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Praying Together

The Many Ways to Share Prayer

“How can you, as a Christian, pray to other gods?” was the question a BBC reporter asked, when an interfaith service I helped to arrange led to protests from ‘defenders of the faith.’ “I am a monotheist,” was my answer, “I believe there is only One God, and that Jesus showed us that God’s love is for all people.” As George Appleton, a former Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, said at the service. “We stand in worship before the mystery of the final reality to whom or to which we give differing names, so great and deep and eternal that we can never fully understand or grasp the mystery of His Being.”

Praying Hands by Albrecht Dürer – Photo: WikipediaNo wonder ‘all faiths services’ have been controversial. Interfaith pioneers shared the mystical vision voiced by George Appleton. Interfaith prayer is a challenge to religious exclusivism and to post-modernists who emphasise the distinctiveness of religious traditions.

Real life situations, though, such as a disaster that affects a whole community, or a marriage in which the couples belong to different religions, have created a growing demand for interfaith prayer – even if participants do not share the vision of the mystics.

This means that any interfaith prayer time should fit a particular occasion and be sensitive to the beliefs of those taking part. For example, one Buddhist monk said to me, “If you talk about God, I cannot come, if you speak of ‘Truth,’ I will.”

Let me, therefore, give examples of different approaches.

By Invitation – It is increasingly common to invite members of another faith as guests to a community’s celebration. Are they there as observers or participants? A rabbi or imam may be invited to speak at a Christian service. They would probably not expect to receive communion, but I have known Hindus or Buddhists come forward for the bread and wine. I have found it very moving when, at a mosque, I have been welcomed to join the community’s prayers or to prostrate myself before the Guru Granth Sahib in a Sikh gurdwara. Jews quite often invite Christians to share in Holocaust Memorial gatherings.

At Civic Events – On public occasions, members of each faith are often invited to recite in turn a prayer or passage of scripture. This is sometimes spoken of as ‘being together to pray’ rather than ‘praying together’ – although participants may not notice the difference. Yet, it means, for example, that those Christians who believe that all prayer must be ‘through Jesus Christ’ do not feel their integrity has been compromised. A sense of unity may be enhanced by shared affirmations or symbolic action, such as the almost inevitable lighting of candles.

Captain Samuel Cass of the 1ST Canadian Army, a rabbi, conducting the first prayer service celebrated on German territory by Jewish personnel March 18, 1945. – Photo: WikipediaThe launch of the “Year of Inter-religious Understanding and Co-operation” in 1993 included a Water Ceremony. On the stage, there was a fountain. Two members of each faith were asked together to bring a gift of water and to say a prayer. For some the water came from a special source. The Christians brought water from the river Jordan, the Hindus from the river Ganges, the Muslims from Zamzam. Some of the prayers specifically related to water. The Christian prayer was from the Roman Catholic baptism service. From the Qur’an there was a verse which speaks of God making all things from water.

Because of suspicions that interfaith is really a new amalgamated faith, some care was taken with explaining the significance of the ceremony. The program said:

The Interfaith Mural – Katherine Chilcote and Friends, Cleveland MuralsEach religion has treasures to share with all people. In the ceremony, representatives of each World Faith will say a prayer and offer its treasures in the form of water. The water may symbolise the cleansing of the scars of conflict, the bringing of refreshment to the thirsty or the renewal of hope for a just and peaceful world where nature's bounty is valued and not polluted. The mingling of the waters symbolises how from their own rich and diverse sources faiths can come together in the service of humanity.

Interreligious Worship – Shared liturgies in which material from different faith traditions is woven together are, in my view, more creative, even if they are more controversial. For example, at the Barcelona Parliament of World Religions, the World Congress of Faiths arranged an “Interfaith Celebration of the Gift of Water.” It had three parts: first, “The symbolism of water in the sacred traditions”; then, “Water should be a symbol of compassion and of justice and of our responsibility to treasure the environment”; and, thirdly, “What can we do?” Prayers and readings from many faiths were included, but they were chosen to fit the context rather than recited in historical order. 

Some occasions for interfaith prayer are more personal. Years ago, I was asked by a Jewish lady to officiate at the funeral service for her husband, who was a Christian. She asked whether I would mind if the rabbi said a prayer, to which I agreed. Afterwards she said to me how pleased she was, but “how I wish one or other religion had blessed our marriage.” None had been willing. I am glad subsequently to have been asked to officiate at Christian-Jewish and Christian-Muslim weddings.

Private Prayer – Interfaith prayer, perhaps, need not only take place with other people, but also in our personal devotions as we read scriptures from other traditions, not to learn what others believe but to listen to God speaking to us through them. One Muslim described the Qur’an as “love letters from God.”

Words are necessary, but they also divide – and perhaps the deepest spiritual sharing is when we wait in silence in the presence of the Holy One. As we do so we sense not only our oneness with the Divine but with all people and indeed all beings, as this prayer “Visualising the Healing of the World” suggests:

Picture the world as seen from space and imagine that you are holding the world in the palm of your hands...

Holy Lord

Reverenced and loved,

Divine and of the Sacred ways,

Of this world the Light:

I visualise our world,

I caress and heal it,

I now hold its beauty in my hands.

Then it travels on a lit path

Bearing my prayer for your blessing

And returns to palms and finger tips

Cupped, protective, as a chalice filled with Peace. 

                                       - By Eric Gladwin in 1,000 World Prayers (2003)

All in Good Faith: A Resource Book for Multi-Faith Prayer, Edited by Jean Potter and Marcus Braybrooke, summarises the history and debates of Interfaith Prayer, provides an anthology of short readings and some sample services. (out of print, but copies may be available from on-line bookshops)  See also Marcus' Widening Vision(2013), A Heart for the World (2005), 1,000 World Prayers (2003). 

The Interfaith Mural is the creation of a team of artists at Cleveland Murals under the direction of lead-artist Katherine Chilcote.