Thursday, May 12, 2011

Interreligious Worship

The newest issue of Liturgy (vol. 26.3) focuses on the question of interreligious worship. The issue was edited by Dr. Ruth Langer and the Rev. Stephanie Perdew VanSlyke. The following is excerpted from their introduction to this issue.

"Denominational worship reinforces and celebrates particularistic religious identity. However, in today’s North American context, our lived communities transcend these particularities. Occasions regularly arise that call for ritual responses that cross denominational lines, where other elements define the identity of the gathered community. Such occasions include incidental expressions of civil religion, such as communal responses to disasters (or more rarely, moments of celebration), regular community commemorations, such as Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, or Holocaust Memorials, and more intimate settings involving life cycle celebrations in blended families. In such situations, may we come together in prayer, and if we may, how do we construct successful rituals? [What are] the factors that shape the decisions made by practitioners when they chose to participate, or refrain from participating in such settings. What are the factors that shape these choices? What wisdom have we gained from several decades of experimentation in the North American context?....

As we get to know our neighbors and blend our families, interreligious observances are not rare occasions but the patterns of everyday life. We attend one another’s marriage and funerary rites, honor one another’s children by attending baptisms, bris and baby-naming ceremonies, bar and bat mitzvahs, first communions and confirmations. For our ancestors, setting foot in one another’s houses of worship might have been rare, but for us it is becoming commonplace. Yet we still yearn to know how to navigate the commonplace. How should we behave in another’s house of worship? This is one context in which we encounter interreligious prayer and the issues it raises.

When attending the religious rite of a friend or family member, what is called for? Do we sit quietly? Read the prayers? Sing the hymns? Participate in other communal ritual action? If we do so, what might this participation mean for our own faith commitments? These questions have been met with
publications meant to educate those who ask them. From 1996 to 2011, the book How to be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook has been updated five times in order to address the increasingly diverse religious landscape in North America. Denominations have also recognized
that we are visiting one another’s houses of worship more frequently for life cycle events and weekly worship, and have responded with their own guidelines about appropriate participation, and the limits of such participation. So the reality of religious diversity in the United States, lived out in our attending one another’s denominational liturgies and life cycle observances, is one context in which we encounter interreligious worship and the issues that arise when we are invited to visit, celebrate, or even participate in another’s religious life."

In the remainder of their editorial introduction, Langer and Perdew VanSlyke endeavor "to name and reflect upon the contexts in which religious leaders, presiders, and practitioners encounter religious prayer, address the issues that arise, and give current examples of limits, challenges, and controversies in planning interreligious ritual in the North American context. The [other] contributors to this volume expand our reflection on these contexts and the inherent theological, spiritual, and liturgical issues surrounding interreligious prayer." 

You can read more at Liturgy: Interreligious Worship.

Stephanie Perdew VanSlyke serves as senior pastor of the First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Wilmette, Illinois. She is an adjunct faculty member at McCormick Theological Seminary and Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in the areas of Christian worship and early Christian history.

Ruth Langer is associate professor of Jewish studies in the Theology Department at Boston College and associate director of its Center for Christian-Jewish Learning.

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