Friday, June 10, 2011

Interfaith Worship—Continuing a Christian-Jewish Conversation

As we continue our series on interfaith worship, we continue the Christian-Jewish conversation begun last week. In that posting we looked at the "vision statement" that has guided Rabbi Samuel Gordon and Rev. Stephanie Perdew VanSlyke in their work. Such a vision led them to a pulpit "swap," an invitation to the Christian congregation to join the Jewish congregation in a celebration of a Passover seder, a shared service of prayer after 9/11, as well as joint celebrations of the installation of Rev. Perdew VanSlyke as pastor and of the departure of the synagogue's cantor. Their work together also helped them discover some of the limits of interreligious worship, which is the focus of the excerpt below.
Along the way we were very clear that our congregations were not the same, that we each had our own called or appointed leadership, that we were engaged in a relationship of interreligious sharing and education, but not an effort of syncretism. Nevertheless...congregation life cycle moments led to the poignant and clear realizations that our lives had become intertwined….
During these years of space-sharing partnership, we did reach and recognize limits to our interreligious sharing in worship. Visiting one another's worship did raise theological questions for our congregants, which we explored in our own educational programs in synagogue and church, and in shared interfaith dialogues.

For members of First Congregational, visits to Jewish worship and the observation of the limits of Jewish participation in Christian ritual led members of a theologically liberal church to grapple more whole-heartedly with their Christology and their understanding of the Trinity than they might have otherwise.

For members of Congregation Sukkat Shalom, many of whom are intermarried, visits to Christian worship helped to clarify, in many instances, why they were raising their children Jewish, or how they could honor a parent's Christian tradition even if their Jewish family identity was primary.

Together as rabbi and pastor we were asked to articulate limits to those in the wider community who mistakenly thought we were a messianic congregation or engaged in some kind of syncretistic observances. Although we both have co-officiated at weddings of intermarried couples, we also said no to a few weddings if we did not perceive the couples to be serious about either of their religious traditions or about thinking through the difficulty in honoring both traditions in a marriage. We said no to a couple who wanted us to preside at a combined baptism/bris, attempting to educate the couple in understanding that from both of our perspectives, we believed such dual theological “citizenship” was untenable and that the birth of a child in an intermarried family did present a choice about the tradition in which the parents would raise the child. And we at times said no to members of our own congregations, often well-meaning in their own spiritual seeking, who wanted to worship together more often than we thought appropriate, or who were clearly having trouble distinguishing the limits of our two traditions.

When we reached these limits, we turned to those efforts in which we can always share: learning and study, and social justice and service.
Stephanie Perdew VanSlyke was guest editor of this issue of Liturgy. She is senior pastor of First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Wilmette, Illinois. Samuel Gordon is founding rabbi of Congregation Sukkat Shalom in Wilmette, Illinois.

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