Presbyterian Origins

World Wide Communion Sunday

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 Sunday

Was originated in

Shadyside Presbyterian Church

By Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr

In 1933

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.

In addition 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,

"The concept 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 responsibilities?

Now, sixty-nine 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!"

Friend, let 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)

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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.

Reprinted from the October 7, 2002 issue of "Presbyterian Outlook".

 

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