Prayer is increasingly invisible in Canadian public life, but it’s thriving in private.
Last year, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a Catholic prayer recited at the start of city council meetings in Saguenay, Que., infringed on freedom of religion and conscience. Some councils across the country eliminated routine prayers as a result. In Ottawa, the mayor replaced the prayer with a moment of silence. A public opinion poll suggests most Canadians agree with the Supreme Court and, interestingly, two-thirds of respondents suggested they’d be fine with a non-religious “pep talk” at the start of some public meetings.
Over time, Christian prayer in many public settings, like Parliament, have given way to ecumenical prayers that are innocuous enough to be acceptable to everyone except the most devoted atheists, although even some religious people agree with the idea that religion should be separated from things like governance.
Privately, though, Canadians are still praying in numbers that may surprise some.
Earlier this year, the Angus Reid Institute released a study on the prayer habits of Canadians. The study says 20 per cent of Canadians report praying daily. (This compared with 55 per cent of Americans who say they do.) Another 10 per cent say they pray several times a week. Only 32 per cent replied “Never” when asked how many times they had prayed in the past year.
Of those who pray, half of respondents say they have a “personal conversation with God.” Six per cent say they recite memorized words, presumably the Lord’s Prayer or “Now I lay me down to sleep” or similar, and 41 per cent say they do some of both.
The study also indicates that those who pray most frequently — every day — overwhelming offer prayers of gratitude, while those who pray only a couple of times a month tend to be asking God for something.
Not surprisingly, prayer is a habit gained in childhood. Those who prayed as children are more likely to pray as adults and those who didn’t as kids mostly don’t as adults.
While prayer takes different forms for people of different religious backgrounds, it is integrated into most religious services. However, one Vancouver church has an unusual dedication to it.
Suki Dicker is director of prayer ministries at First Baptist Church downtown. She admits it is an uncommon role. Most churches do not have a pastor dedicated exclusively to prayer. It is a testament to the value the church places on the practice, and a chat with Dicker indicates there is more to the idea of prayer than simply closing your eyes and mouthing some words.
First Baptist has a veritable menu of prayer practices and programs available. One that is fairly rare in mainline churches is a healing prayer practice.
“I pray with people who come seeking healing for physical ailments… relational brokenness, emotional hurt and people facing various forms of addiction, crisis,” she says.
Another ritual is “soaking prayer,” but this is not, as I had wondered, similar to the phenomenon of flotation therapy.
“Soaking prayer is really a silent, contemplative prayer,” she explains. Participants come into a quiet space where quiet music is playing.
“It's a place where people can come, get away from all of the busyness in their lives and sit in a place that is quiet. It's peaceful, people come seeking direction in their lives from God, they're seeking healing of relationships or whatever it might be and they can sit quietly, reading the Bible, praying quietly in a contemplative way and we come round and pray for them,” Dicker says. “I'll lay a hand on someone’s shoulder and I’ll pray for them… It's all done in quietness. There is no voiced prayer.”
There is also a group of intercessory pray-ers, who will pray on behalf of individuals who request it. You can even email your request. If you hang around after Sunday services, there are individuals waiting to serve as prayer companions and there are weekly prayer meetings. In short, First Baptist places a lot of emphasis on prayer.
While this is unusual among many Christians, it would have seemed unusual to Dicker herself just a few years ago.
“I am a relatively new Christian,” she says. “I only came to know the Lord in 2002, in my late 30s.”
Originally from the United Kingdom, Dicker was working as a corporate lawyer for a large aerospace and defence company that was expanding to the United States. They sent Dicker to Washington, D.C., where her interest in Christianity was first piqued. She took a sabbatical and came to Vancouver’s Regent College, intending to return to her job after a year.
“The one-year sabbatical turned into four years,” she says. She received her Master’s and was “pulled into a life of ministry rather than going back into the corporate world and going back to Washington, D.C.”
“It is quite a change,” she says laughing. Her former colleagues were not as surprised as one might expect.
“I think people were delighted and thought that I was actually doing something that involved following a passion and a lot of people wanted also to get off the conveyor belt and do what I've been doing,” she says.
Her own prayer life reflects the variety the Angus Reid study indicates Canadians follow. A pattern of prayer — set prayers at set times — is “absolutely wonderful,” she says. “But, in addition, it's about praying ceaselessly, it's about being in communication, talking to God throughout your day.”