Testimony on civic chaplaincy (HRC-11) offered January 26, 2016

My name is Jason Wells and I am the priest serving Grace Episcopal Church in Concord. Sometimes the Senate invites me to be their chaplain. Because of that experience, I urge you to recommend that the House vote HRC-11 as Inexpedient To Legislate.

My years-long service as a legislative chaplain gives me a unique perspective to offer the Committee. The role of any civic chaplain is a difficult and a anxious one. To use a metaphor, the chaplain navigates a barge through shallow and rocky waters. In fear of damaging the barge or losing the cargo, there are two apparent options. The first option is to throw the cargo overboard, lighten the load and avoid the rocks. Of course, while safe passage is found, the point of the journey is lost. This option represents casting off chaplaincy from our civic life, which has strong arguments in its favor, given the Constitution’s no-establishment clauses.

The second option is to veer the barge hard toward the river banks. Again the rocks are avoided and this time the cargo is safe. But now, the barge is grounded on the banks and cannot journey onward. Resolution HCR-11 represents this option. This resolution veers hard into sectarianism and advocacy, particularly in its second and third resolve clauses. As sectarianism, it privileges Christianity ahead of other faiths and will give leverage to those who want to see civic chaplaincies ended. As advocacy, it invites each faith and each viewpoint within that faith to use the chaplain’s role as a bully pulpit and a battleground, ending any pastoral or counseling role chaplains exercise.

So what is the third way? The third way is for the barge and its cargo to hold its course in rocky waters. The third way is to recognize that a non-sectarian and non-advocating civic chaplaincy is always difficult and anxious work and yet to affirm that this chaplaincy is a necessary part of both legislative and executive work. The third way is to recommend HCR-11 as Inexpedient To Legislate. The third way is to heed the wisdom found in our present policies: wisdom which was hard-won over the course of centuries of trial and error at understanding church and state relations.

Every time that I come into the Senate chamber to offer a reflection and a prayer, I agree to specific terms. Those terms are simple:

“New Hampshire’s State Senators cherish their private religious beliefs, and respect those of our colleagues, recognizing the many cultural, religious and secular backgrounds from which we come to serve our state.

In the interest of unanimity and comity between Senators before session, it is requested that our Senate Chaplain:

  1. Refrain from invoking by prayer any one specific religious faith or figure, whether Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha or any other; and
  2. Refrain from interjecting into the prayer a religious or personal position on political or specific legislation.”

In short, in accepting the invitation, which I can freely refuse, I agree voluntarily to limit my own religious expression for the sake of the common good—the heart of the Lockean social contract. A non-sectarian and non-advocating chaplaincy allows me to serve the Senate by offering a spiritual dimension to the work of governance, a pastoral counseling when personal issues weigh on their minds and an appeal to the virtues of humility, hope, higher calling (among many others) and by offering no agenda, no quid pro quo, a spirit much needed in politics.

This policy, this third way through rocky waters, will also serve the Executive Council well. Please recommend HCR-11 as Inexpedient to Legislate.

Author: Jason

Rev. Jason Wells is the executive director of the New Hampshire Council of Churches. Prior to this position he served Episcopal congregations in New Hampshire for 13 years after his ordination in 2004. Jason is also a board member of the ACLU-NH. He is a former president of the Greater Concord Interfaith Council and has served on the Episcopal Church's committee on ecumenical and interfaith relationships. Jason received a Master of Divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary and also holds bachelors degrees in computer science and mathematics from Southern Methodist University.