We are in a new era of Ecumenical culture, said Dr. Darren Dahl. He was addressing a small audience who were attending, on a very cold evening, a workshop at Regina’s Living Spirit Centre titled The Uncomfortable Pew. It was an appropriate location for the workshop in that the Centre houses three different Christian traditions: St. Phillips Anglican. East side United, and Bread of Life Lutheran. The workshop was a project of The Prairie Centre for Ecumenism.
Dahl said Ecumenism has progressed from the 1960s when people had no awareness of Christian traditions other than their own, to today where people more easily “move in and out of each other’s churches and places of worship, and that’s a good thing,” said Dahl. “However, this new ecumenical culture can produce situations of very uncomfortable pews.” He gave the example of, after a lifetime of not entering Uncle Peter’s Greek Orthodox Church, cousin Ashley thinks she will arrive Saturday afternoon for the family wedding as if she were arriving at her local community church. “Ashley is in for some serious discomfort. It’s not because Uncle Peter’s church is stodgy or traditional, it is because everybody lives within a particular and determinate set of Christian traditions without which we cannot think of ourselves as practicing Christians.”
After Dahl’s introductory comments the group then shifted to the workshop. Participants representing several different Christian traditions were seated at tables where each was asked to describe a situation they had experienced, or knew of someone who had experienced, discomfort visiting their own or someone else’s church.
One participant described a situation where the welcome to a church was over the top. It included an offer to be escorted up the aisle to a seat; another described a young couple who were excitedly greeted because of their youth; and another described being confused about behaviour when the Eucharist was offered.
Participants were asked to reflect on those moments, then offer some thoughts on what could be done to make visitors more comfortable. One suggested a visitor’s booklet that would describe the service, including prayers and responses as well as when to stand, sit or kneel or whatever, and washroom locations. Another suggested the presider, minister, priest etc. offer a welcome to visitors, offer a brief explanation of the service and ask everyone to turn, greet those next to them, and perhaps introduce themselves. “We must find a way to celebrate together in ways that welcome the neighbor by opening to them the very practices that make us who we are,” Dahl told the group.
Dr. Darren Dahl is the Executive Director of the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism in Saskatoon. There was no charge for the workshop, but participants were asked for a free-will offering to cover expenses which included coffee and cookies after the workshop.