medical schools

Orthodox prayer in public square

When Father John Parker was asked to say the benediction at the graduation rite for the Medical School of South Carolina he did what any Eastern Orthodox priest would do.

He went straight to "The Great Book of Needs," a four-volume set of prayers collected over two millennia for use during every imaginable kind of ritual.

It was easy to find prayers about Jesus and healing, including: "Do now, O Lord, give your grace to all those here gathered who have labored and studied hour upon hour, to go into all the world, and also to heal by the talent You have given to each of them. Strengthen them, by your strength, to fear no evil or disease, enlighten them to do no evil by the works of their hands and preserve them and those they serve in peace, for You are our God, and we know no other."

Then he received a letter from the president's office offering guidelines for prayers at this public school in Charleston, S.C. It required inclusive language such as "Holy God, Holy One, Creator, Sustainer" rather than prayers mentioning Jesus, Allah, the Trinity or other specific divine references.

"Steer clear of parochial, exclusively defining religious names, concepts, practices, and metaphors," it said. "A good rule of thumb to remember is that you come representing the entire faith community, not just your own group. The prayer should therefore not be offensive to anyone, whether Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, etc."

Parker had a problem, because he knew that centuries of Orthodox tradition forbad this approach. He decided that the policy was so inclusive that ancient Christian prayers would be excluded.

"As an Orthodox priest, I was invited to pray on behalf of all and for all," he said. "The question was, once I was there, would I be allowed to pray as an Orthodox Christian? According to that memo, they wanted me to pray in somebody else's words and, if you stop and think about it, to pray to somebody else's God. ...

"I knew that my archbishop would not allow me to do that. We cannot pray the way they wanted me to pray."

Nevertheless, Parker sent school officials the text of the Orthodox benediction. His invitation to pray was immediately revoked and the May graduation slot filled by a Southern Baptist pastor, one linked with the progressive Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Another member of the same church serves as the medical school's chaplain.

The goal was not to "silence any local pastor or the voice of any religious tradition in the public square," wrote Chaplain Terry Wilson, responding to Parker's concerns. Neutral prayers had, in the past, been offered by an array of clergy -- Presbyterian, United Methodist, Episcopal, Jewish and Catholic.

"Our graduates represent the major faith traditions of the world," noted Wilson. "Watching the commencement service, I hummed to myself the words of the old spiritual, 'He's got the whole world in his hands.' " On 9/11, he added, the beautiful St. Luke's Chapel at the school "overflowed with students, faculty and medical staff. We prayed, wept and sang together as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Bahais and Sikhs in the midst of the terror. ... This is who we are and such is the make up of our graduates. God bless us all."

Parker understood this dynamic. But it is one thing, he said, for Christians to gather in "ecumenical" settings in which their prayers can be based on images and beliefs that they share in common. It is something else to participate in truly "interfaith" events that blur the lines between world religions or, even worse, combine pieces of these faiths in a syncretistic puzzle.

At some point, he stressed, leaders of public institutions must ask why they want to continue including moments of prayer in these pluralistic public settings.

"No Christian may judge the soul of any person. God alone is judge," said Parker, in a final response to school officials. "We must learn to dwell in peaceful co-existence with those who do not believe as we do. But, dwelling in peace co-existence does not mean the same thing as saying that we actually believe the same thing. To the contrary, it would be disrespectful to pretend that we have no differences."