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Following my article about ecumenical worship a few months ago, I have had several enquiries from people wanting guidance on planning services which involve people of other faiths along with Christians.
In the public life of Australia, where people of many different faiths live and work together, there are increasing numbers of requests made by civic authorities and other organisations for Christian Churches to participate in “interfaith worship services”. Those organising such events are often unaware of the problems of belief involved and may be more concerned about multicultural inclusiveness than about the religious aspects of these occasions.
Christians have varying reactions to the idea of interfaith worship. For some, it is something new and strange which causes genuine concern. For others, opportunities for dialogue and worship across different faith traditions are exciting prospects which are eagerly grasped.
In 1995, A.C.O.L., the Australian Consultation on Liturgy, issued “Guidelines for Multi-faith Worship”. ACOL is a body nominated by its member Churches to assist them in deepening their understanding of their own and other Churches’ worship and to share current liturgical work and future projects. The guidelines were produced at the request of the member Churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, to help them make decisions about appropriate participation in multi-faith worship.
The Guidelines recommend that services of worship involving members of different faith communities be arranged as “multi-faith services in serial form”. This entails allocating each of the various faith groups taking part a separate segment of the program in which to offer its own worship. The community selects and presents its own material for a brief, complete worship service that is characteristic of its tradition. For example, Christians might use readings from scripture, trinitarian prayer, a creed of the church and hymns.
The Guidelines also recommend that a community figure be the overall leader of the gathering with the separate segments led by representatives appointed by the faith groups involved.
A service which blends items from a variety of Christian and non-Christian sources is not recommended because of the inherent dangers of syncretism (thoughtless confusion of different faith traditions), indifferentism (“we all believe in the one god anyway”), and idolatry (giving worship to that which is not God).
A multi-faith service in serial form allows those present to share in the worship of other faiths only to the extent they feel able, so that they are praying in one another’s presence but not necessarily praying together.
The Guidelines recommend that representatives of all the faith communities which are to participate in the service be involved in the planning from the beginning and that purpose of the occasion is made clear to all.
Discretion needs to be exercised when decisions are made about who will participate in the service. Christians would wish to be represented by a member of a mainstream denomination. Similarly, members of other faiths would expect to be represented by appropriate people. Without detailed knowledge of other faith communities, it is sometimes difficult to ascertain which leaders are genuinely representative of certain groups.
Finally, consideration must be given to the venue for the occasion as this will have a bearing on what activities are appropriate and what kind of atmosphere is generated. The Guidelines recommend that a multi-faith service be held on neutral ground such as a public building or open-air site. The ideal would be to have each community offer its own act of worship in its own place of worship, with the gathering processing from place to place.