Members of local Episcopalian and Roman Catholic churches prayed and sang together Sunday during what bishops said may have been the first joint service in Montana.
Bishops of the respective dioceses and local church leaders hosted a choral evensong at St. Peter’s Episcopal Cathedral in Helena to celebrate the Christian Advent season and foster cooperation between the two denominations.
“It’s a gesture of friendship and affection I think,” said the Rev. C. Franklin Brookhart, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Montana.
Brookhart said he invited Bishop George Leo Thomas of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena about a year ago to hold a joint service. Thomas said he joyfully accepted, saying, “It’s good to give witness to the light that comes through ecumenical dialogue.”
“Bishop, it’s nice to be on your turf,” he said to Brookhart before the service began.
Thomas has been bishop at the Helena diocese for the past nine years, and Brookhart has been the Episcopal bishop of Montana for almost 11.
The two traditions share a history that goes back five centuries, to the Church of England’s break from the Roman Catholic Church by King Henry VIII. Episcopalians split from the Church of England after the American Revolution.
The Episcopalian and Catholic churches share many beliefs and practices — such as similar church hierarchies and emphasis on the Eucharist — but differ in some noticeable respects.
For instance, priests may marry in the Episcopal tradition, and the church ordained its first gay bishop in 2003. As with all denominations, the churches also disagree on some of the finer points of biblical doctrine.
But it was shared understanding, not differences, that were the focus of Sunday’s service.
“We certainly can pray together, and we can certainly address crucial problems together,” Brookhart said. “And we can certainly pray for each other.”
Thomas said he hopes the joint service will encourage the churches to partner in social outreach and advocacy efforts.
“There are some things like the death penalty that will be easy for us to work on,” Brookhart said. Both churches oppose the punishment.
The bishops also said evening prayer is a common root for both churches. An evensong service doesn’t include taking of communion, but instead offers an evening of song and prayer.
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They sat across from one another during the ceremony — Brookhart officiated while Thomas delivered a homily.
In his remarks, Thomas said the commonality of the Christian vision has been blinded by years of widespread divisions.
“In times present and times past, these divisions have even devolved into violence and hatred,” he said.
Thomas pointed to the Second Vatican Council held in Rome from 1962-65, though, as an example of ecumenical spirit, adding that former Bishop of Helena Raymond Hunthausen is the oldest living American to have attended it.
Thomas said the sessions represented a declaration by the Catholic Church to “heal the wounds that affect the worldwide body of Christians.” Similar calls for unity are found in Episcopalian/Anglican tradition, he said.
Thomas then outlined areas of common ground between the Episcopal and Catholic churches which he said offer a basis for cooperation and healing.
But commitment among Christians to understand one another isn’t enough, Thomas added, “in an ever-shrinking global village.” He called for “meaningful and systematic interfaith dialogue” between all world religions to ensure religious freedom and mutual respect for all people, including nonbelievers.
“Thank you for that stimulating and guilt-inducing homily,” Brookhart joked afterward.
“I think your homily is a call to serious mission in the world together,” he said.
Brookhart then presented an icon to Thomas, thanking him for participating in the “wonderful and historic service.”
Afterwards, St. Peter’s Cathedral held a reception for the bishops and parishioners.
“I thought it was a really good idea,” said parishioner Peggy Smith. She’s been attending St. Peter’s for 16 years.
“It was really nice to see,” she said.