Parish Tidies Joint Worship
  • Wednesday, March 20, 2013

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
TLC Correspondent

Duplicating efforts might not be the most efficient form of worship, but it’s enabling Episcopalians and Roman Catholics in one Virginia community to sustain a rare, decades-long ecumenical experiment.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Richmond has accepted a proposal for administering sacraments separately during shared worship services at Church of the Holy Apostles in Virginia Beach. The church’s eucharistic forms needed to be more separate and distinct, Roman Catholic authorities said last year. Now they will be.

A new protocol requires that a Roman Catholic priest will pray parts of the liturgy every week. Every other week, on “Episcopal Sundays,” an Episcopal priest will pray the same portions.

For worshipers, this means services on Episcopal Sundays will run about 20 minutes longer. They will hear the same Scripture passages read twice, two homilies, and two sets of Eucharistic prayers. Then they will receive Communion separately and reunite for the Great Thanksgiving.

“In some ways we’d gotten too comfortable: ‘We’ll just breeze right through this. I can go to my altar and she goes to her altar, and it’s no big deal,’” said Michael Ferguson, Episcopal priest at Church of the Holy Apostles. “We’ve now put it back in people’s consciousness that because the two [churches] are not totally reunited, we are not totally together” in worship.

Since its inception in 1977, Church of the Holy Apostles has had both theological and practical goals for its ecumenical mission. In the mid-1970s, both Episcopal and Roman Catholic leaders were seeking land in the Virginia Beach area for new houses of worship. In the collaborative spirit of Vatican II, they joined forces, built a single building together and embodied ecumenism while reducing costs for both groups.

The collaborative effort now allows for ministry to families that might otherwise worship separately on Sunday mornings. Roman Catholics married to Episcopalians worship together and bring along their children. Sunday-school lessons are based on Roman Catholic resources.

The church will now integrate symbols into its worship space in new ways to show both unity and separation. A baptismal font will sit prominently in the main aisle, equidistant from the two altars, as a sign of Christian unity. A new banner will convey that the two groups, though sharing much in common, still receive Communion in separate locations.

“People have already noticed how the language [in the prayers] is almost identical” in Episcopal and Roman Catholic traditions, Ferguson said. “It’s educational in that way. [The liturgy] now shows not only that we are separate, but how close we are in many ways.”

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