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‘Uncomfortable pew’ a hazard of ecumenism

By Kate O’Gorman


SASKATOON — The Prairie Centre for Ecumenism offered a public event at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Saskatoon Nov. 14 entitled, “The Uncomfortable Pew: Ecumenical Sensitivity at Weddings and Funerals.”

The event drew clergy and laypeople from a variety of Christian traditions and offered a friendly and hospitable environment to reflect on various experiences of ecumenical etiquette and sensitivity.

The centre’s executive director, Darren Dahl, invited participants to remember a time when services such as weddings, funerals, baptisms and confirmations deliberately excluded family and friends who belonged to another Christian denomination.

“Just a generation ago, it was common that one didn’t participate in the services of other denominations,” said Dahl. “It simply wasn’t an option.”

Participants shared stories and lamented memories that highlighted this history of division. But despite the painful past, Dahl emphasized, we no longer think the same way about other churches. This new attitude is owing to our ecumenical conversations, particularly at the local and regional levels.

“We give thanks that, for the most part, we aren’t there anymore,” said Dahl. “It’s common practice now, especially when it comes to services such as funerals and weddings, that we find ourselves invited into our neighbours’ churches.”

Because Christians are no longer separated in the same way, however, we face a new set of challenges when we find ourselves in churches that are unfamiliar to us.

“Part of the ecumenical journey is accepting the fact that we remain diverse, even in our attempts to be united,” Dahl said. “Being a good friend in a church that is not our own requires us to recognize that there is an etiquette to adhere to, especially in practices such as the eucharist. There are expectations about what it means to be a good guest and what it means to be a good host, and when those expectations conflict with the theological and liturgical boundaries that still exist between us, things can get awkward.

“The challenge we face now is how to live together, celebrating our accomplishments while recognizing the boundaries that still exist and the etiquette required to navigate our ecumenical life together,” he said.

“Unfortunately, many of these practical modes of etiquette are discovered by trial and error, creating the experience of the ‘uncomfortable pew.’ ”

Dahl asked, “What could we do to make guests from other traditions feel welcome at services such as weddings and funerals, while also helping them navigate modes of appropriate practice and etiquette?”

Participants at the event were invited to share their own experiences of navigating ecumenical etiquette. This was followed by a robust conversation about how to be a good ecumenical host.

The Prairie Centre is planning further events in 2018 to help foster practical ecumenical conversations. For more information, visit


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