Practicing mutuality in ecumenical worship

In our first article we presented why we believe ecumenical worship/prayer is important. It is one thing to argue for the importance of ecumenical worship; it is another to practically engage in it. In this article we will explore three forms of ecumenical worship/ prayer services. These are:  

  1. By visiting each other’s houses of worship and/or sharing in each other’s liturgies/orders of worship.
  2. By forming a group to create an ecumenical prayer/worship service together, and 
  3. By sharing together in a liturgy already created by an ecumenical organization.

Each of these forms of has its own challenges and benefits. Before we look at the first two in more detail it is important to note some general principles. In his well-known sermon “Catholic Spirit” John Wesley noted that different forms of worship were amongst the factors that divided Christians because they in good conscience could not use the particular forms of worship that other Christians used. Both of Wesley’s grandfathers had been forced out of the ministry of the Church of England, for amongst other things, their refusal to use the liturgy set out in the Book of Common Prayer. Different approaches to worship and the theologies that underlie them can still divide Christians. Before we engage in planning ecumenical worship, we need to look at some principles for approaching these differences.

The first principle is that of mutual recognition – this means that despite our, sometimes significant, differences in theology and liturgical practice we recognize each other as spiritual siblings, members of the body of Christ.

The second principle is that of mutual understanding – this means that we seek to understand the commonalities and differences in our worship, prayer services and theology. Here is it important to understand not only what our differences are but also why other traditions have difference practices. These differences need to be understood from the perspective of those who practice them and not from the perspective of our own traditions and theology. 

The third principle is that of mutual respect and restraint. Mutual respect means that we respect the authenticity of each other’s commitment to faithful and appropriate worship even when we find it too strange, un-understandable, or even offensive. Mutual restraint flows out of mutual respect it means that in the context of an ecumenical worship/prayer service we restrain ourselves from acting in a way that offends or causes discomfort to our ecumenical partners. This is particularly the case when the service is being hosted by the partner. What does this mean in practice. One example would be when Protestants take part in a Catholic Mass, they should be aware that the Catholic Church does not practice open communion and that they should therefore not take communion.

Underlying these principles is the recognition that diversity in styles of worship/prayer services reflects both human diversity, limitations, and mistakes as well as the work of the Spirit who specializes in creating diversity that is part of a dynamic harmony. 

Visit each other’s houses of worship and liturgies.

This form of ecumenical engagement allows us to experience each other’s ways of worship, the formulas and methods that are used and the spiritual atmosphere. This provides an important way toward a deeper understanding of each other. This understanding is not merely intellectual but is also experiential – we are able to some extent to enter into the experience of worship/prayer of another tradition even when this is quite foreign to our own tradition and might fall outside of our understanding of worship.

This form of ecumenical worship/prayer can take place on an individual level, but it can also form part of planned program with larger groups participating in the worship/prayer of other communions. This ought not to be a one-way process. People from different traditions can take turns in visiting each other’s places of worship/prayer and participating in each other’s services. When this kind of exchange takes place as part of an organized program it is best to let the leadership of the community being visited know there are guests coming. The leaders can also be asked if there is anything that would be good for the visiting group to know prior to their arrival.  

Discussions with the leadership should form part of a more general process of educating ourselves about the customs and traditions of the communion you will visit. Do you bow before you sit in the pew? Do you move forward to the front of the worship space to present an offering? When should you stand, sit, or kneel? Is it possible that leaders will be called upon to speak during the service? Should you, or should you not, receive the Eucharist?

 After such an experience of ecumenical worship/prayer it is important to debrief. Such a debriefing can include sharing what was particularly meaningful, what was difficult or even problematic, and what was confusing. Here some interaction with a representative from the place of worship/prayer that you visited could be helpful to explain issues and respond to questions.

Creating an ecumenical prayer/worship service together

The second way to enter into ecumenical engagement is to create a service that can be joined by all who are engaging in the service of worship/prayer. This is worshipping together (or praying together) by creating a formula unique to those who are worshipping together. This is when two or more groups come together and decide to create an experience of worship that will honor all those present as much as possible within one service. The leadership would be shared among leaders of both places of worship. This kind of worship allows those gathered to honor each other at the same time and for everyone to have more of a possibility of comfort in the recognition of the familiar. It works best if the worship is a one-time, or irregular, or annual occasion. 

Here are some things to remember:

  1. Remember why you are doing it: First, because you love God. Second, because ecumenical worship/prayer is an opportunity to witness to the inclusive love and unity of God’s Spirit.  
  2. Remember to think of others: There should be representation from all the traditions who will be involved in the planning of the creation of services of worship/prayer. It is better to have clear communication from the start than to make assumptions. Along those lines, pay attention to your language. Sometimes words as simple as prayer and worship can mean different things to different Christian traditions. For example, when we plan for ecumenical worship that includes Orthodox participants, we need to remember that worship is defined as something very specific.  When we join together at the beginning of a meeting for a time, we might casually call a brief time of worship, for many Orthodox, that would not be worship. It would be a time of prayer.
  3. Remember to think about where, when, and why you are doing the worship. What is the context in terms of reason for the worship, what is going on in the community and in the larger world?  What is the culture in terms of the group leading and participating in the worship and how should it be engaged?
  4. Remember to get on the same page about the Sacrament of Communion.  An honest conversation about the Eucharist needs to happen. Communion means different things to different faith traditions, so often sharing it is not a possibility. (For example, since Roman Catholics believe Communion is a sign of already-realized unity, Protestants generally should not take it with them.) However, the brokenness that remains can be highlighted with a careful explanation of why we cannot yet all partake together. Additionally, all persons can receive blessings or anointing of oil from officiants. It is helpful for those not familiar with this practice to make this invitation orally and written with brief instructions.  
  5. Remember to know your own tradition before you engage in the planning of ecumenical worship:  Before we can bring something to the table for planning purposes, we need to know what it is we bring. The United Methodist Book of Worship and the United Methodist Hymnal outline the basic United Methodist services. They should be studied and understood.
  6. Remember to not only have a purpose for the worship, but to have something that holds it all together: A single scriptural theme is recommended in order to hold all the parts of the worship service together. For the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, for example, a scriptural theme is selected every year by a different communion in a different part of the world. This year it comes from the Minnesota Council of Churches and is based on Isaiah 1:17, “do good; seek justice.”  The whole service revolves around that theme.  

By participating in each other’s services of worship/prayer and by planning a service together we have the opportunity to learn from each other and to come to a new appreciation of different traditions. In doing so we can discover the multiplicity of the Spirit’s work and variety of gifts that different traditions have received.

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