If you look in to the Budget debate next week, or to Prime Minister’s Questions, or any of the great Parliamentary events, you may well be puzzled to see MPs cramming in to the aisles, sitting on the steps, and standing around the entrance. It’s because there are only 437 seats in the Chamber, for 650 MPs, so it’s a bit of a crush if they all turn up! It was done perfectly intentionally- to maintain the vibrant cock-pit of a debating chamber which has worked so well over the centuries. After the Chamber was destroyed in the Blitz, there was a brief discussion as to whether it should be expanded. Churchill stopped it to preserve its intimacy and excitement. “We shape our buildings; and then they shape us” as he famously remarked on the subject.
Every day starts off with prayers. They are said - usually using the same form as has been used for hundreds of years - by the Speaker’s Chaplain. It’s the only totally private moment in the day, with no visitors allowed in, and the TV cameras switched off. MPs stand to pray, and after a few introductory sentences they turn to face the green leather benches. No-one quite knows why. So that we do not stare at each other as we pray? Or is it a hangover from the days when MPs used the green leather benches as kneelers (as some still do in the House of Lords)
It’s a lovely little peaceful moment in the tumultuous whirly-gig which typifies the normal Parliamentary day. MPs of all religious faiths and none take part, enjoying the solace of silence and contemplation for a few minutes in their busy lives.
Being there for prayers is – by chance- also the only way you can book a seat for the day. You write your name on a little green ‘Prayer Card’ which is slotted in to a specially made slot behind each seat. So there’s a practical as well as a spiritual reason for being there at the start of the day’s business!
“Lord the God of righteousness and truth, grant to our Queen and her Government, to Members of Parliament and all in positions of responsibility, the guidance of your Spirit. May they never lead the Nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals; but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind; so may your Kingdom come and your Name be hallowed. Amen”
That’s the main prayer, and it has been said at the start of the day’s business for at least 500 years – through war, revolution, uprising. Through good times and bad. It’s wise words will see us through the current temporary turmoil of Brexit too.