Ecumenical worship: An introduction

Loving God through worship is one of the foundational purposes of the community of Christians known as the church, and the book of Acts 2:42-47 provides us with a brief portrait of its worshipful life together: 

The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayer. ...All the believers were united and shared everything…. They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. (Acts 2:42, 44, 47)

In other places in the New Testament, we find reports of such regular gatherings of Christians with similar elements—prayer, praise, singing, a common meal, explanations of the Hebrew Scriptures or the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles, and mutual encouragement. As the church grew into new places, these regular gatherings continued in diverse forms, settings, and contexts. The first Christians gathered in the temple in Jerusalem, in homes, and in public meeting places. Over the centuries the venues have varied from magnificent cathedrals with awe inspiring architecture to simple chapels and store fronts. In times of persecution, they gathered in in cellars and catacombs. They have gathered in the homes, in sports stadiums, under the trees and in tents. Some gatherings have detailed formal written prayers and statements, while others are informal with considerable freedom for people to spontaneously participate. Some are characterized by silence; others by loud singing. Today we will find variations within the same denomination or even the same congregation. This diversity is not wrong, because the gatherings are each grounded in their contexts.  Because Christians gather in distinct places, as part of distinct cultures, and are shaped by distinct traditions, there will always be diversity and differences. However, while the content, forms, means, and arrangements are diverse, we regularly find the common elements described in Acts. 

While it is common amongst English-speaking Protestants to refer to these regular gatherings as “worship,” other traditions, particularly non-English speaking and Orthodox churches often use somewhat different terminology. For some Christians, for example, “worship” refers to their specific gatherings marked by their specific liturgy. Other times of gathering with Christians, especially from other denominations and traditions, are referred to not as worship but as “prayer.”  

In either case, when we gather together as the body of Christ, we believe God who emptied Godself in Jesus comes again to meet us in word, sacrament, and through our Christian siblings. We are drawn deeper into a relationship with Godself, to build us up in our spiritual lives, to fill us with love for others and to empower us for service in the world. We come together to meet with God that we might be transformed to go out and serve God in the world through lives of compassion and justice.

Following the pattern of the early church, the contemporary church largely believes it is important we gather every week. However, this is not the only way/time/form in which we come together for divine service. We also do it on other occasions when Christians come together with different parts of the body. Ecumenical worship happens when Christians of diverse denominations and traditions gather adore and praise God together. In this series of articles, we will explore how we as United Methodists should and can participate in ecumenical worship. In the rest of this article, we explore why ecumenical worship is important. The following articles will focus on the how of ecumenical worship.

The first reason why ecumenical worship is important arises from the apostolic witness itself. The passage from Acts that we quoted above says: “All the believers were united…” coming together to worship is one of the ways we manifest that we are the body of Christ, united to Christ and therefore to each other. In First Corinthians where Paul writes to counter the problems occurring in the Corinthian worship service, he constantly emphasizes the diversity and unity of the body of Christ. It is precisely when the community gathers to worship that this unity and diversity ought to be expressed. It is here where we ought to see what the body of Christ is as a community in which we can say to no one we do not need you—or more importantly that we do need you for us to be complete as the body of Christ.

The second reason is that communal worship is the place where we give our adoration to God revealed in Jesus Christ. It is there that we confess our allegiance to Christ. In First Corinthians Paul chides the Corinthian church, because some were claiming to be of Peter, or Paul, or Apollos. We could add Calvin, Luther, or Wesley. Instead, in worship we gather to confess that we are of Christ—that is, we are Christians. It is therefore appropriate that we declare this common allegiance together.

A third reason is that in worship God comes to us in and through our siblings in Christ. Our meeting with others, to use a Wesleyan phrase, is a means of grace through which we are transformed into the image of Christ. In ecumenical worship we meet Christ in those who come from different traditions, who understand their faith in other ways, who have insights and perspectives that challenge us to see Christ in new ways, to discover the weaknesses of our own understandings, and to enrich our knowledge of God.       

A fourth reason is to be found in the book of Revelation. Describing the ultimate worship in the eschatological presence of God, Revelation 7:9 states: “After this I looked, and there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” Our present earthly worship is a foretaste of this ultimate eschatological worship and thus should give expression to the diversity of the different streams and communities amongst the earth’s population but also in the church—the people of God.

While we have argued that ecumenical worship is significant as an expression of what the church is, it is also important to note that there are challenges to ecumenical worship. Anyone who has been a member or leader in a local congregation for any length of time will be aware of how easily disagreements or changes to worship services can bring about conflict within the church. Throughout the history of the church Christians have not only disagreed about worship practices but have been ready to divide over them and condemn in the strongest terms those who disagree with their own particular opinions. There have been disagreements and divisions about the use of statues and images in the worship, about understandings of holy communion, about whether there can be musical instruments and which instruments are appropriate (early Methodists fought over using organs in worship), should the hymns be sung or only psalms, and we can go on. While many of these are no longer issues of division, we still need to be aware of the complexity of ecumenical worship.  

In the next article we will explore in more detail how to respond to these challenges. But if we are to do so adequately, we need to be clear about what is at the heart of worship. In a context when many protestants rejected Roman Catholic worship John Wesley wrote in his well-known “Letter to a Roman Catholic”:

…all worship is an abomination to the Lord, unless you worship him in spirit and in truth, with your heart as well as your lips, with your spirit and with your understanding also. Be your form of worship what it will, but in everything give him thanks, else it is all but lost labour. Use whatever outward observance you please; but put your whole trust in him, but honour his holy name and his word, and serve him truly all the days of your life.

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