Joseph Staniunas, Special to The Catholic Virginian

As they prepared to begin a meeting on Christian unity Friday, Nov. 30, leaders of four faiths in Virginia, and others taking part, formed a circle in Emancipation Park in downtown Charlottesville. 

Bishop Barry C. Knestout and Lutheran, Episcopal and United Methodist bishops stood silently in the dark listening to a group singing Christmas carols a few blocks away. A bride strolled by holding her husband’s hand, the hem of her billowing white dress brushing leaves from the sidewalk. 

The bishops were praying on the same ground where hatred turned to violence more than a year ago. Just a few blocks away a jury had started to hear evidence against a man accused of murder in the death of a young woman who was protesting his views. 

“Oh God of Peace, who are peace itself and whom a spirit of discord cannot grasp, nor a violent mind receive,” Bishop Knestout prayed, “grant that those who are one in heart may persevere in what is good and that those in conflict might forget evil and so be healed.”

The ceremony on the site of that deadly rally by white supremacist groups in August 2017 began the 2018 LARCUM Conference (Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic, United Methodist).

“We gather this evening to celebrate together the great strides we have taken on the path to Christian unity and to pray that the work of ecumenism will come to fruition around the table of the Lord,” the bishop said at the start of the worship service inside First United Methodist Church.

He joined other new Virginia bishops in signing the LARCUM Covenant, renewing the Diocese of Richmond’s commitment to some 20 ways to achieve greater unity with these other faiths. Among them: seasonal, ecumenical prayer services, collaboration on issues of social justice, encouragement of shared religious formation experiences for young people and prayer for each other at Sunday liturgies.

The conference, which concluded on Saturday, Dec. 1, focused on exploring the connection between praying, believing and doing, the role that worship plays in promoting Christian unity, and the idea that singing in common is the “first” form of ecumenism.

“So we believe, so we pray. So we pray, so we believe,” said keynote speaker and workshop presenter Rev. Dr. Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, quoting from a World Council of Churches report on the role of worship in creating greater Christian unity. “If we believe that there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, then this should be reflected in our prayers. … May those points of connection and commonality continue to expand as we journey toward that unity for which we pray.”

Among the 82 attendees were several from the Richmond Diocese, including a group from the Church of the Holy Apostles, Virginia Beach, an ecumenical community established and supported by the Diocese of Richmond and the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia. 

“We always come if we can because it means so much to us, especially because our church is ecumenical and we want to keep this going for as long as we can,” said parish member Linda Carpenter. 

One of its practices is a 10 a.m. Sunday service using elements of the liturgies of both traditions. 

“In our congregation we do everything together that we can because we feel we have more in common than we have that separates us” said Joan Flowers, another member of Holy Apostles.

“I’m very impressed with all the bishops who are here who make a point of coming up to us,” said Paula Hughes, a self-described “pew-sitter” from Church of the Holy Family, Virginia Beach. “It’s the people in the pews who should be going to something like this.”

Before presiding at the closing service on Saturday morning, Bishop Knestout acknowledged in an interview that the journey to unity is difficult, but it must be done.

“The Lord does call us to unity and we hear that and know that it’s not only a prayer and a wish, but a command so that we have to find ways where we can walk together, where can we speak together, where can we pray together,” he said. “That brings together a common understanding of who Christ is.”

He’s convinced that LARCUM fosters that goal.

“The reason it’s been successful is because it’s brought together faith communities that have very similar structures of leadership and a common language … a lot already that’s part of the culture and the life, history and tradition of each of these faith communities,” he said.

Before the prayers for peace Friday night, the bishops shared a meal cooked by participants in a culinary training program at The Haven, a day shelter for the homeless. The preparers said they made sure that fish was one of the courses, for any Catholics keeping to the  tradition of meatless Fridays. It was one of many ecumenical moments at this gathering of prelates — and pew-sitters.