of us who are Christian to say Grace in our way.
I believe that as Christians we need to resist the pressure from people of no-faith to ban God from the public space. Even in a multi-cultural world praying to God and praying in the name of Jesus do not have to be relegated to the home or to the church. In that regard I found it fascinating that when two days ago I attended a formal dinner at my old Cambridge college, a lengthy Latin grace was said, in which thanks were given to God in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord!