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A Service of Confession and Lament for Fractured Congregations

In 1936, my mother (now deceased) walked out of a church with about three hundred other people and the pastor after the pulpit was declared vacant by a regional church body. Those who left formed a new congregation and joined another denomination that saw the “old church” as wandering from historic Christianity. It took about seventy years before the “old church” and the “new church” could once again see each other as “brothers” (or “sister churches,” in ecclesiastical language, though not formally through denominations).

In 1991 our family was involved in the breakup of a Reformed church. Most of the church council and the minister resigned, and about half of the congregation left to form a new Reformed church in our small town.

In 2017, the local Anglican parish—consisting of three congregations—experienced the trauma of tension and exodus. In this case one congregation simply closed its doors, another survived with no loss of members, and a significant number of the largest congregation departed to form a new congregation.

These three divisions—of brothers and sisters who could no longer live and worship together in unity—have been grieved over by individuals in all the groups. Anger accompanies pain sometimes, and the soothing and anointing “precious oil” has sometimes seemed more like acid poured onto sensitive skin. Self-righteousness sometimes rears its vain head.

What I found missing in all these experiences was a time of communal lament and confession. When our Anglican parish was groaning through its division in 2017, I began working on a service of lament and confession. An administrator visited those who remained and strongly recommended a service of reconciliation to be held within three months.

The service printed below is my effort to provide resources to the many, many Christian congregations and individuals who have been grieving over divisions within the body of Christ. While the pain may not go away, a service of lament and confession may help bring an awareness of our communal involvement in any division, an honesty in sharing emotions, and a deepened awareness of the mercy of God in Christ.

Opening Sentences

“He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).

Alternative:
“‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another’” (John 13:34–35).

Song: “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace” St. Francis of Assisi, GtG 753, PsH 545

Purpose
Today we gather to lament a rift that has occurred in our congregation. We know how hard these things can be by thinking about times when a schoolmate says, for example, “I don’t want to be your friend anymore,” or we are excluded from the invitation list for a birthday party. We know what broken engagements and marriages do to our emotional selves. Being rent asunder is a painful, horrible experience. In our world, we know that talking through such experiences is part of the road to survival, if not healing. We also hear a still, small voice in our hearts that tells us, in most cases, that we were part of the problem. Owning up to our involvement is another part of healing; sometimes it contributes to restoration. Today we do communally what we also do individually when we experience the pains of separation: We speak, we confess, we lament, we ask for God’s mercy, and we receive an assurance of God’s love.

Song: “As a Deer in Want of Water” LUYH 616 (v. 1, 2)

Options:
“A Congregational Lament” Seerveld, PsH 576 (v. 1, 6)
“All Will Be Well” Haupt/Julian of Norwich, LUYH 414 (with lament)

Prayer and Response by God and People

Dear friends in Christ,
as we prepare to worship almighty God,
let us with penitent and obedient hearts confess our sins,
that we may obtain forgiveness by his infinite goodness and mercy.
Silence is kept.
Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed.
We confess that we have thought ill of our neighbors
and prejudged those with whom we disagree;
we have used demeaning and intemperate words;
we have avoided some of our brothers and sisters with a spirit of
impatience or hostility.

We confess that have sinned against you
by what we have done and by what we have left undone.
We have spoken with barbed words or made pronouncements
when we should have remained silent;
we have remained silent when we should have spoken;
we have agitated when we should have accepted suffering;
we have remained passive in the face of oppression.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us,
that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your name. Amen.

—Adapted and developed from an original text in The Book of Alternative Services, © The General Synod of The Anglican Church of Canada, 1985. Used by permission.

Assurance of Pardon
Almighty God have mercy upon you,
pardon and deliver you from all your sins,
confirm and strengthen you in all goodness,
and keep you in eternal life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.
—From an original text in The Book of Alternative Services, © The General Synod of The Anglican Church of Canada, 1985. Used by permission.

Scripture Reading: 1 John 3:18–20
My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know we’re living truly, living in God’s reality. It’s also the way to shut down debilitating self-criticism, even when there is something to it. For God is greater than our worried hearts and knows more about us than we do ourselves.
—1 John 3:18–20, The Message

Response in Song: “Praise God, from Whom All Blessings Flow” Ken, LUYH 965

Option: “Glory Be to the Father” Gloria Patri, LUYH 959

Readings and Meditations

Old Testament Reading: Psalm 80

Epistles: Ephesians 1:15 and Revelation 2:1–7

Meditation (Two or three sentences on each epistle and gospel reading; suggestions follow)
Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ,
St. Paul tells us that the church of Ephesus was noted for its faith and its love for all the saints. But our Lord Jesus Christ revealed to the apostle John that the church of Ephesus, through time, had forsaken its first love. As we strive to cleave to our faith in Christ, let us also strive to hold fast to our love for all the saints, both those who worship with us and those from whom we are separated. May we persevere in love and receive the “right to eat from the tree of life.”

Song: “They’ll Know We Are Christians” Scholtes, LUYH 256

Option: “Jesus, with Your Church Abide” Pollock, PsH 508

Gospel: Jesus’ farewell address in John 14:25–27; 17:20–26

Meditation
To all of us gathered here in Christ’s name:
Our Lord Jesus Christ promises to be with us as we sorrow, grieve, and yearn for deliverance from the pain we experience. He leaves us the Supreme Counselor, who will teach us how to love in stressful circumstances. And our Lord gives us—grants us, blesses us with—his peace. It is a sure thing: Christ’s great beatitude granted to his followers; peace given through love of the kind that is revealed in Christ’s unity with the Father in heaven. Shalom, shanti, salaam: Peace be with you all.

Response and Benediction

Song of Response: “The Church’s One Foundation” Stone, LUYH 251

Option: “Built on the Rock” Grundtvig, PsH 503

Benediction
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face toward you
and give you peace.
Amen.
—Numbers 6:24–26

Song: “Christian Hearts in Love United” von Zinzendorf, LUYH 727

Option: “Lord, You Give the Great Commission” Rowthorn, GtG 298, PsH 523