This was published in NCP Monthly (National Capital Presbytery) this morning.
A Baptist minister, a Methodist pastor, a Catholic priest, an Episcopalian rector and a Presbyterian clergywoman walk into a fellowship hall . . .
What will happen next?
Perhaps the scene is familiar. In Poolesville, we clergy gather once a month for a bring-your-own-bag lunch. We rotate from church to church, meeting in fellowship halls with their inevitably dingy floors and crayon-smeared tables. Some of us would rather meet in a restaurant but we defer to the weaker brother, in this case, the one without a discretionary budget for frivolities like lunch.
In years past our five churches have jointly hosted an ecumenical Thanksgiving Eve service. The service has always been poorly attended, drawing only a few faithful folk from each of the churches and no one from the community outside the churches. So this year, after much discussion, we let go of that tradition and asked ourselves: How else could we worship together?
I suggested we recognize World Communion Sunday (first Sunday in October) or perhaps the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. While there was no objection in theory, there was every objection in practice. The clergy were unwilling to interrupt their usual worship schedule on Sunday morning with some sort of ecumenical variation. Too, if we held the service in the evening, how would it be any more successful than the one for Thanksgiving?
I suggested a pulpit exchange. That way everyone could stay where they are on Sunday morning and we could move just the clergy around.
Well. The Episcopalians can’t worship without the sacrament and must have their own clergy present, if not presiding. Same with the Catholics, of course. The Baptists can’t allow an outsider in their pulpit. Can’t or won’t.
That left the Methodists and Presbyterians (incidentally, these churches face each other across the street). So Rev. Ken Fell, the Methodist minister, and I went ahead and swapped pulpits on January 23. As far as we know, it was a first in Poolesville.
It felt like a big thing. But it also felt like a small, long-overdue thing.
I preached from First Corinthians, about divisions in the body. But the words that seemed to resonate with the congregation weren’t from Paul. Do you know this Mark Twain quote? “There are two kinds of people in the world. People who divide the world into two kinds of people and people who don’t.”
I ended my sermon with this: “Let’s face it, both of our denominations are declining. The mainline churches are losing their grip on America. I’m not of a mind to moan about this fact. As far as we know, this is a good thing. This is an opportunity to do something different, under the guidance of the Spirit. How might we work together?” I went on to suggest five specific ways we could be involved in mutual ministry.
What will happen next? I’d love to hear what works in your local ecumenical gatherings!