By Paul Chaffee
Interfaith prayer services today are a bit like Catholic liturgy during what once was called Europe’s ‘Dark Ages.’
“Dark ages?!,” cried a teacher of mine. “The Middle Ages evoked the most creative, imaginative worship life the Church has ever experienced, full of story-telling and drama, music and dance” with parades and rituals that went outdoors and encompassed whole communities in festivity. In a day before the printing press, much less telephones and the internet, each diocese, each cathedral, was mostly left on its own to design and implement its prayer-life and practice. They took it very seriously. Starting around 500 CE and lasting for seven or eight hundred years, grassroots religious life flourished, particularly in cities, each with its own version(s) of worship and the Eucharist.
Today interfaith worship often has a similarly spontaneous, idiosyncratic flavor. Models are shared, but each planning committee creates its own fingerprint. There is no guiding scripture, no canon or approved format, no ecclesiastical body to weigh in on the appropriateness of a prayer or a ritual. You are on your own! And, looking back, you can be happy to see that the terrible oppression of Jews and Pagans by medieval Christians has been utterly rejected in this new spontaneous communal prayer environment, where they are welcomed.
When interfaith spiritual community comes alive, we share prayer and practice in mutual respect, not to proselytize but to enrich each other. This vital activity is starting to flourish in small communities and large around the world. It has been all about getting to know our neighbors.
To be sure, in most traditions you can find exclusivists with no tolerance for any faith but their own; they tend to stay away from interreligious settings. For most people in most traditions today, though, particularly in the Americas, Australia, and much of Africa, Asia, and Europe, interfaith worship is an obvious choice. In the United States this often begins with annual Thanksgiving prayer services where all traditions are welcome and participate. The International Day of Peace is celebrated in thousands of multireligious events around the world. Interfaith worship happens during national celebration and national mourning, at interfaith weddings, graduations, banquets, and more, in a multitude of forms and venues.
This spontaneous creativity, of course, does not guarantee an enriching experience for those attending. Without mutual respect, without working relationships, you run the risk of insulting people (without even knowing it), creating discord rather than harmony, or, equally unfortunate, being boring! Splendid help is at hand.
The Etiquette and Possibilities that Make Shared Sacred Space Safe and Satisfying
Paul McKenna, the interfaith director at Scarboro Missions in Toronto, is best-known as the creator of the Golden Rule poster on the walls of hundreds of thousands of schools, sanctuaries, and homes around the world. Paul has done us all a new favor by writing and publishing Guidelines for a Multifaith Prayer Service, which you can download for free from Scarboro in either pdf or doc format.
Open-ended guidelines cover the creation of ‘multifaith worship’ from soup to nuts. It is like a list of must-handle items if you want your event to promote respect, inspire those who gather, and not get blind-sided by something you forgot to do. Yet Guidelines is much more than a recipe, more like a curriculum that prepares you to meet the challenge of bringing together strangers with different backgrounds to share a spiritual experience. It is perfect workshop material for congregational leaders. Indeed, above and beyond its practical wisdom, reading the Guidelines is a quick way to get a sense of what interreligious community is all about and what it seeks to achieve.
McKenna is careful to define his terms, noting
“The author has chosen to use the word “prayer” in this document because of his conviction that this word best expresses the concept of a multifaith spiritual gathering. In this document, then, the word “prayer” is an umbrella term that refersto and includes the broad range of spiritual practices found in the multifaith commonwealth of spirituality.
The organizational suggestions that follow ring true. For instance, if you want ‘their’ community to attend your event, make sure their leaders are in on the planning and can make it their event as well. Particularly useful are the list of themes than interfaith worship can explore and the multiple ways offered for doing so.
Best of all, rather than being prescriptive or overbearing in any way, McKenna’s Guidelines open us up to the manifold possibilities of multi-religious community experience, stretching our understanding of what can be achieved. It is full of suggestions for ways to make the experience your own, urging you and your community to use imagination and spiritual intelligence in creating public events in this newly multireligious world of ours. McKenna has devoted his life to deepening multifaith relationships and communication, and his work continues making important contributions to all of us on this journey.
If you are interested in healthy local interfaith relationships and shared sacred gatherings, you can trust this resource. No book here – said and done in less than 5,000 words. Read it, teach it, file it, share it. It will make a better world for us all.