Monday, July 8, 2013

Liturgical Ecumenism

There’s a very old joke about the young seminarian who was reporting to one of the elders of his home church about courses he was taking. “One of the most interesting,” the seminarian said, “is the course on ‘ecumenics’.” “That’s wonderful,” replied the oldster. “Ministers ought to know how to handle money.”

That joke dates from the days when ecumenism was a new concept in some circles, and there was a learning curve in local churches. Although you’d think we’d know better now, if you look around you’ll discover ecumenical relations among Christians and inter-faith relations between Christians and Jews and Moslems could stand considerable improvement.

On the Christian scene, it seems as though many congregations have climbed into their congregational boxes and folded over the tops. We’re clutching our own traditions, running dangerously into the mire of stagnation. Worship too often is static and stale, without passion or enthusiasm. Then, all that follows from worship grinds to a halt.

I was provoked to think about this quandary by a recent address made by John X, Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Antioch, sent to me by a friend who is an Antiochian Orthodox priest. It contained this challenge to the Patriarch’s Orthodox constituents, just as applicable to all Christians:

“We should acknowledge that schism today is not only between the Churches, but also within... each of them. While we are called to learn from each other, each of us is searching for Christ in our own way and sings for Him with our own particular words and rituals. We have to love the face of Christ as He is seen by the other. Only then will our experiences complement each other; and we shall discover that the wall of enmity and schism does not grow so high as to reach the heavens.”

This, of course, confronts my Reformed sensibilities. It’s so easy for the likes of me, born and bred Presbyterian, steeped in the American “Book of Common Worship” tradition, to consider what I know to be all there is to know. We take our worship seriously, and build it on learning from our ancestors and education about our current practices. Yet that kind of wisdom and knowledge can become a box with the lid on tight.

Taking the above counsel of the Patriarch personally, it behooves me and others to at least peek outside the box of our own liturgy, and see what’s going on elsewhere.

Here’s a suggestion—that pastors and sessions (governing boards) need to include in their contracts the following requirement: That quarterly (at least four times a year) the pastor will take a weekend off to attend worship in another church (Protestant, Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Independent) and spend time with the spiritual leader of that congregation to discuss the experience.

Notice, this is a requirement—not an option.

What’s to be gained by such adventures?

Visiting other Protestant churches might possibly open one to the discovery of common threads of tradition. Lutherans will teach us that non-Reformed Protestants know how to worship as profoundly as we do, maybe more so. Southern Baptists reveal another more informal style reflecting other American customs. Episcopalians show that formality is not to be feared. There is even something to be learned from those in our own denomination.

Roman Catholics have struggled the past fifty years in “reforming” their worship. The actions of Vatican II have prompted many changes in the liturgy to restore the active role of the people. The ascendancy of Pope Benedict XVI, however, has introduced an era of undoing what Vatican II accomplished. Still, Roman Catholics struggle to understand their past and renew their worship.

On the Orthodox side, there is much to be learned. For a thousand years or so, the West has drifted from the East, and vice versa. Nevertheless, many Protestant and Catholic individuals have found their spiritual pilgrimages taking them in the Orthodox direction. Curiously, Presbyterians sometimes find a real attraction to Orthodox liturgy. It’s been suggested that this is because Calvin based his understanding of worshipping God on the early church theologians, who are also cited by the Orthodox liturgists. The full participation of the people and the awareness of transcendence in worship are among the commonalities.

(While we’re on the subject, even non-Christian people have something to contribute to our understanding of our own worship. A visit at the local synagogue, obviously, might also be included. How else is one to understand that the first Christians were Jews just as Jesus was, and our worship from the beginning was shaped by the traditions continuing in Sabbath worship? And Muslim worship can also be informative, even if commonalities are not so obvious. The devout piety and praise of God is clear, and conversation with the imam or other Muslim could reveal insights and understanding.}

Shared worship experiences can only be broadening for the pastor, and through him or her, enriching to the worship of the people.

Do you or your pastor ever visit other churches to learn about different worship experiences?

1 comment:

  1. The absolute best thing you ever did for me as a parent or a pastor was drag us around to different churches, and allow me to attend with friends often. I've sat through all kinds of temple services, folk mass, latin mass (that was particularly memorable, made me want to learn latin) mass in Spanish, and all kinds of protestant services. As a little kid I don't know that I got that much out of it spiritually, but I learned that there were really neat things about other people's services, that there were a lot of similarities (was thrilled to hear the familiar notes of the Doxology in an unfamiliar place). I fully agree it should be required of pastors to get out and about, and I recommend all parents do it. We have little opportunity for that where we live now, but our youngest child's best friend is Greek Orthodox and we encourage her to tag along as often as they will have her.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!