By Marcus Braybrooke
This question has become increasingly important with the growing interaction between members of the world religions at all levels of society. Still quite a new issue in the Western world, few churches have given it much attention. In most cases, practice is well in advance of thinking about interfaith worship. I write as a Christian, mainly from a British context, and it will be good to hear from other standpoints.
It is usual to distinguish between public interfaith forms of worship and more private ceremonies marking rites of passage in families where members belong to different faiths. One also finds communities like colleges, conferences, and interfaith councils whose members belong to different faiths but wish to give religious expression to their life together and their commitment to shared values.
People of different religions frequently choose to gather at important public occasions. On Commonwealth Day each year Westminster Abbey in London hosts a ‘Multi-Faith Celebration’ which Queen Elizabeth II normally attends. An interfaith service at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco marked the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the United Nations Charter. After the London bombings in World War II, interfaith gatherings were held in synagogues and mosques.
Last year leaders of many faiths joined Pope Benedict XVI at Assisi to pray on the 25th anniversary of the Day of Prayer for Peace, first convened by Pope John Paul II. At the inauguration of the first post-Apartheid Parliament in South Africa, representatives of different faiths offered prayers. Occasions will vary from country to country depending on ‘church-state’ and interfaith relationships.
Some broad distinctions can be made between different formats which have been adopted for various occasions, although at times the distinctions may be blurred.
Members of one faith may invite guests of one or more other faiths to attend their usual act of worship. The guests’ presence may be acknowledged just by a special greeting, or a visitor may be asked to read from his or her scriptures, say a prayer or perhaps speak. Christians might choose hymns centred on God rather than on Christ to make it easier for Jews and Muslims to participate. If the service is a Eucharist, I would in John Wesley’s phrase welcome ‘All who love the Lord Jesus,’ which might well include members of other faiths. More often guests will simply be offered a blessing.
If Christians are invited to other places of worship, they should observe traditional practices such as removing shoes before entering a temple or mosque, or covering the head before going into a synagogue or gurdwara. One or more of the visitors may be invited to speak and perhaps to share in the ritual. I have been privileged to be asked to share in Shinto, Native American, and African ceremonies. Visitors may be given food offerings which are customarily shared among devotees, prasad, although some Christians see this as partaking in food offered to idols, which Paul discouraged (1 Corinthians 8).
Each one has a turn
The most common forms of interfaith worship are those in which members of each faith in turn offer a prayer or reading or devotional song – perhaps in alphabetical or historical order of the religions. Prayers specific to a particular tradition are offered in the presence of people of other faiths, but no prayers are said together. This clearly ensures the distinctiveness of each faith tradition. But besides making the occasion over-long, it may emphasize difference rather than commonality, leaving those present observers rather than participants. Simply identifying a theme for the occasion can help connect the participants.
At such ‘serial inter-faith observances,’ people are said to ‘be together to pray’ rather than ‘praying together’. Such events evade theological questions about the relation of religions to each other. Sometimes they almost degenerate into religious entertainment.
A Shared Liturgy
A third form of interfaith worship, while recognising the distinctiveness of each religion, is designed as a united service. The various readings, prayers and devotional songs are linked together round a central theme, such as peace, protection of the environment or celebration of a special event. Participants may be invited to join in an affirmation or act of commitment, to say prayers together and to sing well-known hymns. Symbolic actions to express unity may be introduced, such as giving everyone a flower or a lighted candle.
Critics say these liturgies obscure the distinctiveness of religions. Proponents claim they emphasise our shared humanity – that each person is made in the image of the One God, who does not belong only to Christians. The venue may give a special character to the event, although some argue that interfaith worship should be in a neutral building, though this may deprive it of colour and character. Where words sometimes divide, instrumental music may unite.
This collaborative approach is the pattern of interfaith service that the World Congress of Faiths has arranged almost from its earliest years in the 1930s and which I have helped to organise on several occasions.
Yet another form of worship could be described as ‘universalist’, a term which would apply to some services of the Brahmo Samaj and the Unitarian Universalists, who regard all religions as human searchings for the Divine rather than authoritative revelation. Such an approach has considerable appeal today for those who see themselves as ‘spiritual’ but do not identify with a particular faith community.
A similar approach can be found in interfaith ceremonies in multi-faith communities, like universities, at grassroots interfaith activities, and international interfaith conferences. Similar issues arise in schools, which in Britain, are supposed to hold a daily assembly for worship – although the requirement is often ignored.
It is no longer unusual for a bride and groom to belong to different religions. Traditionally most faith communities have been unsympathetic to this, and some have rejected those who are said to have ‘married out.’ Others encourage the woman to convert or insist that the children be brought up in the man’s faith. Many faith communities have been reluctant to bless such marriages or to provide any religious ceremony. The pain this may cause was brought home to me when I was asked to conduct the funeral for a Christian, whose widow was Jewish. She asked me if her Rabbi could say a prayer, which I welcomed. After much hesitation the Rabbi agreed. Afterwards, she said how much this had meant to her, but how she wished that someone had blessed the ceremony when they were married.
At death, it is normal for the funeral to be in accordance with the dead person’s own religion, but surviving partners may want ministers of their religion to participate in the service. Some faith communities only allow members of the faith to be buried in their cemeteries. Let’s hope, if they are buried apart, they can meet in heaven!
Interfaith prayer services are happening. Indeed they have quite a long history. Even so, they remain the subject of theological controversy.
Although interfaith worship is still new to many people, it dates back more than a century. The 1893 World’s Parliament of Religions had times of silence, and the opening session included some hymns and an invitation to all present to join in the Lord’s Prayer. Gandhi included hymns and readings from many traditions at his ashram’s evening prayers. In Britain, the initiative was taken by Unitarians, and a collection of services was published in 1924. In 1953, the World Congress of Faiths held the first all-faiths’ service to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and has held them annually every since.
Interfaith worship is not intended to replace a community’s regular worship. It is for special occasions. Its different patterns reflect the varied theological views of Christians towards other religions. Some Christians may not take part in any such liturgies for fear that the uniqueness of Jesus Christ may be compromised. Others, who recognize that God’s Spirit is present in all religions, may participate some but fear being centered on a particular theme or a universalism that obscures the centrality of Christ.
Yet other believers, holding that the mystery of the divine transcends all creeds and language, may find a form of worship which consists in a series of prayers, readings and songs rather sterile and prefer a united service which emphasizes the common humanity of all God’s children. These folk claim that interfaith worship is a symbol of hope in a divided world and an effective way for people of different faiths to make a joint commitment to seeking peace and justice, to serving the needy and protecting the planet.
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Interfaith Worship Resources
George Appleton, The Oxford Book of Prayer (Oxford, 1985)
Jean Potter and Marcus Braybrooke (eds.), All in Good Faith: A Resource Book forMulti-faith Prayer
Paul Puthanangady (ed.), Sharing Worship, Communication in Sacris (Bangalore, 1988)
Marcus Braybrooke (ed.) One Thousand World Prayers (Alresford, 2003)
Jonathan Romain, Until Faith Us Do Part (London, 1996)