Canadian Chaplains Barred from Offering Christian Prayers at Public Ceremonies

OTTAWA — The furor over a new Canadian military chaplains’ policy on interfaith prayer has revealed the depth of animosity between some Canadian Christians and their country's secularist Liberal government.

The military's new Policy on Public Prayer advises Canada's military chaplains — all of whom are Christians — in effect to avoid Trinitarian formulas and the name of Jesus Christ in prayers offered during public services. It was approved in July by the Interfaith Committee of the Canadian Military Chaplaincy, a body chaired by Catholic bishop Donald Theriault, but did not attract public attention until Remembrance Day on Nov. 11.

The policy was on display that day, when Canada honors soldiers who gave their lives for their country. Expressions of nationalism and non-specific references to “God” and “Creator” were welcome at public ceremonies, but specifically Christian expressions of remembrance were excised, even though Canada remains a country where more than 80% of residents identify themselves as Christians.

Herman Goodden, a journalist and playwright in London, Ontario, quietly excused himself before the end of Mass at his parish church Nov. 11, when the choir director led the congregation in singing O Canada, the national anthem. In a subsequent London Free Press column, Goodden explained his spontaneous gesture as a protest against what he sees as a growing anti-Christian prejudice on the part of the government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien.

Earlier, there was widespread indignation among Christians over the government's decision to exclude any mention whatsoever of God — Christian or otherwise — in the official national memorial service on Parliament Hill shortly after the Sept. 11 atrocities. And in 1998, the government instructed a United Church minister officiating at a memorial service for the victims of the Swissair Flight 111 disaster not to use specifically Christian prayers, while representatives of other religions were left free to speak according to their beliefs.

Iain Benson, a constitutional legal expert and executive director of the Ottawa-based Center for Cultural Renewal, said that the interpretation of “pluralism” animating such policies is “nonsense.”

“I think what we need is to expand the corps of chaplains to include robust representatives of all the different religions in numbers proportional to the membership of the armed forces,” said Benson. “Christians should be able to be Christians, Jews should be able to be Jews, Muslims should be able to be Muslims, and if their membership in our armed forces requires it, they should all have their spiritual needs tended to [according to] what they believe, not in some kind of dog's-breakfast theology.”

The Canadian Forces chaplain branch says that numbers do not yet warrant the hiring of non-Christian chaplains. Bourque said that while a few major national events involving prayer and the military, such as the dedication of a new Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa, will include representatives from various faiths speaking according to their specific beliefs, the “norm” for local events is to have a sole military chaplain presiding in an “inclusive” way.

Chaplain's Perspective

Father Ron Bourque, the chief Catholic chaplain of the Canadian Forces and director of chaplain policy for the Canadian Forces chaplain branch, told the Register that dealing with the fallout from the interfaith prayer policy “has been an experience.” He said some churches have organized postcard campaigns in protest, and that he has been called a “bigot” and “Christophobic” for supporting the policy.

The policy is not an official policy of the Canadian government or of the Department of National Defense, although government representatives have defended it in Parliament. “It's basically guidelines for chaplains from chaplains,” Bourque explained, speculating that the policy has been associated with the government because of the government's controversial handling of religion at public events in the recent past.

Like those controversies, the row over the military's Policy on Public Prayer indicates a deep divide among Canadians on the proper understanding of “pluralism” and the place of religion in the secular realm.

The Canadian Forces chaplain branch sees the policy simply as a matter of “inclusiveness” in a “multi-faith” and “multicultural” society. Father Bourque said he perceives no conflict between what the policy advises and his own calling as a Catholic priest.

“From the chaplains’ perspective [this] is not a difficult issue. My opinion is it's been blown way out of proportion,” he said. “When I'm the only one representing various faith groups at a service then I can make a prayer that is holy, that is uplifting, that is comforting, that speaks to the heart and soul of people, without a specific reference to my personal beliefs.”

Added Father Bourque, “The difference between saying … ‘I make this prayer in the name of Jesus Christ’ … and ending the prayer to almighty God with the word ‘Amen,’ for me personally makes very little difference.”

Insensitive to Christians

Tom Langan, president of Canada's Catholic Civil Rights League, said the military chaplains’ approach is actually exclusive of the majority of Canadians, and insensitive to the beliefs and feelings of Christians. In a pluralistic society, Langan said, “We have to develop a sense of courtesy, and that courtesy has to be extended to the founding majority.”

Without a proper sense of pluralism, Langan warned, Canada could “easily degenerate into a relativistic mish-mash which will end up producing just the lowest common denominator, which will be just a mindless materialism.”

Canadians’ confusion about pluralism is exacerbated by a widespread misunderstanding of the concept of separation of church and state, said Benson. While that separation is not established constitutionally in Canada as in the United States, Benson says the principle itself, properly understood, is correct: “It's [simply] a jurisdictional statement. The church has no competency to run the state, and the state has no competency to run the church.”

But, he added, that's not how secularists interpret church-state separation. “They mean the separation of all public aspects of the state from religion, which means that the only people who really have a place comfortably to be themselves fully in the public realm … are those who are atheists or agnostics — and that's not proper, that's not just or fair,” Benson said.

The Sept. 11 memorial on Parliament Hill “was a perfect celebration, if God doesn't exist,” Benson continued, “but it wasn't the kind of approach to transcendence that could have ever built a country like Canada or could ever sustain one. It was very much a procession with somebody at the front carrying a huge question mark.”

David Curtin writes from Toronto.