Discovering Ecumenical Services at University

Growing up in an Anglican tradition, I got to know the service styles of a few local churches over the years, gaining some sense of what a wonderfully eclectic concoction the Church of England is. However, aside from a couple of visits to Methodist or Catholic churches, I had little practical experience of services within other denominations nor of ecumenical worship.

But what happened once I arrived at university? Truly, that would be an ecumenical matter: I was introduced to a tremendous range of worship styles, which have been both eye-opening and joyful. Thanks to Warwick’s Chaplaincy, I had my first encounters with Iona liturgy, Taize-style services, and Agape meals, and even attended some Catholic services and my first ecumenical Ash Wednesday service.

Through Warwick Christian Focus, I was able to meet people from all kinds of denominations, but I was also able to attend the Church on Campus services with them. These were run jointly between our Anglican and Free Church chaplains at the time. A combination of different traditions resulted from this arrangement, including the use of ecumenical Iona liturgy, which I enjoyed. The words of the invitation to the Eucharist particularly struck me as deeply inclusive and welcoming. We are called to the table, whether we ‘have much faith’ or ‘would like to have more’, and whether ‘have been here often’ or ‘have not been for a long time’.

Equipped with this prior introduction to the ways of the Iona Community, I was able to go on a trip to that ‘thin place’ in 2016 with a group from the Chaplaincy, where I not only got a daily dose of their services within their atmospheric abbey church, but also had my first experience of an Agape meal. While it was new to me, it turns out that it is actually one of the most ancient Christian traditions, which has enjoyed a fresh revival over the last few centuries. The name derives from the Greek term agapē, the highest form of love. The ceremony involves sitting along a long table sharing water and simple food. Over the last few years, we have continued the tradition of Agape meals in the Chaplaincy. The liturgy is recited collaboratively, with several speakers contributing in turn, in addition to group responses. The acts of pouring water for one another or sharing the food (our chaplain makes some lovely homemade flapjacks for this purpose) bring a genuine sense of togetherness to the event.

I also had my first experiences of Taize-style worship during university, for some of our Sunday services were inspired by the Taize Community in France, established by Brother Roger Schütz. The service takes a unique form, with a special repertoire of songs based on simple repeated phrases. I find great peace in these beautiful melodies, which are accompanied by lyrics in a variety of languages (even Latin, which greatly pleases a classicist like me). It is an important reminder that the church can connect us beyond the limits of our own languages. I love the gentle flow of the service, with periods of silence interspersed with music, a twice-repeated Bible reading, with all the proceedings illuminated by a wall of flickering candles. It comes together to create an atmosphere which fosters calmness and reflection.

I’ll be leaving university in September. But if I can take some of the peacefulness of the Taize-style services, the community spirit of the Agape meal and the inclusive nature of the Iona liturgy with me, I will be very happy indeed.

Written by Matthew Smith, group leader of Warwick Christian Focus, an SCM affiliated group.