St Mark’s Church of Ireland in Newtownards last night hosted the third instalment of the ecumenical initiative, ‘In Joyful Hope: A New Step in Eucharistic Fellowship’. This and the two previous services, held in Methodist and Catholic churches, have provided opportunities for Christians of all denominations to gather to share Holy Communion, albeit imperfectly.
The fourth and final service will be Thursday 12 May at 8 pm in St John’s Presbyterian Church in Newtownbreda.
As we know, Christians are not permitted by the authorities in some of their churches to actually eat the bread and drink the wine together.
So the events have been comprised of shared prayer and worship, and then varying degrees of participation and observation of Communion itself.
I continue to be surprised by the numbers attending. There were at least 150 there last night, fewer than the large crowd at the service at St Bernard’s Catholic Church during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, but a healthy gathering nonetheless.
What’s happening at these events might be thought of as a churchy form of civil disobedience. But more profoundly, I think it is a witness to the tragedy of the divisions among Christians.
Gathering together for the Eucharist, only to then see some Christians at the service forced to abstain, should prompt the wider church to think – and pray – more deeply about why they have allowed the divisions to continue.
I was struck by the tragedy of it all last night when the Church of Ireland minister began to distribute the bread and wine. He had to pass over Fr Gerry Reynolds from Clonard Monastery.
I know that this was not the intention of this service – far from it – but what this says symbolically (at least to me) is that Fr Gerry is somehow less of a Christian, or not really a Christian at all.
Of course, that’s not what those present at last night’s service really think, thank God. All were invited to kneel at the altar either to receive Communion, or a blessing. I received mine between a Methodist, and a Catholic priest who also had to abstain.
Seeing Fr Gerry, that priest, and the other Catholics who could only abstain, made me feel ashamed that the churches, hundreds of years after the Reformation, are still at this point.
The title of the initiative is ‘In Joyful Hope’ so I also know that the services are not intended to simply prompt a sense of tragedy and shame. Samuel Stone’s ‘The Church’s One Foundation,’ a 19th Century hymn, was sung at the conclusion of the service, and I thought this verse appropriately captured the mixture of sadness and hope that these services evoke:
The world with scornful wonder
May see her sore oppressed,
By schisms rent asunder,
By heresies distressed;
Yet saints their watch are keeping,
Their cry goes up, How Long?,
And soon the night of weeping
Shall be the morn of song.
The ‘morn of song’ still seems pretty far away to me. But maybe those are appropriate emotions to feel heading into the season of Lent.
(Image sourced on flickr photosharing creative commons, by freefotouk)