Sunday, January 2, 2011

Liturgical Convergence

There are still some of us around who remember the excitement of the Second Vatican Council, and how, though we were just sitting in the stands, we were cheering for John XXIII and his colleagues in their efforts for reform.

One of the major issues tackled by the Council was the reform and renewal of liturgy. This was vitally important, as they said in Sacrosanctum Concilium, “For the liturgy…, most of all in the divine sacrifice of the Eucharist, is the outstanding means whereby the faithful may express in their lives, and manifest to others, the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true Church.” *

We looked happily at the prospects for reform of the Roman Catholic Church. Little did we imagine, at first, the impact this would make on us Protestants.

Some time after Vatican II, the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S. A. sent out word to the clergy to initiate conversations with Roman Catholic counterparts on issues raised by Vatican II.

After a flurry of phone calls, some of us neighboring Presbyterians assembled with our Roman brothers in the park on a warm summer day. (We all had sandwiches made by our spouses; the priests had sandwiches from the local deli.) The topic quickly became differences in worship. And before long, commonalities.

I remember how we pumped our priest brothers for knowledge about the Eucharist: How do we show the drama of the Supper better? What kind of bread (and wine) do you use? What goes into your Thanksgiving prayer? And so forth.

And they came back to us with questions about preaching: What goes into a sermon? How do you manage to come up with something every week? Do you use a lectionary? And so forth.

This kind of dialogue took place in many communities across the nation, and in the process we all learned, and we all taught.

In the decades that followed, we shared in public prayer events, then more clandestine common worship, followed by an occasional shared Eucharist, pulpit exchange and joint worship of whole congregations. It was a time of growth in mutual understanding by Protestants and Catholics alike.

What happened came to be called “Liturgical Convergence,” ** the common affirmation by Protestant denominations as well as the Roman Catholic Church of certain basic characteristics of Christian worship: the weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper; the Word/Sacrament pattern as the norm; the use of a three-year lectionary; strong congregational participation in liturgy; and increased liturgical education.

In recent decades, however, things have changed, actually reverted to pre-Vatican II in many ways. In a nutshell, it seems that many have retreated back within their denominational walls. Even though the major Protestant denominations have produced high-quality liturgical resources, the cross-fertilization of the 60’s and 70’s has evaporated at the local level. For many pastors and others responsible for worship in a given church, the “liturgical convergence” has unraveled. Now churches pretty much travel on parallel liturgical tracks, never again to meet.

The unfortunate outcome of parallel liturgies is that there is no interaction, at least not of the kind following Vatican II. We are not experiencing common Christian worship with our friends in faith—not across Protestant-Catholic lines, but not even among people from different Protestant traditions. Not to mention what we might learn in sharing worship with our Jewish and Muslim friends. We’re all more or less inside our own boxes.

My humble proposal, then, is that every pastor be freed of pastoral responsibilities at least four times a year to worship with a Christian congregation of a different tradition including one Roman Catholic church, one Orthodox church, a non-Reformed Protestant church, and another Reformed church.

The hope would be for the pastor to have a conversation at each place of worship, then or later, with the presider or other leader, about what was done in worship and why. That sort of discussion will raise questions and open up possibilities about worship in the pastor’s congregation. From that process come renewal and reform of our liturgy.

What interaction do you have in worship with Christians of traditions other than your own? Does your congregation regularly share in worship with one of a different denomination? Does your education program include instruction about worship?

* You’ll find the complete text at this site, and it’s well worth a read even almost half a century later.

** For an excellent article about this, Google “Emerging Ecumenical Issues in Worship, by Horace T. Allen, Jr.”


  1. Thank you, Don, for this insightful reflection. Kudos! I can affirm your observations from my own experience. While I grew up in a Mennonite church and most of my adult life has been in PCUSA churches, I am profoundly grateful for what I have learned elsewhere. Serving Catholic, Methodist, Episcopal and Lutheran (ELCA) churches as a musician has given me appreciation for their liturgy and music traditions. I can never never be appreciative enough for what I learned while on the faculty at the University of Notre Dame in attending daily and weekly mass, as well as during a residency at the Benedictine monastery for women in Madison, WI in observing the liturgy of the hours. Just as we learn best what we teach, so we understand and can enhance our own traditions when we stand outside them. Those of us from "non-liturgical" backgrounds have so much to gain from immersing ourselves in worship with a long liturgical history. Likewise, our rich musical resources can be shared across faith traditions to carry the words of the liturgy in new ways. Thanks, Don.

  2. I was born in the midst of Vatican II- both in time and within the Roman tradition. As a Presbyterian clergy person, I have welcomed Liturgical Convergence- at least among traditions that consider themselves liturgical. For me, it's more difficult to find common ground with those who are avowedly non-liturgical. We do have occasional ecumenical worship services in town where I serve a congregation, but the theological and liturgical lines are more challenging to bridge. However, the new priest has opened the table, welcoming all of us to receive the Lord's Supper. And a few of us participated in his installation. There's a glimmer of hope.

    I serve in an ecumenical and interfaith arena as well, and there we gather as Jewish, Christian, and Muslim clergy. It's often enlightening and uplifting. Our only consistent worship service is aroung the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King holiday observance though.

    Don, you are right that we need to be more intentional (I like the sandwiches in the park idea- very down to earth); perhaps we take ecumenism for granted or are just too busy keeping things going in our own spheres. I have always thought it takes courage to lend our congregation leadership to ecumenical and interfaith worship and ministry. However, that may strengthen their connection to the local congregation, not weaken it.

  3. I began my work as professor of worship in 1961, which means that most of my professorial career was during the period of convergence, with COCU the primary agent of contact much of that time. I regret that this sense of coming together has largely disappeared. In my retirement, I am writing a history of COCU, and the worship aspects will be important. In my blog as keithwatkinshistorian, I am posting some of my research including an abridged version of the COCU liturgy of 1968.

  4. Thanks to Keith for the reminder of this historic document, an early example of "liturgical convergence" and a model for what followed. The historical introduction and instructive commentary are both worth revisiting as well.

  5. Don, thanks for this post. With my Roman Catholic background, I'm used to thinking ecumenically and always enjoy the summer services we at Presbyterian-New England Congregational share with our local Methodist church. We trade preaching duties so our folks get to hear some fine Methodist preaching and the Methodists get to hear Jay and me... which is also very fine on occasion. haha

    We had an interfaith service at our Peace Fair this year with participation from Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders. We created a Litany For the People of the Book, which was a responsive reading incorporating multiple voices as well as scripture from each faith tradition. We were all touched by the warmth and fellowship that pervaded the service.

    Also, we host an annual Holiday Memorial service in early December for those families facing the holidays after losing a significant person in their lives. The woman who organizes it for our church invites (and gets!) a Roman Catholic priest, Jewish rabbi, and a couple Protestant ministers from different denominations. It is a wonderful moving service.

    Now that I think about it, I guess I'm not engaging in conversations about worship (although I'd be glad to). Instead, I feel very lucky that there are folks in the church who wish to organize interfaith services and give me an opportunity to worship ecumenically.

    There's so much more that ties us together than divides us.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!