Planning Interfaith Worship

Pluralism Project research archive: “The Clock Can Never Be Turned Back!”

Researcher: Chris Coble

Interfaith worship requires careful and intentional planning. Before any worship service can take place, participants must discuss whether the service is a statement of religious unity, a celebration of religious diversity, or both. How do members of different faith traditions worship together without compromising the integrity of each faith and yet celebrating the unity among them? An interfaith worship service in Boston in 1992 illustrates how one group of diverse faith traditions approached these questions.

In June 1992, more than one hundred people representing Protestant, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Reform Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Neo-Pagan faith traditions gathered in a downtown Boston church to worship together. The service was the result of careful planning and hard work that had begun three months before the event. At the initial meetings, the planning committee decided they wanted to emphasize unity by focusing on a common theme: racial and religious justice and harmony. The theme would especially honor the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. At the same time committee members emphasized that each faith tradition should maintain its integrity and contribute something unique from its own form of worship to the service.

The next step was to construct an outline of the liturgy. Religious leaders representing Baptists, Hindus, Buddhists, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, Christian Scientists, Swedenborgians, and many others contributed to the discussion. The outline followed what might be considered the format of a Protestant worship service: a call to worship, scripture readings, a sermon, prayers, and a benediction. The planning group agreed to this format, recognizing that each element of the service would be in the distinctive voice of a different tradition.

Who would provide the music for the service? One person suggested a local African-American choir, another person thought it should reflect American culture. After ten minutes of discussion, a member of the Free Daist community, a Hindu group following the leader Da Free John, explained how central music is to their worship, and volunteered to provide some of the music. The planning group quickly agreed and decided that the service should have both Eastern and Western forms of music.

The mixing of Western and Eastern forms of music raised the issue of meditation. A member of the Zen Buddhist community described how silent meditation was central to their spiritual lives, and asked if that could be part of the service. The planning group agreed but wondered how much silence should be included. Protestant members explained thoughtfully that Protestants were not used to silence; without training in meditation techniques they would become uncomfortable and distracted. After lengthy discussion of just how much silence a Protestant could be expected to endure, the group decided on three minutes. No one at the meeting questioned how long a sermon non-Protestants could be expected to endure!

The interfaith worship service that took place that June evening was, finally,   both balanced and inclusive. It was a first attempt, in any case. The prelude included a soloist singing gospel hymns and a devotee from the International Society for Krishna Consciousness singing a chant to Krishna. An imam from the Muslim community began the service with the Islamic call to prayer. The service included a woman from the Jewish community singing composer Aaron Copeland’s “At the River,” a short video presentation on the lives of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy,  a Buddhist candle lighting ceremony for peace and justice, a ten-minute chant by the Free Daist community, readings from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Qur’an, and the Vedas, a short sermon, and a responsive litany of prayer. The benediction at the end of the service was offered by members of the Neo-Pagan community.

Reactions to the service were varied but generally positive. One of the planners thought that the service seemed disjointed. A member of the Neo-Pagan community commented that it “felt good” to participate and perform a ritual without fear of being labeled, misjudged, or ostracized. The Muslim imam commented that the service was important to show how different faith traditions can work together. The Episcopal priest who hosted the service saw the event as a significant milestone, and he said emphatically, “The clock can never be turned back!”