NOW THAT THE Supreme Court has blocked state-sponsored prayer in Alabama, maybe the decision will put the whole misguided thing to rest. I feel confident the country will not be taken over by communists and that devil worshipers will not increase their registration rolls. But in a way, I think it's a shame that we can't have the prayer on an experimental basis, just to demonstrate to its advocates how negligible the effect would have been on the would-be worshippers.
I venture this opinion as the human product of organized school prayer. I attended two British boarding schools where school prayer was as commonly accepted as geography class or a round of cricket. I have seen school prayer at work, and in my own humble opinion, it doesn't.
Before I get dismissed as an atheistic naysayer, let me state on the record I prayed every night from the age of 7 to 17 under the covers of my dormitory bed. Although it was pretty much the same prayer every time ("God forgive my neighbors for the idiots know not what they do. And God forgive me because, although I can't think of any instances today, I'm sure I sinned somewhere along the line. Amen."), it was often a spontaneous conversation with my Maker.
There might be a brief plea for world peace or for universal love. Occasionally I was specific in my requests: Perhaps a rugby victory the next day or the love of the latest school girl I had designs upon. But it was a voluntary act on my part and I did not need an officially sanctioned minute.
As far as my juvenile mind was concerned, the school had wall-to- wall organized religion. Not only was there obligatory morning prayer in the school at large but, as a boarder I had to attend a nightly prayer session, involving a testament reading and prayer. The religious week culminated in a marathon Sunday morning service. I also had the option of going to communion early in the morning. The Latin grace ("Benedictus benedicat, etc . . . .") before every meal should not go unmentioned.
For 12 years I followed this schedule. There was a whole lot of supplication in my life.
The average morning school service began with a familiar Charles Wesley hymn. Then, a reading from either testament and a couple of medium-sized prayers later, the headmaster would take the occasion to address the latest metaphorical enemy of the British empire (We schoolboys were usually that enemy, especially in light of some recently broken window in Mrs. Biddy's office or similar apocalyptic events). We were then informed we had a few moments of silence within which to voice our own prayers.
As some 500 boys, girls and teachers leaned forward en masse to bow their heads in prayer, you never heard such a cacophony of coughs, creaking pews and giggles. It was a deafening minute. If you had a girlfriend you were smart to sit next to her in church: There's a lot you can do in 60 seconds. For Richard A., the 15- year-old rebel, it was an opportunity to sit up in his pew and cross his arms in a pointed gesture of rebellion. When we rose to sing hymns he sat defiantly in his pew. It made you sort of embarrassed and awed at the same time to watch it, because you knew the headmaster had to look up from his prayerbook sometime and see the act.
I remember the minute well. My head would be tucked into the nook of my bent arm, my eyes pressed firmly against the orange dark of my closed eyelids. Usually it was a fitting occasion to catch up on lost sleep. Oftentimes my thoughts strayed not to scenes of the Sermon on the Mount but rather to thoughts of Jenifer A., or maybe a slow motion playback of George Best's latest goal for Manchester United. It was a silence for anything but prayer.
After 30 seconds of the "silent" minute, the heads would start popping up like so many champagne corks, waiting for the headmaster's cue to end this agony. That minute of silence made you want to go to classes. Finally the headmaster raised his head and the school would rise with what sounded like grateful commotion and escape.
With all respect to the ones who have worked toward school prayer, I can't help feeling some amusement when I see the passion that has gone into lobbying for this minute of silence. The ones who pray will certainly not be thwarted by not having official time to do it in and there seems little evidence that they would use the minute anyway. I can't see non-religious kids suddenly seeing the light either. I think most kids will use the occasion to throw spitballs.
It's a deafening waste of time.