A quiet surprise of ecumenical work.
Picture a still, quiet, spacious church late in the evening. The chairs have been rearranged, making open spaces and clusters of seating. In the centre of the sanctuary, there is an arrangement of candles, their collected light drawing the eye. Some people are sitting quietly and others walk slowly through the space, stopping at an easel to look at a canvas, a table with a few open books or an art installation made of small ceramic bowls or glass mosaic tiles.
In one corner, a minister sits with an empty chair, ready for anyone who seeks private conversation or healing prayer. At a large table, there are art materials available for those who wish to create, and, from time to time, music fills the sanctuary: a cello, a flute, the voice of the organ, a gathered choir. At the far end of the sanctuary or maybe in the narthex, tables have been set up for tea and good things to eat, and people sit there together, chatting softly. There is no schedule for the evening and no order of service. Instead, this church is open all evening for contemplation, gentle fellowship and quiet prayer.
An Ecumenical, Drop-in Arts Ministry
Several years ago when I lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, this was one of my congregations. I divided my work week between a families ministry with one congregation with an emphasis on weekly Sunday School, pastoral care and seasonal events, and this ecumenical, city-centre arts ministry. We called it Nitekirk, and it was started in Greyfriars Kirk, a congregation of the Church of Scotland, by the minster Richard Fraser who visited Copenhagen Cathedral and learned of a similar event there. Greyfriars Kirk hosted their first Nitekirk one summer during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and soon started conversations about making it an ongoing component of their worshipping life. When I worked there, it had become a community effort, supported and hosted by Greyfriars alongside Augustine United Church, a member of the United Reformed Church, and St Columba’s-by-the-Castle, an Episcopal Church. Volunteers from these three congregations, as well as the wider community, cooperated each month to create a welcoming contemplative space where faith and fellowship were explored in new ways.
Creativity & contemplation
Each month, the volunteers chose a theme to create a framework for this drop-in worship service. Music, songs and prayerful reflections were shared at the beginning and end of each session, and the installations or stations throughout the sanctuary invited people to explore, contemplate, pray and worship in their own way, drawing out spiritual responses from within, which people may not have expected or intended. Together, we trusted that, through prayerful preparation, we might create worship spaces where people might encounter the Creator in creative, contemplative ways and find support for their personal journeys of faith.
Church members who attended these evenings said they came to find something different from Sunday morning worship or mid-week Bible study. They were looking for quiet refreshment in a reflective space. But we also discovered that Nitekirk offered a form of church that felt open to those who may have lost touch with church life, or who were connected to our faith traditions in a looser way. These evenings became spaces for all who were curious about spending time in Christian contemplation. I met people at Nitekirk who hadn’t stepped inside a church in years and those who never had. We had visitors from other religions, too, who were curious about the shape of our church buildings and became curious about the shape of our traditions.
That was a surprise of this ecumenical work. We weren’t only bringing our three communities together; when we opened the doors, they were open to all. The beauty of our quiet sanctuaries late in the evening became a witness to the ongoing faithful life of these spaces and the continuing presence of God in the midst of our city and all of our lives.