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I am often asked for guidance and suggestions by groups who wish to prepare an ecumenical service of worship. An ecumenical liturgy is one that is not the official liturgy of any Church but one designed especially to be celebrated by Christians from several Churches.
Praying with other Christians is officially encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church. The “Ecumenical Directory” issued in 1993 states that: “Prayer in common is recommended for Catholics and other Christians so that together they may put before God the needs and problems they share.” (Directory 109). “Shared prayer should be particularly concerned with the restoration of Christian unity” (Directory 110).
Sometimes Catholics are tempted to organise a Mass for an ecumenical occasion because it is the form of liturgical celebration with which they are most familiar, however a Roman Catholic Mass is not appropriate for an ecumenical gathering. The prayers of the Mass assume that the assembly is in full communion with the universal Church and eucharistic hospitality is possible at a Catholic Mass only under certain special circumstances.
Amazing developments in the area of ecumenical worship in recent years attest to the strength of the ecumenical vision. Around the world, ecumenical groups have continued to find new ways to pray, sing and share faith together within old and new liturgical expressions. The processes and forms which have developed from this common experience of worship are a valuable resource for those preparing ecumenical celebrations.
Clearly, representatives from all the Christian communities joining for worship should be involved in planning and leading the service and its structure and content should reflect all the participating traditions. The following questions need to be given consideration: What traditions will participate and what do they have in common, especially in the area of worship and music? Are there any customs or courtesies that need to be observed, for example, how do the Churches and clergy involved wish to be named or addressed? What might cause offence to anyone or any Church that the planning group should avoid? Where will the service be held? What is the occasion for the gathering and how can it be used to foster Christian unity?
A basic pattern for common worship has emerged from the experience of ecumenical bodies such as the World Council of Churches. It is a classical form rooted in the oldest traditions of liturgy:Preparation (learning and practice of songs)Invocation or call to worship (often in a responsive form)Hymn of praiseConfession of sins, followed by word of forgivenessEntry of the Word (procession and singing)Old Testament or Epistle readingSung acclamationGospel readingResponse to the Word (often some kind of symbolic action)Affirmation of faithIntercessions (with sung acclamations between petitions)Lord’s Prayer (each person in his or her own version)BenedictionHymnAnother model of worship that can be used for ecumenical services is that of morning or evening prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours.
Just as important as decisions on the verbal elements (and who will lead them) is the inclusion of non-verbal elements such as music, symbols, environment, movement and creative silence in the liturgy.
If we are sensitive and open to different traditions, to renewal and to the worldwide community of Christians, we will meet the incarnate God in our worship together despite all limits and barriers and continue to learn from one another as we travel the road towards full Church unity.