By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
Catholics and Episcopalians have always done it, but evangelicals, rarely.
These days the folks at Lawndale Presbyterian Church occasionally begin Sunday services with a corporate examination of conscience.
As the congregation gathers, the Rev. Bill Bradford reads from Romans 13, or Galatians 5, where Paul speaks of falling short of the standards of God.
Bradford follows with a declaration of pardon, a reading, such as from Romans 8: 1, which promises forgiveness and salvation to those who put their faith in Jesus Christ.
“The idea is to remind us, as we begin, that God is holy and we are not,” said Bradford, who has introduced the practice during his brief tenure at Lawndale, a congregation of the conservative Presbyterian Church in America.
Bradford believes his liturgical innovation is firmly rooted in scripture, specifically the Exodus narrative, but he also sees it as part of his deepening appreciation of Christians’ shared theological heritage. Rites of corporate confession are found in the Book of Common Prayer, he says, and he believes that today evangelicals like him are warming to traditions they once distrusted.
Each spring, across town, at Calvary Baptist Church, the congregation drapes a purple cloth over a cross it erects in its front yard.
You won’t find a lot of Southern Baptist churches doing it, but the cloth is a recognition of the liturgical season of Lent, the six weeks, beginning Wednesday, when Catholics and some other Christians fast and pray in order to enter more deeply into the experience of Easter.
Although he won’t do it this year because of a capital campaign, the Rev. David Eldridge, Calvary’s senior pastor, has for two years led Calvary members in a somewhat formal observance of Lent, including making special offerings.
Like Bradford, Eldridge is a devoted student of scripture and Christian history, and he feels comfortable encouraging his congregation to honor a tradition that used to be considered only for others.
“I’ve been drawn to the breadth of the body of Christ, and to reflecting upon the journey we’re all on as Christians,” said Eldridge.
“Lent, I think, reminds us of the great cloud of witnesses that we share, as well as the overarching Christian narrative in which we all play a part.”
Bradford and Eldridge have become friends at meetings of the Greater Tupelo Ministerial Alliance, a group of pastors who each month talk about the things they have in common and share their experiences of leading local congregations.
Starting Thursday, the alliance members will host a series of lunch programs that will touch on themes related to Christian unity. The host churches include First United Methodist, All Saints’ Episcopal, First Presbyterian, St. Luke United Methodist, Calvary Baptist and Lawndale Presbyterian. The diversity of participating churches, alliance members say, demonstrates that more unites Christians in Tupelo than divides them.
Friends old and new
Wednesday morning, the Rev. Rick Brooks was enjoying the view from his office window. The white blooms of Bradford pear trees dotted the Joyner neighborhood, and with Lent and Mardi Gras fast approaching Brooks was reminiscing about the days, before Hurricane Katrina, when he was pastor of Main Street United Methodist Church in Bay St. Louis.
During his time on the coast Brooks occasionally crossed paths with the headmaster at Coast Episcopal School in Long Beach, the Rev. Paul Stephens, who is now rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Tupelo.
Brooks and Stephens are both regulars at the meetings of the ministerial alliance, and their friendship is symbolic of the spirit of cooperation that permeates the group.
As worldwide denominations, the United Methodist Church and the Episcopal Church, which is part of the Anglican Communion, are working toward full communion, and planning for the Lenten luncheon series has given Brooks and Stephens a chance to reflect on what their congregations have in common.
The father of Methodism, John Wesley, was an Anglican minister. Despite his grievances with Anglicanism, Wesley held fast to most of its liturgical tradition, and today United Methodists are inheritors of that legacy. Lent is therefore an important season for Methodists.
“I really feel that we’ve retained both the appreciation and love of liturgy, like our Anglican and Episcopal brothers and sisters, as well as Wesley’s evangelical zeal,” said Brooks, whose church will host the fourth installment of the luncheon series on March 31.
“As Methodists we have a great deal of respect for all churches, particularly the Episcopal Church, and the possibility of being in communion one day is very encouraging,” said Brooks.
On the eve of the anniversary of the signing of a covenant between the United Methodist and Episcopal churches, Brooks seemed excited about the Lenten series and said he thought it would be symbol of unity for the whole city.
Stephens hosts the ministerial alliance meetings at All Saints’ on the first Monday of each month. Over sandwiches and chips he and the other ministers share a few laughs, then segue into some light business.
The Lenten series, Stephens said, will present a chance for each of the ministers’ congregations to visit other churches and to make friends as he and his colleagues have done. He described the alliance meetings as a “safe place” where pastors can fellowship despite their theological differences. Like Bradford, Stephens isn’t worried that at the luncheons people from Calvary or Lawndale, for example, will feel they’re being Anglicized.
“We have a unique opportunity here to recognize and celebrate common ground, and to honor the way in which we all live into our call to be disciples of Jesus Christ,” said Stephens.
Stephens’ downtown neighbor, the Rev. Andy Ray, agreed.
“Concession is done best in community, not in isolation,” said Ray, the pastor of Tupelo First United Methodist Church, which will host the first luncheon on Thursday.
“Think about the words community and communion. We’re all part of the household of God,” Ray said. “The only other time we really come together like this is at Thanksgiving.”
It amuses Bradford a little when people assume pastors from different churches don’t get along. He has a very good relationship with his fellow alliance member, the Rev. Tom Groome, pastor of Tupelo First Presbyterian Church, a congregation of the less conservative Presbyterian Church U.S.A. First Presbyterian will host the luncheon series on March 24.
Sitting in his downtown office, looking out into a bright, warm spring afternoon, Groome said it’s natural to feel happy and excited about coming together as Christians this time of year. It’s part of the power of Easter, he said.
Lent wasn’t a very big deal when he was coming up in the PCUSA as boy, even in heavily Catholic southern Louisiana. Like his fellow alliance members, though, Groome hopes this spring will begin a new chapter in ecumenical relations among Tupelo churches. He hopes some black pastors will join the ministerial alliance this year, too.
Groome looked at his office mascot, a stuffed, toy LSU tiger he calls Mike, and grinned.
“Our identity is in Jesus Christ,” he said. “Not in denominations.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at (662) 678-1510 or galen.holley@ journalinc.com.
The members of the Greater Tupelo Ministerial Alliance invite everyone to attend the 2011 Lenten luncheon series. A light lunch will be served followed by a brief presentation, free of charge. Donations are appreciated. Luncheons run 12 p.m. until 12:55 p.m.
– March 10, First United Methodist
– March 17, All Saints’ Episcopal
– March 24, First Presbyterian Church
– March 31, St. Luke United
– April 7, Calvary Baptist Church
– April 14, Lawndale Presbyterian