SASKATOON — The sharing of prayer texts and hymns between Christian denominations is a grassroots ecumenical encounter that can lead to deeper reflection and understanding.
That was the message brought to life at a workshop held Jan. 17 at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church to open this year’s De Margerie Series on Christian Reconciliation and Unity in Saskatoon, held in conjunction with the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Jan. 18-25.
Guest speaker Dr. Karen Westerfield Tucker led participants through an exploration of a number of prayers and hymn lyrics through history, in various traditions and styles, to demonstrate how theology is expressed in our most basic tools of worship.
The simplicity and conciseness of prayer and song texts offer a “theological shorthand” that is easily and quickly shared and appropriated, said Westerfield Tucker.
A presbyter in the United Methodist Church and a professor of worship at Boston University, Westerfield Tucker described her own experience as an “accidental ecumenist.”
Her own first encounters with other Christian traditions came through music, when as a teenager she served as a substitute organist for a Lutheran church, and then later for a Catholic parish. “Part of my own curiousity coming along was why do the Lutherans do it differently than the Methodists, and why do the Catholics do it differently than the Methodists?”
That curiosity continued throughout her life. She described how as an ordained (and pregnant) United Methodist woman, she pursued a doctorate in liturgical studies at the University of Notre Dame, “with the guys.” Her academic and research interests include North American and Methodist/Wesleyan liturgical history and theology, and hymnody. In 2002-2003 she was selected as a Henry Luce III Fellow in Theology to study the theological and cultural dynamics of hymnals, and with Geoffrey Wainwright edited The Oxford History of Christian Worship.
She also serves on the executive committee of the World Methodist Council and is the co-secretary of the international dialogue between the World Methodist Council and the Roman Catholic Church.
In the Saskatoon workshop, entitled With One Voice: Prayer, Song and Christian Unity, Westerfield Tucker explored Scripture, translations, prayers and lyrics and what they reveal about our theology and belief, inviting participants to consider and discuss the content of the church’s prayer and song from a range of sources and denominational perspectives — with sharing and influences at times stretching back over centuries.
“We often think of the ecumenical exchange beginning in the 19th and 20th centuries, but clearly the often-forgotten practice of sharing texts for prayer and song came much earlier,” Westerfield Tucker said.
“One might describe such sharing as the first ecumenism, though it should be noted that in many cases theological, doctrinal and conceptual distinctions in the different communities required some literary adjustments to the received texts.”
She introduced the Lord’s Prayer as an example of a fundamental, scripturally based prayer that is shared among Christians, and yet has distinctive translations within various denominations — for instance, with wording of “trespass” versus “debt” or “sin,” and the presence or absence of the concluding “the kingdom, the power and the glory” doxology.
“What does it mean to have this prayer in common, but to have it done in different ways?” she asked, before presenting an ecumenical form of the prayer developed by the ecumenical English Language Liturgical Consultation.
“What might you do for the ‘alien in your midst?’ ” she asked, suggesting that worship leaders might provide the text of the particular version of the prayer being used, or publicly acknowledging that people do pray the Lord’s Prayer in different ways, perhaps inviting all to pray in their own way or in their mother tongue.
Westerfield Tucker also explored the source and the use of a Collect for Purity that appears in Thomas Cranmer’s 1549 Book of Common Prayer. It was originally a vesting prayer of the priest in a “Sarum rite” of the mass used in Salisbury, England. Today is it among the only collect prayer that remains in use in institutional Methodism, she said, noting that in the history of prayer, one often finds such “connectivity.”
The ancient Christian hymn, Phos Hilaron, was introduced as another example, with multiple translations and uses in a wide range of Christian traditions, particularly for vespers or evening prayer. The ancient words appear in numerous hymns, with various versions of the text adjusted in various settings, noted Westerfield Tucker, introducing and analyzing several examples.
“All these hymns are from the same third- or fourth-century great text. That would certainly be worth an ecumenical conversation,” she said.
As other examples she explored different translations of the same texts from the hymns of German pietism, and of hymns such as Faith of Our Fathers, which are slightly different when sung by different denominations. She also led the group through a discussion of four hymns related to Mary, analyzing the language, theology, and descriptions, and reflecting on whether the particular example could be sung in various denominational settings.
“These are ways to have conversations about thorny issues,” Westerfield Tucker said of the discussion that ensued.
“There are points where differences are remaining, but there are also places of possible convergence when you look at theological texts and prose texts. It is something to think about for your own conversations ecumenically here in Saskatoon: how might poetry and prayer help you?”
At the conclusion of the workshop, Westerfield Tucker introduced the ecumenical depth of a profound and theologically dense Christus Paradox hymn by United Church of Canada minister Sylvia Dunstan (You Lord are Both Lamb and Shepherd), contrasting it with a praise and worship song, Lord I Need You, by Catholic musician Matt Maher, as an example of a genre that easily transcends denominations among youth.
“Prayer and song are a piece of the whole, and part of the challenge in prayer and song is to piece together more of the whole,” she concluded.
Dr. Darren Dahl, director of the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism (PCE), thanked Westerfield Tucker for her presentation, and introduced the theme and schedule for the upcoming Week of Prayer for Christian Unity organized by the PCE (see related article about the opening service).
The De Margerie Series on Christian Reconciliation and Unity is sponsored as part of the week of prayer by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon, the PCE and St. Thomas More College. The series was named in recognition of the work of local ecumenist Rev. Bernard de Margerie, and this year included two workshops and a third annual public lecture held Jan. 20 at STM, all featuring Westerfield Tucker as guest speaker.