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Planning for pluralism

Because it's barely three weeks until the Progressive Faith Blog Con (eek!), I spent a good chunk of this afternoon working on the erev Shabbat liturgy for the scheduled Friday evening service.

In hindsight, I kind of wish now that we hadn't labeled the services "ecumenical." I've gotten feedback suggesting that that term isn't entirely clear. (I tried to explain what we meant a while back on the con blog, though I don't know how helpful that was.) Well, maybe next year we'll use different names for things. What we meant all along, and what we still mean to do, is to enliven the weekend with prayer, meditation, and worship, in a way that's authentic to each of these several traditions, but is also welcoming to those who aren't from that tradition.

The idea is to create liturgical experiences designed for "insiders" (we expect the most ardent and informed participants in the Jewish service to be the Jewish bloggers in attendance, for instance) but also designed to be open to "outsiders" (we hope that everyone will attend all of the sessions, regardless of whether you happen to be Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, or of a different tradition/persuasion altogether.) We also have high hopes that we'll be joined by bloggers who don't belong to any of the traditions I just listed, and we're aware that not every religious tradition is represented on the schedule -- but hey, time is limited, we made choices. Next year whoever's on the planning committee is welcome to choose otherwise!

Anyway: the real question is how to create a service -- take the Jewish one, since that's the one I'm actually trying to compile -- which will be simultaneously comfortable for those within the tradition, and comprehensible for those outside it. How should we navigate the fact that different Jewish communities pray in very different ways and styles? How to deal with the fact that we won't all know the same melodies for many things, that some of us are accustomed to praying solely in Hebrew and others are accustomed to praying primarily in English, and that when it comes to translations our different siddurim (prayerbooks) probably don't match?

That last question is the easy one: we're assembling a special prayerbook for one-time use, based loosely on several classic Jewish siddurim but not exactly like any of the editions y'all might own. Beyond that, we're going to have to ask people to bend their usual worship styles a little in the interest of creating community. Our service will not be exactly like what any of us does at home. It's a little bit like the first time I came to services at my college Jewish center, and realized that each of us there had a home congregation with its own traditions and customs -- and that, if we were going to worship together, we were going to have to learn how to compromise on a lot of those customs, somehow.

Really these are questions about pluralism, and about creating worship in a pluralistic space. Others in the J-blogosphere have written wisely and well on this front (I'm thinking specifically of BZ's excellent series "Hilchot Pluralism," which begins with a taxonomy of Jewish pluralism)...but I think the ProgFaithBlogCon poses some unique challenges, because it's designed to be a multifaith space.

Ideally the service ought to be inclusive enough to make outsiders comfortable, traditional enough to make insiders comfortable, ordinary enough to make regular shul-goers happy, unusual enough to keep people interested, enough of a teaching tool to give people some understanding of Jewish worship and liturgy, and enough of a "real service" to let the Jews (and others) in attendance feel they've fulfilled the obligation to pray.

Add to that the fact that the service is basically the first thing on the agenda Friday evening -- we begin with a brief welcome, and then transition right into services, followed by schmoozing and dinner -- and I think my gentle anxieties are justified!

So I'm posing the question to all of you, dear readers: have you ever attended a good interfaith worship service, or a good single-faith worship service that was designed to be navigable by outsiders? What made it work, what did you like, what was good about it? (Or, on the flipside: if you've ever attended such a service which bombed, what made it miserable?) If you were building such a service, how would you go about doing it? In this context, what sounds like fun to you?

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