By SHEILA OJENDYK
SPARTANBURG — Religious and lay leaders from Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, and United Methodist churches gathered together on Jan. 27 at St. Paul Lutheran Church. LARCUM, an ecumenical association of Lutherans, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and United Methodists, sponsored its annual joint prayer service for 2002 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Bishop Robert J. Baker represented the Diocese of Charleston.
Bishop David A. Donges, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, gave the invocation. Bishop Dorsey F. Henderson, of the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina, gave the prayer of repentance, asking God to “unite us soon in one holy church.” Bishop William J. Skilton, of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, read an excerpt from the Book of Romans (6:3-11).
Bishop Baker gave the homily and spoke of how Christians are united in baptism and a common spiritual journey. He made several references to the Jan. 24 gathering in Assisi, Italy, in which Christian leaders met with Jewish and Islamic leaders for dialogue and prayer.
The bishop related Cardinal Avery Dulles’ talk at Fordham University last November in which the cardinal addressed religious conflict. The cardinal spoke of how Christians in North America and Western Europe became accustomed to living with non-Christians over the last two centuries.
Bishop Baker said, “We in the west have taken for granted that ‘no religion is any longer in a position to claim exclusive domination of a region and shelter its faithful from contact with other faiths.’ We have been surprised to discover that some extremist groups in other areas of the world do not share such a tolerant approach.”
Cardinal Dulles classified four types of relationships between people of different religions: coercive, convergent, pluralistic, and tolerant. Religious coercion goes back to the beginning of history. The religion of the king was the religion of the people — whether the populace liked it or not.
Western Europe and North America have settled on tolerance. According to Cardinal Dulles, “From the beginning we had in this nation a great variety of Christian denominations that regarded one another as mistaken. The American political settlement did not require them to approve of each other’s doctrines and practices, but it did insist that they avoid any effort to coerce the members of other denominations to agree with them.”
Bishop Baker stressed the need for people of different faiths to work together for social justice, world peace, and stewardship of the environment. The bishop then introduced the “Letter to Christians in South Carolina Regarding the Death Penalty in South Carolina.”
An excerpt from the letter explains, “… A moral consensus in opposition to the death penalty has developed within the leadership of our communities. Statements of power and grace have been made by both national and international leaders and governing bodies of the churches for which we are profoundly grateful. Our responsibility is to bring to bear upon this problem of major consequence in South Carolina the moral teaching of the wider Christian community.”
The letter originated in Florida 20 years ago and has been modified slightly. The bishops share the hope that religious leaders in other states will carry the letter forward.
Each of the five bishops present signed the joint statement in the name of the Prince of Peace. Bishop Edward Salmon, of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, was unable to attend the gathering.
Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey, of the South Carolina Conference, United Methodist Church, read the Confession of Faith, which was adapted from the Catholic Easter Vigil.
A collection was taken, and the proceeds were divided evenly between disaster relief charities of the four churches.