Transfiguring its worship

Oregon church creates ecumenical service for entire community
December 31, 2004

Printed on the Rev. Larry Harrelson’s business cards several years ago were the following words: “The Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration, a faithful and open Christian community with permeable boundaries.”

Harrelson was rector of the Episcopal parish in Sisters, a rapidly-growing, semi-remote vacation area with 1,000 residents, with another 4,000 in the forest sub-divisions, that included people from several different mainline denominations.

But newcomers to Sisters, some who arrived as long as 15 years ago, discovered that Transfiguration was the only mainline non-Roman Catholic Church for 20 miles. As the community grew, parishioners began discussions on how to make the Episcopal services more welcoming for all people.

According to Susan Powers, a parishioner for 16 years, common comments included, “We ought to just scrap the prayer book and have services” and, “It is not our cup of tea.” The discussions gave birth to the idea of an ecumenical service. Harrelson was open to the idea, although he says his reaction was two-fold. “One was: How would that work, thinking about retaining the sacramental nature of the church. However, because of my ecumenical background, spending many years as an Army National Guard chaplain responsible for the religious care of all people from different denominations, that made it easier.”

After two years of discussions and planning, the first ecumenical service was held in January 2000 with a paradigm of “One Church, Two Worship Styles.” It proved a success.

Ecumenical worship begins at 8:15 on Sunday mornings and the Episcopal service follows at 10:15. After being reviewed by the rector, the ecumenical service -- led by lay leaders -- includes:

  • Communion on the first Sunday of each month. Two chalices are used, and the bread is distributed to worshippers in their pews;
  • Resources such as the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, Presbyterian Book of Common Worship, a collection of resources titled Flames of the Spirit: Resources For Worship and other varied resources;
  • An Order of Service including a hymn, welcome, announcements, a call to worship, responsive prayers, confession, absolution and lessons from the New and Old Testament;
  • Intercession led by a worship service member.

Worship style is important

While he serves as usher at the Episcopal service when needed, Methodist member Frank Baldwin says the ecumenical service “fills” him. “To us it has been a blessing because it’s what we are used to,” says Baldwin. "The liturgical style in the Episcopal service we are not comfortable with, so we much prefer our own service.”

Carolyn Gabrielson, a Presbyterian who also prefers the ecumenical service, says it helps to remind her of the importance of worship style. “I did not find it meaningful when I attended the Episcopal service compared to what I was used to,” says Gabrielson. “That difference in style made me realize the importance enough to work with others to create an Order of Service that would be meaningful to my husband and me and to others.”

Powers says an influx of creative people and energetic church members have strengthened the parish and community. “There are now more people from both groups involved in both services,” says Powers. “I enjoy the spread of opinions and the different viewpoints coming from people of other backgrounds.”

Judi Benson, also a Presbyterian, notes the importance of the combined efforts of both groups as they reach out into the community. “This [the ecumenical service] has nearly doubled the church membership, which has enabled the church to build a community hall.

That alone enabled the spirit that the congregation has, and the people in the ecumenical service all have the same spirit of outreach. … We want to serve the community,” she says. “It has enabled us to do more together than we did separately.”

The church and its community have been enriched by the rapid influx of growth -- from average Sunday attendance of 48 in 1995 to 108 in 2003 -- Harrelson says. “By pooling our time, talent and treasure, we were able to do more service and ministry with and to the community.”

This includes raising $1 million to aid with the church addition, which included a major expansion of the community hall, complete with a new kitchen, the rector’s office, secretarial offices and new restrooms. Soon after the hall was built, a 90-thousand-acre forest fire swept through the region and left many people homeless.

“The hall served as a Red Cross briefing center and food service for evacuees,” says Baldwin. “It was a marvelous benefit to the community because it was an ideal facility for them to meet.”

The parish faced challenges, even losing some members in the transition, says Harrelson, who retired last summer and is now living in Boise, Idaho. But he says the larger vision of what God was calling the parish to be and do became the direction in which they had to move. “The nuances of working out the different customs and traditions took some time. … We did O.K., but we had to keep talking because we were coming from a slightly different perspective,” he says.