Visit our new site at

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Ask the Matriarch :: Ecumenical Work

As all of move into summer with its different rhythms, our pool of Ask the Matriarch questions has become quite small (as in, other than the one below, we have none). Is there a ministry issue that has been puzzling you, worrying you, or causing you problems? Is there a ministry topic you wish a community of peers would discuss? Please take a moment to put it in an email and send it our way: askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.

Here is this week's question:

Throughout my career I often found that doing ecumenical work was both a blessing and a curse.  I always enjoyed my colleagues and found that when we worked together in a town or a neighborhood we could get more done together.  But I often found that our differences to be impediments to worship together.  We often 'watered down' our faith for fear of offending others rather than helping others experience the richness of our particular denomination in order to teach.
Describe your ecumenical work and what are the blessings and curses of your experience inter denominationally or inter-faith.

Ruth responds:
I love this description of ecumenical work as both a ‘blessing & a curse’ - I have experienced some of both the greatest joys and the most intense pains in my ministry in crossing denominational boundaries.

On reflection, the colleague who was able to inspire me best to appreciate the treasures of his tradition was one who was never afraid to have me question him (he is Anglican, I am Reformed). Instead of feeling threatened when we encountered differences (for example in eucharistic practice) I always felt able to say ‘why do you do that, that way?’ and he would patiently explain to me his theology of what we were doing – and sometimes he would ask questions back to me, of course. I think it has taught me to be genuinely interested in other people’s ‘way of doing things’, and also to be careful to avoid saying ‘we don’t do it that way!’ but instead to say ‘we do it differently, because...’ and then ‘can you explain the way you do it’. I hope this approach also helps congregations to value the treasures of the ‘other’, as a different facet of the one body of Christ.

Personally, it has helped me grow to the point where I currently serve 4 churches – 2 Reformed & 2 Anglican – working in and valuing the theology and practice of each.

And Terri offers:
Ecuemenical expereinces can indeed be gratifying work. I appreciate what my sisters and brothers in other traditions bring to the conversation and work we are about.
At a previous call I helped organize a number of ecumenical worship services. In 2002, in response to increased violence in the Middle East and the events of 9-11, Christian churches in my community organized evening prayer services that included scripture, prayers, and Taize music. We also organized a prayer service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This service was held each year, for 8 years, alternating in one of the local congregations. It was loosely structured on Evening Song, a worship familiar to Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and Evangelican Lutherans.The service incorporated the theme, prayers, and readings, as organized by the World Council of Churches for those celebrating the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. So, to that end, I have had meaningful worship experiences with combined Christian churches that were not watered down. Rather the services were intentionally developed in an order of worship that invited prayers and song familiar to each tradition, but in a manner that all could participate. We did not offer services that limited participation, such as Holy Communion.
I am now in an interfaith community which challenges this dynamic even further. How to worship as a gathered community of Christians, Jews, and Muslims? Recently the congregation I served hosted an interfaith worship service as participants in the  Faith Shared project. To create this service I invited members from a local Jewish temple and Muslim mosque to join us in the church on Sunday morning. We created a worship opportunity, loosely based on the Episcopal order of worship - but including elements of all three traditions. So, we had a call to prayer chanted in Arabic, followed by the lighting of the candles and the prayer that begins the Jewish sabbath on Friday night, followed by the Episcopal opening prayer - the "collect of the day." That was followed by a hymn verse "Halle, halle, halle-luia" and then a reading and reflection on the Torah. the Qu'ran, and the Gospel. We offered prayers of the people from the Book of Common Prayer, and exchanged the peace.That was followed by a "sacred meal." We did not offer a Eucharist with the typical prayers of the Episcopal Church, but instead each tradition offered prayers for a meal. In the Jewish tradition it was prayers blessing the wine and the bread. In the Islamic tradition is was a chanted prayer for the meal, and in the Episcopal Church it was a prayer over a meal from the Book of Common Prayer. We then shared the bread, (a hearty loaf purchased at the local farmers market) and the cup, either wine or grape juice. Afterward we sang a hymn from the Torah, and offered final prayers for sending forth.
The most distinctive elements for me, were listening to the nine year old boy chant from Qu'ran, and the Jewish woman reflect on the reading from the Torah. I love that the meal was eucharistic, even though it was not a formal Eucharist. I love that we each maintained our identity and the language of our tradition, yet offered them all together. It was exciting to experience the similarities and differences in our worship traditions.
It's clear to me that this was possible because the three faiths involved in this worship have some aspects in common, including a foundation in the God of Abraham. Such an interfaith worship would be much more complicated if it included Buddhists, Hindu's or other faiths. I will learn more about how such worship is done when I attend the World Sabbath in January.
I do think that we have a lot to learn from one another. I also think that we need not try to smooth over or blend or water down our worship for the other. I do however think it is important to be mindful of the words and practices of our tradition that might feel hurtful to another. I was grateful that the Gospel reading was on "welcoming" the other, and not one that was accusatory of the "Jews." (As if Jesus were something other than). I think there can be a sensitive distinction between watering down our worship and being mindful of language, symbols, and actions, that will exclude or hurt others.

Wow! Great responses from our Matriarchs! Let's continue this discussion in the comments section. What experiences and insights would the rest of you offer?


  1. hmmmm. I don't know. Ecumenism in the abstract, ecumenism at the highest level of theological discussion, ecumenism at the absolute grass-roots pragmatic level -- all lovely, and the source of much joy, inspiration, courage, etc.

    But somewhere in the great, grey-green, greasy, middle there is a sort of stratum of self-proclaimed, self-congratulatory, "inter-church" and "inter-faith" which in practice looks a lot like resentment of and contempt for one's own tradition ("we don't want to use the word 'Jesus,' do we, it's so, well, LOADED")...and... I'm out of patience with it.
    Or maybe I'm just OLD. But more and more of late when I'm asked to say grace, give an invocation-prayer, and told "and please don't make it specifically CHRISTIAN, because there are people of other faiths present", I excuse myself. I am what I am, and I'm tired of agreeing to pretend I'm something else.

  2. I think Terri's example is interfaith at its best. I'm lucky enough to have worked with Jewish colleagues in CPE and also had a good experience. I'm struggling more with ecumenical relations now...I'm far more theologically liberal than my colleagues of other denominations in this area (and female on top of that, which is an issue for some) and I often feel very out of place. After participating in a National Day of Prayer at which i found myself inwardly cringing at some of the prayers, I've mostly quit attending the clergy gatherings. I know that may not be the best response to the situation, but that's where I am now.

    Let me add that I don't need everyone to agree with me, but I have a hard time when prayers are for things I don't endorse or believe in and perhaps represent what I consider to be a distorted view of Christianity. (And I'm sure some of the other clergy feel that way about me, too.)

  3. I hear you, RDM. I'm more liberal than many, and a lot more conservative than others, but the discomfort is the discomfort, right across the spectrum!!!

  4. I think if one can leave a few doctrinal "musts" at the door, things work for the better. That said, the most ecumenical successes I've had (outside of CPE) would be for when we worked on a common project of mercy, One time it was paint buckets of supplies which we sent via the Mennonites to Haiti. Another time it was school supplies to a hurricane-wrecked school district. Those were probably more successful than some of the joint "services" which no one really liked... and our parishioners did NOT attend them!

  5. Thanks, y'all for your thoughtful answers.

    I just discovered that we had another matriarch response, from our newest matriarch, kathrynjz:
    I have witnessed the formal ecumenical efforts in two different communities with similar results. The ministerium has become so bulky and traditional that little is being done for the good of the kingdom and the "mandatory" community worship services are very much as the question described, "watered down."

    In my current context I have decided that the conversation, breakfast and connections to be made at the monthly gathering are not worth the trade of my time. As a Presbyterian where polity and Robert's Rules surround me, I do not need a 6am reading of the previous meeting's minutes in my life. However, when asked, I did preach at the Thankgiving Eve service, an 'honor' bestowed on the newest sucker... umm, I mean minister, in the community.

    Where I have seen ecumenical efforts pay off is when smaller groups of religous leaders (2-5 people) make a commitment to work together on a specific issue (air quality in my previous community), or host conversations with each other's faith communities or just gather informally to support and/or learn from one another. A colleague of mine in Baltimore is in an accountability group with another pastor and two rabbis. He LOVES it and has benefitted greatly from it.


You don't want to comment here; instead, come visit our new blog, We'll see you there!

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.