We live next door to each other. Have the same landlord. Shop in the same stores. Greet one another when we meet. We read the same Bible and pray to the same God, but have never shared divine service together. Not until now, that is.
We have all heard these words before and say them again gladly: “We are all part of the family in Christ,” or “In Christ we are all one.” These words are easy to say, but do we put them into practice? Or do we still look at each other skeptically, thinking secretly to ourselves: “We’re the ones who are actually right!”
For five years, I have been working as the vicar at the Church of Sweden in Vienna, a congregation that covers Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. As a female priest in an Evangelical-Lutheran church working in a country that is dominated by the Roman Catholic Church, I´m often asked how things are going. Am I able to work unimpeded or do I encounter resistance?
My answer might have been a little evasive at times. But not now!
It all started with an e-mail, an invitation to celebrate an ecumenical divine service together. Hardly surprising, since it was the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
But this divine service was different. For the first time, we celebrated it together. Not as, unfortunately, so often happens in these situations: That one church invites the other churches as guests to participate in one special divine service. Nor as has happened to me so many times in the past: being invited, but because I belong to that “other” church and the “other” gender, I am directed to sit in a pew: invited, but only to attend, not to actively participate.
This year, this time, however, it was different. And it all started with an e-mail. An e-mail in which we were invited to create the divine service together. To think about and discuss how we might work together to allow our various traditions to be reflected in this divine service, while also demonstrating our unity in Christ. Many conversations ensued. Long conversations. But eventually we put together a divine service that combined diversity and unity in a wonderful way.
I don’t know what touched me most during the service.
Was it the Kyrie, when the representatives of the different churches, in open-hearted self-reflection, prayed for unity and understanding?
Or was it when the Bible passages were alternately read and chanted in different languages?
Perhaps it was when we silently placed pieces of incense into burners with glowing coals, letting the fragrant smoke rise up along with our different prayers to God.
Or was it when each and every one in the church received the blessing in their own tongue: English, German, Arabic, Swedish, sign language?
Maybe it was when we – the representatives of the Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confessions in Austria, the Church of Sweden, the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church – invited everyone in attendance to coffee and tea after the service, and together, side by side, welcomed the congregation.
We were not guests of one another. We had celebrated divine service. Together!