By THE REV. DAVID M. BLANK
First Lutheran Church, Warren
The idea of an evening Lenten service began as a conversation between two pastoral friends, one, a Roman Catholic, former pastor of St. Joseph's, the Rev. Walter Packard, and the other, the senior pastor at First Lutheran Church. We had talked about the Lutheran-Roman Catholic Dialogue that has been ongoing for the past 50 years. Even though issues remain which divide the denominations there are many areas in our faith and love in Christ that the two communities share in common. Why not find a common expression of faith in worship together?
In early 2008 two Roman Catholic priests along with three Lutheran pastors gathered at First Lutheran to lay the groundwork for a series of five Lenten services. A few days after the initial meeting the congregation and pastor at First Presbyterian also joined in the discussion.
.At the next gathering of the clergy, it was decided to use Vespers (Evening Prayer), one of the daily offices familiar to all three faith communities. We wanted to do something that emphasized unity in Christ a common liturgy using the same musical setting. It was agreed to use "Holden Evening Prayer" written by Marty Haugen, a writer of contemporary Christian and liturgical music.
Since then, Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church has become involved with the services.
The intent of the service is to celebrate the recent developments in interdenominational agreements. As mentioned above, Lutherans and Roman Catholics have been in dialogue nationally and internationally since Vatican II. These conversations have provided opportunities for open honest discussions and understandings regarding issues unique to each community and those gifts shared in common. Most recently, the National Catholic Register reported in its Feb. 23, 2014 edition, that " new document, "From Conflict to Communion: Lutheran-Catholic Commemoration of the Reformation in 2017," has been released to pave the way for joint observances of Luther's action by both Lutherans and Catholics, a development that certainly could not have been foreseen in previous centuries."*
The desire is to bring those areas of ministry we share in Christ to the local level where as little as 30 years ago the idea of Lutherans and Roman Catholics coming together in a worship setting would not have been considered. Locally, the conversation and shared worship experience expanded with the addition of First Presbyterian and Trinity Episcopal. Both national churches (Presbyterian Church USA and the Episcopal Church USA) are in dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church. Longtime dialogues among the Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians have produced full communion agreements between Lutheran and Presbyterians in 1997; and Lutherans and Episcopalians in 1999. The PCUSA and ECUSA have not yet reached a full communion agreement with each other.
Worship is celebrated with the office of Vespers or Evening Prayer. This liturgy reaches back to the days of the early Christian Church celebrating Christ as the light of the world. A greater part of the liturgy is sung incorporating an ancient Greek hymn, the Psalms, the Magnificat (Mary's Song of Joy), the litany (intercessory prayers), the Our Father and a blessing. One or two readings are read from the Scriptures and a sermon is given even though it not formally a part of the Vespers service. Following worship, participants gather for fellowship and an opportunity to ask questions of the participating clergy. This period of time has provided moments of humor, personal reflections, theological insights highlighting common areas of agreement and issues of disagreement. It gives community members an opportunity to learn about the individual shepherds who lead our congregations and moments of greater understanding that leads to building relationships in the body of Christ. This year the agenda will have a slight twist as participants will be asked to engage each other with questions regarding discipleship.
These are exciting times that are offering moments for congregations to find ways to work together in sharing in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Personally, this has been a time that I find meaningful and satisfying as we move forward. There is much to learn, respecting the unique qualities we offer, learning patience and tolerance in those differences that have caused divisions over the centuries and in celebrating those gifts we share in the name of Christ.
Finally, everyone is invited to attend. Congregations and pastors are welcome to get involved and take part in hosting a service or lead in the worship. We look forward to seeing you during this Lenten Season!
The Vespers schedule is as follows (All services are on Tuesdays and begin at 7:00pm, fellowship follows):
March 11, First Presbyterian Church, 300 Market Street. Pastor David Blank, preaching.
March 18, First Lutheran Church, 109 West Third Avenue, Father Rich Toohey, preaching.
March 25, St. Joseph RCC, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue W., Father Matthew Scott, preaching
April 1, St. Paul Lutheran Church, 306 Conewango Avenue, Pastor George Johnson, preaching.
April 8, Trinity Episcopal Church, 444 Pennsylvania Ave. W., Pastor Jeff Ewing, preaching
The Rev. David M. Blank is senior pastor at First Lutheran Church, Warren. He also shares pastoral leadership and care to St. John's Lutheran Church, Pleasant Township and Bethany Lutheran Church, Sheffield.