ecumenical dictionary

March 2003: "Worship in the ecumenical movement". Author: Teresa BERGER


The subject of worship has been on the agenda of the ecumenical movement since its beginnings, although it did not really come to the fore until the concurrently growing liturgical movement* had also gained strength among the divided churches. Both movements show a near-parallel development; Vatican II* recognized them respectively as “movements of the Holy Spirit through his church” and as “the work of grace of the Holy Spirit”.

References to worship in the report of the first world conference on Faith and Order* at Lausanne in 1927 are more or less incidental. The report of the second world conference on F&O (Edinburgh 1937), however, suggested a study of patterns of worship characteristic of different churches. A theological commission on worship began to study the relevance of worship for the divided churches. Not until 1951 did the commission publish its report, together with selected papers, as Ways of Worship. The material provided the basis for discussion at the third world conference on F&O (Lund 1952).

The work of the theological commission on worship is the first definite indication of the impact of the liturgical movement on the ecumenical movement. Although in the end this liturgical renewal would contribute significantly to the striving towards unity, early WCC documents tend to see worship as the focal point of existing divisions. This perspective is probably due to the widely differing liturgical traditions then represented by the member churches.

In Lund ecumenical reflections on worship concentrated on the fact that in worship “disunity becomes explicit and the sense of separation most acute”. The conference maintained: “In worship we meet the problem, nay, rather the sin of the disunion of the church in its sharpest form.” This judgment is not surprising in light of the commission’s primarily descriptive and comparative work. Since worship was explicitly on the agenda of an ecumenical discussion for the first time, a basic overview of the different patterns of worship in the churches was necessary. Part 1 of Ways of Worship therefore described and compared “The Elements of Liturgy”, and part 2 dealt slightly more theologically with the “Inner Meaning of Word and Sacrament”. In both sections, members of the different churches outlined the essential features of the worship of their own community. The aim was not so much to attempt a common approach but to describe actual patterns of worship in the churches. Part 3 treated “Liturgy and Devotion”, concentrating on the question of Mariology. (The 1950 promulgation of the Roman Catholic dogma of the Assumption of Mary influenced the agenda here.)

The report of the commission reflected, ecumenically and theologically, on the different contributions. On the one hand, it tried to sketch important distinctions, such as eucharist-centred versus preaching-centred worship, and, on the other hand, to assess the unifying impact of the liturgical movement. The report mentioned especially the growing sense of the corporate aspect of worship, the re-discovery of its sacramental character and the return to primitive patterns of worship.

All in all, Ways of Worship, with its basically descriptive and comparative orientation, was a necessary starting point for the ecumenical discussions about the nature of worship. Lund explicitly recognized that the commission’s work “has strengthened the conviction that worship, no less than Faith and Order, is essential to the being of the church”.

Lund 1952 was a first attempt to formulate both the existing agreement and the unsolved problems regarding the meaning and practice of worship. The formulation of agreement appropriately and convincingly begins with the Trinitarian basis (see Trinity) and pneumatological context (see Holy Spirit) of worship. “We worship one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Triune God, by whose Spirit all true worship is inspired and unto whom all Christian worship is offered.” The agreed statements which follow concern questions that are anthropological (worship involves the whole person), liturgical (a drawing together of the common elements observed in Ways of Worship), sacramental (the appreciation of both word and sacrament*) and ecclesiological (worship always takes place within the communion of saints*). Also mentioned is a theme that would be stressed repeatedly in subsequent ecumenical documents on worship: “However we view the church’s worship, we are unanimous that its setting is the church’s mission to the world.” The section on unsolved problems takes up more specific questions (e.g. the precise relationship between word and sacrament and the place in worship of saints and the departed).

Lund’s recommendations to the churches emphasize unity* as the aim of all the studies on different patterns of worship. Some recommendations re-appear in later documents, indicating that in the meantime the member churches have not taken them seriously enough.

This worship commission, working between Lund and Montreal (1963), consisted of three regional sections: Europe, East Asia and North America. Each had quite different approaches. The European section left behind the method of comparative study and concentrated on the theology of worship in the Bible (“creation and worship”, “redemption and worship”, “new creation and worship”). This starting point yielded a definitely Christocentric understanding of the nature of worship: “Jesus Christ as the culmination of the mighty saving acts of God forms the living centre of all worship.” The biblical approach also drew attention to the genuine variety of types of worship in the New Testament (e.g. sacraments, preaching of the word, prayers), but they were not systematized or evaluated as different forms over against each other. This variety may suggest the possibility of a unity among the different patterns of worship existing today.

The East Asian section concentrated on understanding worship as a response to God’s creative and redemptive activity and on the indigenization of worship – the first time that an Asian report was included in such a theological commission on worship. It soon became clear, especially at the Uppsala assembly (1968), how important the insights and correctives from this Asian perspective were for ecumenical reflection on worship.

The North American section had a dual focus: the matrix of worship in the scriptures and the matrix of worship in contemporary North American churches. The group came to a parallel conclusion to that of the European section: a purely descriptive and comparative approach to the question of worship does not sufficiently advance the unity of the church; liturgical questions must be seen within the wider context of biblical and systematic issues.

The fourth F&O world conference (Montreal 1963) reacted to the above work of the theological commission on worship. Its report, Worship and the Oneness of Christ’s Church, shifted from the differing patterns of worship to a firm commitment to unity in and through worship. This conclusion was a shift in the evaluation of the place of worship itself. While Lund had maintained that worship is no less essential to the church’s life than faith and order, Montreal called worship “the central and determinative act of the church’s life” and pressed for the study of worship as one of the main tasks facing the ecumenical dialogue. Some fundamental agreements are enumerated. As in Lund, the Trinitarian perspective is the starting point of the interpretation of the nature of worship: “Christian worship is... a service to God the Father by men [and women] redeemed by his Son, who are continually finding new life in the power of the Holy Spirit.” The next point of agreement is the ecclesiological aspect, not the anthropological one as in Lund: “Worship... is an act formative of Christian community..., an act... which represents the one, catholic church.” This statement clearly recognized the fundamental ecclesiological relevance of worship. The importance given here to worship as a fundamental act of the being of the church* exceeds anything said about worship before.

Other aspects of worship often stressed are the interdependence of public liturgy and private devotion, the links of worship with creation* and the new creation, the Christocentric groundings of baptism* and the eucharist,* and the eschatological perspective of worship (see eschatology). Special sections of the report were devoted to worship, mission and indigenization, and Christian worship in the world today. The last point foreshadows the central concern of subsequent ecumenical debates on worship. The focus shifts from examining different patterns of worship in the churches and its underlying essence and unity to considering the crisis of worship in the modern world, with “authenticity” as the new key word. The mandate from Montreal, however, still concentrated on the newly discovered importance of worship in the ecumenical dialogue and the need for “a fresh approach... to the relation between theology and worship, so that,... as a definite step beyond current practice, our entire theological work may be informed by a fresh sensitivity to the demands and problems of Christian worship”. It soon became obvious that this vital concern was not maintained. The whole discussion narrowed down to specific problems of worship, losing sight of the importance of worship for theological work as a whole.

After Montreal, the subject of worship was important enough to constitute one of the six sections at the WCC’s fourth assembly (Uppsala 1968). Of the Uppsala report on worship, one of its contributors has written: “I do not see how one could fail to be disappointed on reading the report” – especially after Montreal, one might add. (The challenge to see positively the fact of a WCC assembly officially treating worship, over against the “respectable obscurity” of F&O, does not seem convincing in the light of how little was achieved.) Several factors were responsible for this disappointment. Because of the general theme of the Uppsala assembly, “Behold, I Make All Things New”, the working group for the section on worship had to focus on the current theological crisis in the life of the church, i.e. the problems connected with the secularization* debate.

The section’s original title was “The Worship of God in a Secular Age”. This wording was criticized both by the churches in countries where secularization was not the main problem facing the churches and their worship and by the Orthodox churches, who feared that worship was being surrendered to secularization. In the end, a very limited agreed statement was published as a “starting point”. It bears few traces of the former agreed statements concerning the Trinitarian and ecclesiological essence of worship and concentrates instead on the crisis of worship and the positive and negative possibilities of secularization. Lengthy justifications of worship are repudiated: “Worship needs no more justification than does love.” Recommendations to the churches are included under the cautious title “Helping People to Worship”, but they do not go beyond anything already said before. Despite its overall disappointing character, one positive thing seems worth pointing out: behind the emphasis on the need for authentic worship in a secular age lies the important conviction of the fundamental link between liturgy and life, a subject to be stressed in most subsequent documents on worship.

A 1969 F&O consultation in Geneva took up the subject of worship again, very much within the perspectives set by the 1968 assembly. Although its title was “Worship in a Secular Age”, the report dropped the reference to secularization, since this term did not seem universally applicable. The report was simply called Worship Today, a fitting characterization of the content if the stress is put on the word “today”. The consultation agreed to begin with an analysis of the present situation and then to face the question whether authentic worship was still possible under the analyzed circumstances. The answers were as varied as the analyses. Equally divergent opinions became apparent in facing liturgical reforms;* merely changed forms of worship cannot resolve the crisis of worship.

The Uppsala report on worship and Worship Today constitute a significant shift from the fairly continuous line of development evident in the earlier ecumenical documents on worship. One cannot deny that the two reports faced very real (and by no means solved) problems, but one may ask whether they would not have gained – especially as far as their lasting interest is concerned – from greater continuity with former ecumenical thinking on worship.

After these reports of the late 1960s, the ecumenical movement had difficulties in picking up the lines and expressing itself on worship again for almost three decades.

But the fifth F&O conference at Santiago de Compostela (1993) urged renewed attention to the inter-relation between worship and the search for unity. A F&O consultation at Ditchingham, England, in 1994 was the response. Called “Towards Koinonia in Worship”, the consultation and its report put worship firmly on the agenda of ecumenical reflection again. Ditchingham focused on four central points: the notion of a basic shared ordo (i.e. ordering of the fundamental elements of Christian worship), inculturation as a powerful force of local unity, ways of worship which already prove to be loci of unity, and worship as an intrinsic and essential dimension of the theological work of F&O. With this focus, Ditchingham managed to bridge the gap to the prior ecumenical reflection on worship.

Liturgical reforms. Up until 1994, ecumenical reflection on worship had been overtaken by the ecumenical convergence in worship patterns, which has taken place largely as a result of thoroughgoing liturgical reforms among the divided churches. One of the most remarkable liturgical reforms is certainly that within the Roman Catholic Church. Even if its liturgical renewal was not initiated as an ecumenical enterprise, the ecumenical ramifications were quickly perceived as considerable. The uniformity, rubricism and centralization which characterized Roman Catholic worship after the liturgical reforms of the council of Trent* set it apart from the worship patterns of many other Christian communities. But the Second Vatican Council reforms returned to earlier (and common!) liturgical patterns. The change in the liturgical language from Latin to the vernacular, the clearer structure of the liturgical rites, the more prominent place given to the scriptures and the sermon, the emphasis on an active participation of the laity, the eucharistic celebrations facing the people, the openness to liturgical inculturation (see culture) – all these characteristics of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy and the subsequent liturgical reforms brought about a much greater affinity between worship patterns of the divided churches. Protestant liturgical reforms also based largely on a return to common origins have supported this ecumenical convergence. The programmatic beginning of the Constitution on the Liturgy has found a fulfilment: “It is the goal of this most sacred Council... to nurture whatever can contribute to the unity of all who believe in Christ” (1).

Confessions in dialogue. In 1972 a survey of bilateral conversations among World Confessional Families was published under the title Confessions in Dialogue. It included a section on “Worship and Bilateral Dialogue”. Rather than theoretical reflections or agreed statements, this section is a series of observations, by persons involved in bilateral dialogues,* about worship as a topic and matrix in these conversations. Most contributors stressed the importance of a worshipping fellowship during the conversations. One very attractive notion is that of the bilateral dialogues as a continuous act of thanksgiving. But one contributor also admitted that there had not been much worship in his group at all.

Theologically, the most interesting contribution is undoubtedly Edmund Schlink’s. He makes clear the methodological significance of worship for ecumenical conversations. He argues that dogmatic and canonical statements of different churches cannot simply be compared in order to reach agreement. Instead, they may have to be translated back into the elementary functions of church life and worship, where they have their true source and meaning. Schlink’s suggestion, if taken seriously, would have important consequences for the basis and form of any emerging consensus* among the churches. For good reason, however, in the context of these important reflections on worship and ecumenical dialogue, the following sentence also occurs: “The centrality of worship in Christian life and consequently also in the search for unity is an inalienable ecumenical conviction – though perhaps honoured more with the lips than in acts.” Confessions in Dialogue confirms this statement in both directions.

The Worship of the Congregation”. In 1978 the WCC Sub-unit on Renewal and Congregational Life held a workshop in Crete on “The Worship of the Congregation”. Its report in a way reunites the threads of earlier WCC documents on worship and the problems and challenges faced during the debates on secularization. Although there is no affirmation of the Trinitarian perspective of worship, its Christocentric, pneumatological, ecclesiological and eschatological aspects are clearly stated. Important is the repeated emphasis on the connection between liturgy and life, and a definition which sees worship as something larger than what takes place in church: “The new temple is the Body of Christ, and wherever one encounters another in the power of the Spirit of the risen Christ, there true worship takes place.” The report further deals with questions of faithfulness and creativity, worship and culture (with a positive, anthropologically justified emphasis on symbols) and worship and social engagement. It is interesting to note that the report speaks not only of the challenges which today’s world implies for worship but also of the “radical challenges” brought by worship to today’s world – clearly an important re-adjustment after the one-sided focus of the secularization debate.

The Lima liturgy.* The eucharistic liturgy prepared for the plenary session of the F&O commission meeting in Lima in 1982 and its subsequent (and unexpected) enthusiastic reception have indicated a deep-felt need for a liturgical expression paralleling any emerging doctrinal agreement, even if since then the need to go “beyond Lima” has been emphasized (see Best and Heller, Eucharistic Worship). In any case, the task which some people seem to have considered solved with the eucharistic text of Lima is still before us: to give the emerging doctrinal agreement liturgical expression(s) (see lex orandi, lex credendi).

The celebration of the Lima liturgy was one of the high points of both the sixth assembly of the WCC in Vancouver (1983) and the seventh assembly in Canberra (1991). Perhaps in these assemblies, reflection on worship was overtaken by the actual experience of worship by the participants. One feature worth particular mention, characteristic of thinking about and acting in worship since the fifth assembly in Nairobi in 1975, is the greater appreciation and use of indigenous material in the liturgy (such as hymns,* lyrics, vestments, gestures, art), and of women-identified prayers, songs and other liturgical texts. There is a growing awareness not only of the liturgical richness of other denominational traditions but also of other cultural-linguistic communities. Although the question of liturgical indigenization has been part of the ecumenical reflections on worship ever since Montreal, it is now being faced with heightened enthusiasm and urgency.

Montreal (1963) and the consequent decision to put the subject of worship on the agenda for the Uppsala assembly of the WCC (1968) were the peak points of ecumenical interest in the question of the nature of worship. Afterwards, the crisis of worship seemed more fascinating and threatening than did the privilege of worship. Then, in the 1970s and 1980s, discussion of the nature of worship was swallowed up by the all-absorbing work on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry.*

The subject of worship is, however, re-asserting itself as part of the ecumenical agenda, as the Ditchingham consultation proves. Fortunately, the ecumenical movement does not have to start over from the beginning. Fundamental and important ground has already been covered by the WCC documents, and some basic agreements have been reached, which are foundations to be built upon. A worthwhile aim to strive for seems to be the statement made by one of the contributors to Confessions in Dialogue: “Doxology is at the beginning and at the end of all striving for unity. It also accompanies it at every stage of the way.”

See also liturgical texts, common; liturgy; prayer in the ecumenical movement; spirituality in the ecumenical movement.


T. Best & D. Heller eds, Eucharistic Worship in Ecumenical Contexts: The Lima Liturgy – and Beyond, WCC, 1998 ¦ T. Best & D. Heller eds, So We Believe, So We Pray: Towards Koinonia in Worship, WCC, 1995 ¦ J. Crawford, “The WCC as a Fellowship of Worship and Prayer”, ER, 50, 3, 1998 ¦ P. Edwall, E. Hayman & W.D. Maxwell eds, Ways of Worship: The Report of the Theological Commission on Faith and Order, London, SCM Press, 1951 ¦ “Soli Deo Gloria”, Studia Liturgica, 26, 2, 1996 ¦ G. Wainwright, Worship with One Accord: Where Liturgy and Ecumenism Embrace, New York, Oxford UP, 1997 ¦ “Worship and Secularization”, Studia Liturgica, 7, 2-3, 1970 ¦ “Worship and the Oneness of Christ’s Church”, in The Fourth World Conference on Faith and Order at Montreal, P.C. Rodger & L. Vischer eds, London, SCM Press, 1964.

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