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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"Guidelines for Ecumenical and Interfaith Services: Lessons from Long Island, New York" by Tom Goodhue, Executive Director Long Island Council of Churches

How Should We Pray When We Come Together?
One of the good things that emerged from the 9/11 attacks was a spontaneous wave of prayer vigils that were ecumenical (involving several denominations) or interfaith (several religions) and a renewed interest in joint worship services celebrating Thanksgiving, Martin Luther King's birthday, and such. Many local clergy associations proved their worth by gathering people to pray, comfort one another, and unite us across lines of race and religion. 
Sometimes even when clergy associations have been together for a long time, however, they still have not had full and frank discussions (the way diplomats describe really tense conversations) about how they want to pray or worship together. Each of us has probably seen interfaith worship sometimes done with grace and sensitivity and other services that actually increased tensions between those the organizers hoped to unite. Bringing together people of distinctly differing worship traditions presents fresh challenges: 
Should we say a common prayer together or should each leader pray in the style of their own tradition?
Is it right for one congregation or religious leader to say what is unacceptable in joint worship or does this need to be negotiated by all parties?
Is it okay to ask those from a free-prayer or spontaneous-prayer tradition to stick to a script?
What can the host congregation reasonably ask guests to do--or refrain from doing?    
How do we decide who gets invited to come?
How do we decide who gets to lead? 
Should Christians pray ¡°in name of Jesus¡± when non-Christians are present?
Should we stick to Old Testament texts if Jews will be present?
Should we focus on what unites us and what we share in common or explore the ways in which we differ and call for mutual respect?
These questions are important to both ecumenical and interfaith cooperation.  It is worth the effort it takes, I believe, to hash out these issues and best to do it before disaster strikes. 
At an Annual Meeting of the LICC at Temple Beth David in Commack, a few months after the 9/11 attacks, a distinguished panel discussed  "How Should We Pray When We Come Together?"  Panelists, moderated by LICC President Hope Koski, shared these thoughts:
The Rev. Reggie Tuggle, pastor of Memorial Presbyterian Church in Roosevelt, emphasized the need for worship leaders to talk about the ground rules for shared prayer or shared worship "at the outset to avoid embarrassment and discomfort.  Give yourself time to work through these ground rules together. Based on his extensive experience with ecumenical (interdenominational) and interfaith worship he cautioned,  "Assume that you will need dialogue and negotiation, and expect that there will be unintentional violations of whatever agreement you reach."
Rabbi Ronald Androphy, President of the Long Island Board of Rabbis and leader of the Conservative synagogue in East Meadow, confessed that he often feels torn between wanting to be inclusive and not wanting to water down our distinct traditions.  Whether we should try to share a common prayer or invite each leader to pray their own way, he suggested, depends on what the purpose of the gathering is: are we trying to unite the community or are we trying to educate one another about our differences. In some settings, such as a commencement at a private college, "we can seek to create a spiritual moment rather than a religious one." Three things need to be negotiated in advance for joint worship services, he said, the nature of the prayers, the nature of the readings, and the nature of the homily or sermon.
If we attempt common prayer, insisted both Bishop David Benke of the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) and Msgr. Donald Beckmann, Ecumenical Officer for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, we need to ask ourselves not only "How do I feel about saying a prayer from someone else's tradition?" but also "How do they feel about saying my prayer or me saying their prayer?"   Joint worship services require not only a previously negotiated agreement, Beckmann added, but a strong M.C. able to hold people to it.
Bishop Benke explained how he has found that he must respect his own convictions as well as those of others: he would not claim in interfaith gatherings that "we pray in the name of Jesus" but he cannot be true to himself without saying "In the name of Jesus I pray."  How do we allow people to opt out of saying things they may not believe?  Bishop Benke told how an imam handled this gracefully at a joint service at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem: "I am going to pray to God the way I usually do.  If you cannot join in prayer with me, Please remain silent and pray to God in your own manner." 
(Excerpted from Tom Goodhue’s forthcoming book Many Names for God: Living in a Multi-Faith World)

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