World Wide Communion
By John A. Dalles
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If you were
to turn on to a quiet, tree lined street in the East End of Pittsburgh,
and if you were to make your way down that street past hundred-year
old homes, you would eventually come to a large stone Presbyterian
church building on Westminster Place: Shadyside Presbyterian Church.
The church building
is on the National Register of Historic Places, as a prime example
of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture. Inside the building, one
of its hidden gems is a brass circle, set into the ivory marble
floor of Shadyside’s Chancel. Surrounded by a design reminiscent
of a compass, the circle is inscribed as follows:
World Wide Communion
By Dr. Hugh
What was the
world like, in the autumn of 1933—that first World Communion Sunday?
Surprisingly, not much different from the world this autumn of 2002.
1933 was the darkest year of the Great Depression. The storm clouds
of Nazism and Fascism hovered all over Europe and threatened the
entire world. The prevailing mood was anxiety—fear about economics,
fear about politics and fear about the future.
It is fair to
say that although the causes are different, the mood is much the
same in 2002. International terrorism has had a demoralizing effect
upon society in general and its tone can be measured in Christian
congregations. From the reading and studying of fictionalized end
times scenarios, to the frequent singing of patriotic hymns in worship,
it is clear that 9-11-01 has left its mark upon the church. New
storm clouds threaten—with that old, familiar mood of anxiety.
As a faith response
to the fears of three generations ago, in 1933, a group of leaders
at Shadyside Presbyterian Church sought to do something both real
and symbolic, to proclaim that God is God indeed, in spite of politics,
economics and future shock. How, they wondered, might one church
counteract the pessimism of the larger society? How might they succeed
in eliminating the walls of separation between Christians?
Such a quest
was not new to the members of Shadyside Presbyterian Church. Indeed,
it can be said that their pastor, Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr, was a pioneer
in coalescing the scattered members of Christ’s flock.
Dr. Kerr had
begun his illustrious pastorate at Shadyside in 1913. He served
there for thirty-two years, until 1945. Dr. Kerr was nationally
recognized as a gifted preacher and pastor. He was also a civic
leader in Pittsburgh. Dr. Kerr was frequently asked to serve as
the speaker at public functions. When Charles Lindbergh came to
Pittsburgh as part of his post Trans-Atlantic solo flight, it was
Dr. Kerr who was selected to welcome The Lone Eagle at a festive
banquet hosted by the city. Every church with a radio or television
ministry owes a debt of gratitude to Dr. Kerr, whose visionary understanding
of the nascent radio industry led him to broadcast his Sunday morning
sermons over the world’s first commercial radio station, KDKA Pittsburgh.
These broadcasts became the vehicle for dissolving the walls of
the sanctuary and sending the welcome good news of Christ into far-flung
homes. Under Dr. Kerr’s leadership, the church’s worship services
were the first, anywhere, to be broadcast by radio. Other Christian
communication milestones which can be credited to Dr. Kerr at Shadyside
include the first radio message broadcast to the Arctic (on Christmas
Sunday evening, 1922) and the first worship service broadcast to
the Antarctic, reaching Admiral Byrd at Little America on Easter
Sunday morning, 1929.
to serving a large and busy congregation, Dr. Kerr also wrote over
twenty books, with titles such as A God Centered Faith, The Christian
Sacraments (a classic reference) and Preaching in the Early Church.
He also wrote the material for "A Year with the Bible,"
a daily Bible study guide which circulated for more than fifty years.
Dr. Kerr was also the author of the hymn "God of Our Life,
Through All the Circling Years." Written for the fiftieth anniversary
of Shadyside in 1916, it remains a popular hymn among Presbyterians,
especially those who sing it with verve, not allowing the tune to
succumb to a funereal pace. Dr. Kerr’s hymn is perhaps more appropriate
today than it was in 1916—the words are particularly apt in the
aftermath of the terrorist strikes of one year ago. The reminder
of God’s constant presence and guidance in every year is one that
heartens those who are troubled, by offering the ring of truth.
Davitt S. Bell (the late Clerk of Session and church historian at
Shadyside) recalled that Dr. Kerr first conceived the notion of
World Communion Sunday during his year as moderator of the General
Assembly (1930). Dr. Kerr’s younger son, the Rev. Dr. Donald Craig
Kerr, who is pastor emeritus of the Roland Park Presbyterian Church
in Baltimore, was sixteen in 1933. He has related that World Communion
Sunday grew out of the Division of Stewardship at Shadyside. It
was their attempt to bring churches together in a service of Christian
unity—in which everyone might receive both inspiration and information,
and above all, to know how important the Church of Jesus Christ
is, and how each congregation is interconnected one with another.
When I asked Donald Kerr how the idea of World Communion Sunday
spread from that first service to the world wide practice of today,
this is what he replied,
spread very slowly at the start. People did not give it a whole
lot of thought. It was during the Second World War that the spirit
caught hold, because we were trying to hold the world together.
World Wide Communion symbolized the effort to hold things together,
in a spiritual sense. It emphasized that we are one in the Spirit
and the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
The Church is
one in the Spirit and one in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, although
we may not display our unity clearly to the larger world. This is
why World Communion Sunday is so vital to our shared witness and
why we would be remiss to lose sight of its origins in our own denomination.
It may seem incredible to some that such a far-reaching idea had
its beginnings not simply in a committee, but a stewardship committee.
However, we believe that Jesus is present where two or three or
more will gather in His name. So, how can we be surprised by what
the Living Christ can do even with the most prosaic of committee
years later, the dream of all of us gathering on one Sunday, around
one table—the Lord’s Table—seems as much of an impossible dream
as it did in 1933. We see the connections between individual believers,
congregations and denominations stretched to the uttermost limits.
Yet, when we all share the Meal where Christ is our Host, we are
connected in ways that go beyond our personal preferences, or theological
scuffles, as well as transcending boundaries of geography and language.
What we find on World Communion Sunday is a dissolving of those
things that might hurt of divide us. Around His Table together,
we broadcast our faith to the world and say, "Come and dine;
there is room for all!"
us say this clearly: Conversations that pit one Christian against
another, comments that drive a wedge between one church and another,
systems that separate denomination from denomination, are contrary
to God’s plan and purpose. Let us be even clearer: People who undermine
fellow Christians, congregations that do everything to succeed to
the point of undermining the ministry of another congregation, denominations
or publications that seek to discredit others, are not doing the
Lord’s work. We will say these things, faithfully and well, when
we share in World Communion Sunday.
Ours is the
task of building up the body of Christ—not breaking it down. We
take these words of Christ to heart: "You are the light of
the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do people light
a lamp and place it under a bushel, but on a stand. And it gives
light to all in the house. Let your light shine before others that
they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is
in heaven." (Matthew 5:14-16)
* * *
The Rev. Dr.
John A. Dalles is Pastor/Head of Staff of Wekiva Presbyterian Church
in suburban Orlando, Florida, a Pittsburgh native and a friend of
Shadyside Presbyterian Church.
the October 7, 2002 issue of "Presbyterian Outlook".