Thursday, June 23, 2011

Guidelines for Interfaith/Intertraditional Worship

Some years ago, The Liturgical Conference published an issue of Liturgy that focused on ecumenical (meaning "inter-Christian" rather than "interfaith") concerns. In that issue, Susan J. White provided a set of guidelines for what the author called "intertraditional worship" that would serve us well in thinking about interfaith worship.
Perceptive appreciation for liturgical diversity has various implications for liturgists involved in ecumenical relations. First, it implies an obligation to avoid embracing a false liturgical ecumenism based on a superficial assessment of similarities and differences in worship and doctrine. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it implies a willingness to enter into the worship of Christians and those of other faith with openness and the vulnerability that that involves.
A host of questions now arise. Can we put aside our own particular liturgical agenda long enough to worship with Christians of other denominations and with people of other faith without the element of prejudice? Can we allow the worship of others to speak to us freely and with an independent voice? Are we willing to look, listen and enter into a liturgical world different from our own with due respect for its integrity and value? And are we able to move into genuine dialogue, in which each liturgical voice is truly heard? 
White proposed eight guidelines for “intertraditional” worship. We provide guidelines 1-4 this week, and will provide 5-8 next week.
    1. Learn to appreciate the worldview of which worship is a part…The first step… in appreciating a particular liturgical tradition is to gain some knowledge of its underlying structures. 
    2. Learn the names of things. In liturgy as in other worlds, naming things correctly is a first step toward understanding things correctly…Accurate naming not only helps us to disengage from our liturgical presuppositions but also lowers our chances of offending those with whom we wish to pray. 
    3. Find an interpreter. Anthropologists tell us that a “native informant” is one of their most valuable tools; so with liturgists and others engaging in ecumenical exploration... You might choose to make contact with the community before you attend a worship service by speaking with the leader and discovering something about the community’s ethos and liturgical practice. In some cases that step is essential, since not all places of worship are open to outsiders.
    4. Learn to observe and to listen…Learning to detach ourselves from our own theological and liturgical presuppositions is a necessary first step toward useful observation; asking the right questions is essential…By close observation and by attempting to abandon theological and liturgical bias, we can uncover perspectives on God and on the world, on human beings and on the nature of the community, that might resist detection by other means. [From Susan J. White, “A new relationship: Guidelines for Intertraditional Worship,” Liturgy 10.1 (Spring 1992): 45-50.]
These first four guidelines are significant: they require that we make no assumptions about what worship is or does; they require that we pay attention, that we watch, and that we listen; and, above all, they require our willingness to learn from those we so often label "other."

Susan J. White is Emeritus Professor of Spiritual Resources and Disciplines of Brite Divinity School, Fort Worth, TX. She and her husband Kenneth Cracknell now run Sutton Books in Norwich, VT.

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