Changes to legislative prayer in the Isle of Man

A guest post by Peter W Edge and Teale Phelps Bondaroff

Cross-posted with permission from Law & Religion UK


Tynwald, the legislature of the Isle of Man, has in recent years spent considerable time reflecting on the inclusion of the Lord Bishop of Sodor and Man in the upper chamber, the Legislative Council, and in particular their ability to vote on legislation and other matters. The discussion culminated in no immediate change. It has recently returned to the constitutional entwining of church and state in relation to legislative prayers in the dominant chamber of Tynwald, the House of Keys.

The First Report of the Management Committee

Partly triggered by no nominations coming forward for a replacement for the retiring Chaplain to the House of Keys, in January 2022, the House of Keys Management and Members’ Standards Committee recommended replacing the current prayers by the Chaplain (or in their absence the Speaker) at the beginning of each meeting. The report outlining these recommendations included a survey of legislative prayer practices in Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Ireland, and British Columbia, and included a summary of the BC Humanist Association's House of Prayers Report‘.

The first recommendation was that there should no longer be a Chaplain of the House, the pastoral care currently offered by the Chaplain being offered by the Lord Bishop, and to allow adoption of one of two replacements to the current prayers (para.14).

If this recommendation was accepted, the second recommendation was for prayer to be replaced, for a trial period of a year, by a “House of Keys Smooinaghtyn”, which could involve a short talk on a philosophical or educational theme by a person nominated by a member (not dissimilar to the weekly practice in the Scottish Parliament).

The Report included draft guidance (Annex Two) on the Smooinaghytn. A contribution would last no more than 3 minutes (300 words at normal talking speed) and would consist of a short narrative “on a philosophical, educational topic or relating to the time of year; and/or a reading or readings from appropriate texts” (para.7). It “may reflect the practice of faith or the belief community to which the orator belongs (if any)” (para.8). It may not “denigrate another faith, belief, or none” (para.9), and “will be consistent with the principles of equal opportunity, dignity and respect for all and should not include remarks or comments that are discriminatory” (para.11). The text of the contribution should be submitted at least 24 hours in advance to the Secretary of the House, and the oral contribution may not deviate from the text (para.13). Although not covered explicitly, we assume that a text which failed to meet the requirements of para.9 and para.11 would be vetoed at this point, or the contributor required to make particular amendments. It would be broadcast on Manx Radio, but not transcribed (para. 14, 15).

The Smooinaghtyn clearly envisaged the possibility of contributors talking from their particular faith position, indeed going so far as to recognise that they may read from “appropriate texts” which we take to include religious texts. There are mechanisms, however, to allow the Secretary of the House to censor these contributions in advance. Policing the boundaries of acceptable contributions could be contentious, particularly around choice of contributors, and censorship of proposed contributions.

In relation to choice of contributor, contributors would be nominated by an MHK. Neither the Secretary of the House, nor MHKs, would be required to take account of the principles of equal opportunity, dignity and respect for all, in the exercise of their functions. This raises some thorny issues:

  1. Are there boundaries as to acceptable nominees? Recent years have seen a rise in new faith traditions, which may or may not meet definitions of what constitutes a religion. These include groups like Scientology, Raëlianism, Eckankar, but also religious ‘parody’ and advocacy groups like the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Noodle Monster or the Satanic Temple. Would these groups be welcome to contribute? If the Secretary would consider them, what if no MHK was prepared to nominate them, even for a contribution clearly meeting the guidelines which the group was keen to make?
  2. What are the criteria upon which a community would be selected to make a contribution? One riposte to our point above may be that Pastafarians of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Noodle Monster are not present in the Manx community – a point it would be interesting to hear from any Manx Pastafarian on – which would be putting forward a demographic basis for representation. This is in many ways an appealing basis, and could be the foundation of a varied pattern of speakers, but demographic representation focussed on religion or belief may result in underrepresentation elsewhere. When the Scottish Parliament adopted a system that invited people from different faith traditions and non-believers to deliver addresses before their sessions, they managed to achieve relatively accurate representation with respect to belief systems but did not achieve accurate representation on other factors such as gender.
  3. If the focus is on demographics, how should we divide up the religious landscape of the Isle of Man? Just as there are innumerable faith traditions, there are also wide ranges of sub-groups that exist within a faith tradition. Does the House of Keys invite one person to deliver an ecumenical ‘Christian’ prayer to represent all Christians, or are prayers offered for each Christian denomination? Where is the line drawn as to what constitutes a discreet community worthy of representation? Given the diversity of beliefs and practices within families of beliefs, this could be very complicated indeed – does the House of Keys consider Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses to be Christians? Would these faith traditions be sufficiently represented by a ‘Christian’ prayer? Would other Christians feel sufficiently represented by a passage from the Book of Mormon in “their” turn?
  4. Once it has been decided what faith communities are to be treated as distinct communities, there is the question of who to contact from a faith community to deliver the statement. Should the House reach out to individuals at the top of a religious hierarchy? Or lay members? If the faith community has leadership norms which say distinguish between people on the grounds of gender, ethnicity, or disability, should the state engage ceremonially with leaders identified under those norms?

Once an invitation has been made, this part of the session of the Keys would not be entirely delegated to the speaker selected. What if the Secretary has to censor a contribution?

  1. As Peter Edge has argued elsewhere, many world faiths contain doctrines and passages of “scripture” which are profoundly difficult to reconcile with particular contemporary human rights values. Even within “equal opportunity, dignity and respect for all”, there are contemporary debates where both sides of intensely polarised debates identify their stance with equality, dignity and respect for all, and their opponents’ stance as quite the opposite. A community could have a member’s contribution censored for expression of lawful beliefs, including direct quotations from texts they regard as holy – the limits proposed in the Annex do not, entirely sensibly, limit themselves to criminal speech.
  2. Perhaps less extreme than direct citation of religious scripts which are in frank conflict with state values, are statements of religious doctrine more broadly. Would asserting a faith stance which is incompatible with some other faith stances – and it is difficult to imagine one that is not – be seen as denigrating those faiths and so contrary to the Annex? Is it possible to censor them in such a way as to maintain their integrity as statements of faith while not offending?

If this second recommendation was not accepted, it was recommended that prayer be replaced by “a period of silence during which Members could be encouraged to reflect on the oaths or affirmations they had taken” (para.8) (not dissimilar to the position in the Northern Ireland Assembly). Although closer to some religious traditions than others (we can but feel that the Manx Quakers punished for their religious practices, such as Kneale [1660] L.P., would rather approve of silent contemplation reaching the legislative chamber), it is sufficiently content-free, and so capacious, to address the needs of a diverse chamber and Manx population.

The Committee report was received by the Keys in February, leading to a lively debate. Dissatisfaction with the status quo turned around concerns that it was “exclusionary to those who do not adhere to a particular faith”, particularly as attendance at prayers was compulsory for MHKs (Mrs Caine, 277 K139).  Although the status quo did not command strong support, there were concerns that the proposals for reform to the practice of the entire House was not the right response, and Mrs Maltby proposed an amendment that would instead emphasise protecting the freedom of conscience of individual members who objected to participation in prayer by requiring the Committee to develop a proposal allowing MHKs to be “free to participate in prayers or not according to their individual conscience” (278 K139). Supporters of the Maltby amendment were concerned at a significant change to the traditions of the Keys which had been put forward at speed (e.g. Mr Moorhouse, 282 K139); that did not take account of broader state/church relations (e.g. Mr Ashford, 280 K139), and the ceremonial side of the work of Tynwald (e.g. Mrs Corlett, 278 K139); and – probably most contentiously – that did not reflect the identity of the Isle of Man as “very much a Christian society” (Mr Callister, 279 K139). The Maltby amendment was adopted by a significant majority (304 K139).

Although broadly welcomed as a minimalist response to what was seen as a legitimate problem – the position of MHKs who were not comfortable being present during prayers – the Maltby amendment privatised the problem: it became an issue for the individual MHKs which could be accommodated by a House structured around it not being problematic for the majority. As Mr Hooper said in the debate of the First Report, however: “We are here to do a job, and actually asking some people to excuse themselves whilst others undertake a religious exercise is again slightly flawed. It is almost saying one group is slightly more valued than another or slightly more right than another, and again that feels, to me, to be wrong” (288 K139). Mr Hooper’s argument here – that opt-outs risk being exclusion – can be found echoed in discussions globally. For instance, in a decision on school prayer in Canada, the court found that the “exemption provision imposes a penalty on pupils from religious minorities who utilize it by stigmatising them as non-conformists and setting them apart from their fellow students who are members of the dominant religion” (Zylberberg v Sudboard Board of Education (1988)).

The Second Report

The Second Report was published in April 2022, and as well as reflecting on the debate in the Keys included a survey of MHKs. Many of the questions in the survey provide an interesting snapshot of the minority of MHKs who responded on practical matters such as where prayers should occur (the majority favouring the Keys Chamber), and who should lead prayers in the Chaplain’s absence (a majority favouring the Speaker or Deputy Speaker). The survey is less useful on broader approaches to prayer, with one option to a question being “House of Keys prayers are an expression of my faith and the faith of the community I represent. We tamper with them at our peril”.

The Committee considered that the House of Keys had decided that prayers should continue, but that participation in prayers should be optional, and it was for them to identify how to deliver these decisions.  One thing that had changed since the earlier debate was in relation to the Chaplain, with a preferred nominee, the new Archdeacon of Man, being identified by the Report as a suitable candidate for the unpaid post (para.7). The Report proceeds, however, on the basis that a Chaplain might not be appointed (para.11).

One point addressed by the Second Report was, given prayers were to continue, who was to lead them. The former rules specified the Chaplain, or in their absence the Speaker, but the Report recommended deleting this reference so that that the Chaplain could involve “persons of other faiths or none in the leading of prayers” (para.12). This could involve substituting for the Chaplain in case of absence, but the Report also envisages that in the event of an unplanned absence, prayers could be led by the Speaker “or for the Speaker to delegate leading prayers to another Member” (para.12). This would address a specific concern raised during the debates by the Deputy Speaker, Mrs Caine. The existing Standing Orders would result, in the absence of a Chaplain to lead prayers, in the presiding Speaker or Deputy Speaker being required to lead prayers. As the Deputy Speaker, Mrs Caine, noted: “should Mr Speaker be absent for any reason and without a current post-holder in the post of Chaplain, a person of no faith would be leading the prayers in this Chamber. I would say that might be a little uncomfortable for some other Members and I would not want to be the cause of anybody being uncomfortable or not feeling included” (303 K139). Some presiding officers might, themselves, be uncomfortable at leading prayers which were not compatible with their own beliefs. Addressing this concern is a continuation of the emphasis on opt-outs as a way to deal with conflicts between the proceedings of the Keys and the conscience of individual members.

The Second Report proposal, although keeping the Chaplain as an official gatekeeper for the institution, has some potential to open up the prayer to a range of voices beyond the traditional Anglican or Methodist cleric. When introducing it to Tynwald, Mrs Caine said of the delegating power: “We anticipate that this would happen infrequently, but as appropriate to the time of year, outside events, visiting dignitaries and in the spirit of ensuring an inclusive society. The Committee considered that there should be the ability for someone other than the Chaplain to lead prayers. How, and indeed if this might work will doubtless be the subject of discussions between the incoming Chaplain and Members of the House” (K593 K139). Although in a softer, more informal, form, this opening up may require the Chaplain, who is by definition a committed member of a particular religious community, to wrestle with the issues we identified in relation to the Smooinaghtyn.

The proposal to open up who leads prayer would open a route to safeguard the conscience of a Speaker or Deputy Speaker who was unwilling to lead prayer. The position of other MHKs is also addressed. Members of the House of Keys are obliged, unless they have a leave of absence, to “attend the service of the House” (Standing Order 3.1(1)). The Second Report suggested that “This Standing Order will not be contravened by a Member who enters the Chamber after prayers, so long as the expression “the service of the House” is deemed not to include prayers. That is our interpretation but we consider that it would be helpful for this interpretation to be endorsed by a resolution of the House” (para.15).

The Second Report was debated by the Keys in May 2022. Debate was shorter than for the first set of recommendations.

Ms Faragher was critical of the recommendations, seeing it as “a great shame and a missed opportunity to modernise this House and make it clear that we are an elected body committed to inclusion and respect”. She was concerned that the opt-out approach was “basically conveying the message that the beliefs of some MHKs, and by extension of some constituents, are more valued than others. This, as a solution is exclusionary and divisive” (K594 K139).

Mr Hooper raised the same concerns, and stressed the physicality of MHKs leaving the chamber, “Do I have to hang around in the corridor actually?” (594 K139). He also had a broader concern about how far prayers constituted parliamentary business, albeit business which MHKs were not required to participate in, for instance in relation to being broadcast, and the power of the Speaker to regulate the business of the House. Mr Thomas shared these concerns, and in particular a scepticism about redefinition of a general part of Standing Orders – that concerning presence and absence from the House – to give effect to the policy decision to allow MHKs to absent themselves from prayers.

All recommendations of the Second Report were adopted, but the recommendation concerning interpreting standing orders so as to allow MHKs to absent themselves from the chamber during prayer had the narrowest majority – a 13:11 split.

Concluding thoughts

In Tynwald, as elsewhere, some members of the legislature take prayers seriously – as important symbols of the nature of the state, and the values those symbols represent. Both Ms Faragher and Mr Callister see decisions as to legislative prayers as ones that need to be in accord with Tynwald’s view of itself, and of the Manx nation. Seeing the systemic importance of the issue led some members to argue that profound and deep issues of church/state relations needed time and thought to resolve properly. Such members, particularly in the debate of the Second Report, were concerned that a quick resolution might be a poor one, with unforeseen consequences elsewhere in the parliamentary system.

Other MHKs, on the other hand, saw this as an unimportant issue– a “molehill” – which was a distraction from other business which would reflect poorly on the House. Other legislators wrestling with similar issues have taken the same view, for instance, recent debates in the Canadian Parliament. Such members would tend, naturally, to see a quick resolution of the issue as the best one.

The result, for the moment, has been a set of opt-outs for presiding officers or members who do not wish to participate in legislative prayer. As we have noted above, the principal difficulty with this is that it forces those who do not support the practice or whose faith might require them to not participate, to draw attention to themselves and their beliefs. It requires them to single themselves out.

Additionally, as we can see from the Tynwald debates, a shift from reform of the process for the entire House to an individual opt-out not only privatises but removes from principle the concerns raised by MHKs seeking to remove legislative prayer. Arguments for removal of prayers as a reflection of diversity and a move away from endorsement of particular faiths by state structures are recast as ways to alleviate the discomfort felt by individual members – in the process switching the argument from one about communal values which might be addressed by a polity to a purely subjective vulnerability which might be ameliorated.

The process began with proposals for systemic review and ended with the potential for the Chaplain to widen the leading of prayers, and an individualised opt-out for MHKs who did not wish to be present in the Chamber during prayers. Rather than seek to retain by redefining a civic unity for a culture which has changed tremendously, particularly in terms of religion, since the introduction of prayers in the 19th century, the Keys opted to lose that unity. Peter Edge is of the view that a brief period of silent contemplation, shared by all the Keys, would have been a better way forward. Although not all MHKs accept the value even of a minute of silence before the business of the day begins, others did, such as Dr Haywood, who in the debate of the First Report thought that “there is a value to a few moments of calm at the start of a sitting, a chance to still the body and focus the mind to the upcoming discussions and decisions” (286 K139).  Although only a small part of their working week, what MHKs do in the Chamber matters.

Peter W Edge and Teale Phelps Bondaroff

Cite this article as: Peter W Edge and Teale Phelps Bondaroff, “Changes to Legislative Prayer in the Isle of Man” in Law & Religion UK, 4 July 2022,

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