Secular karakia slips through prayer blockade

Secular karakia slips through prayer blockade

The Rev. Sande Ramage

23 June 2013

 

Keeping our nation free from antiquated religious influences is a thankless task but someone's got to do it.
 
Last week it fell to Phil Gordon, the Kelston Intermediate School Principal, who announced that karakia is not prayer when some of his teachers objected to the introduction of Maori karakia at the start of lessons.
 
Given my eternal angst at what constitutes prayer, I was on full alert.
 
Dr Pita Sharples, Maori Party Co-Leader, supported Kelston's initiative saying that 'schools have to reflect and respect the culture of our kids to make them feel welcome and connected' and noting that karakia, 'is a vital part of our lifestyle.' Pita was probably talking about Maori lifestyle but even so, our collective, multi-cultural Kiwi world is well on the way to being an eclectic blend of cultural and religious rituals.   
 
I was thinking about all this during a Matariki service last week at the hospital where I work as a chaplain. My colleague, another Anglican priest who happens to be Maori, led the service. God, the Christian version and a combination of older models, was addressed in the karakia nestled amidst chanting, singing, good humour, tree planting and a cuppa afterwards. It was heart warming.
 
However, if we'd tried to celebrate a Christian festival honouring the changing of the seasons and the sacredness of the Earth, few, if any would have felt obligated to turn up. Instead it would have been seen as religious, an attempt to force an unwanted and irrelevant belief system on others.
 
In one sense what Dr Sharples says is true. However, it's also true that communities focused on Christianity, Judaism or Islam would not be able to introduce their prayers into a state school as Kelston has done because we have enshrined religious prejudice in law.
 
This is why church schools in New Zealand are now the only places teaching an intellectually rigorous curriculum of religious studies, values, ethics and philosophy; remarkably useful subjects for growing citizens of a diverse world.
 
Religions grew out of human struggles with life, the quest for an understanding of the 'more than' of our existence. Instead of expecting adherence to a set of beliefs, religions ought to hold us tenderly in a pattern of growth, offering an exploratory framework to be lived into.
 
Out of this lived experience comes music, art, stories, rituals and prayers that reflect our struggle, our entanglement, our bewilderment at being spun into life for no obvious reason and the wonder at it all that sometimes brings us to our knees in awe.  
 
In this way, religions become indistinguishable from the culture in which we live and move and have our being. Unfortunately, some of our problems have arrived because religion has not been as fluid as it needs to be. Despite that, as culture changes and people become more mobile, what we thought we understood about our existence has to shift.
 
In Aotearoa New Zealand we have reason to be grateful that in this shifting landscape, the renaissance of all things Maori has contributed to a growing openness about spirituality.
 
However, we cannot pretend that Maori spirituality and the expression of that through karakia might be a one size fits all spiritual approach. Trying to replace one dominant worldview with another only ends in tears.
 
The enchanting opportunity presenting itself is to work out how we keep building an environment that welcomes and nurtures the spirituality of a wide range of religious and cultural groups, without being blinded by our prejudice.
 
Just how difficult this is to achieve was graphically illustrated for me after the Matariki service when I walked past the hospital chapel and glanced in. A young Muslim woman was kneeling in prayer, forced to face a gigantic stained glass window of Jesus. There would be no point in her facing the other way because another equally huge Jesus window looms there.
 
I was touched by her devotion but aghast at the sheer callousness that emerges out of our environment when we set our spiritual understandings in concrete. I walked away in tears mourning our Christian and organizational blindness.