It’s “Holy Week,” the week leading up to Easter. And, every year at this time, Episcopal bishops, priests and deacons renew their ordination vows.
The Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta followed that tradition this morning with a ceremony. But one part of the event was very untraditional: instead of a church, the priests gathered in The Temple – Atlanta’s oldest synagogue.
So how did this happen? It was the idea of Episcopal Bishop of the Atlanta Diocese – the Rt. Rev. Robert Wright.
“The renewal of vows is a great opportunity for me to gather the clergy and for us to make these sacred promises again and again in the places that in fact Jesus would have been,” Bishop Wright said.
He started thinking about making the vow renewal an interfaith event last summer. That’s when he visited The Temple and worked with members of the synagogue on a meal program for school children.
“It occurred to me while I was here working with men and women of the synagogue that perhaps an opportunity to worship together might also be a great opportunity for us to celebrate the things we hold in common.”
And so Bishop Wright called up Rabbi Berg, the synagogue’s senior rabbi. And Rabbi Berg agreed, without hesitation.
“I was excited,” said Rabbi Berg. “This gives us the opportunity to welcome our brothers and sisters of faith into our home and to do something together.”
This is the first time The Temple has hosted an event like this in its roughly 150 years here in Atlanta. And Bishop Wright says it’s the first time he’s ever heard of an Episcopal church holding its vow renewal ceremony in a synagogue.
Of course, it’s one thing to have the vow renewal ceremony in a synagogue, but Bishop Wright actually went as far as asking Rabbi Berg to preach at the ceremony.
“I have to admit it’s a daunting task to deliver a sermon on the day in which priests are going to renew their vows,” said Rabbi Berg.
But he said at the end of the day the rabbis and priests were all ordained. And he said there are messages in the Hebrew scripture about spiritual leadership that can resonate with people of both religions.
That’s one of the main things Bishop Wright wanted to do with the event – to emphasize what the two religions have in common. Especially now, when he says you only have to read the newspaper to find examples of conflicts, often violent, carried out in the name of religion.
“Any chance we can get together and be connected around the very best of who we really are is important,” said Bishop Wright.
During the ceremony, they didn’t throw tradition completely out the window. After Rabbi Berg gave his sermon, he stepped aside. And the bishop led the clergy in renewing their vows and in taking communion. Throughout it all, a choir from Clark Atlanta University led the audience in Christian hymns.
As it ended, the clergy filed out through the doors of the synagogue. And they looked excited.
“We were all sort of watching to see how everyone would react but it has been embraced as you can see by all the clergy and all who are here,” said Rev. Roger Allen of St. James Episcopal Church in Marietta, “and it’s a wonderful wonderful step forward I think for us.”
That is the question – what will this mean going forward? Well, Rabbi Berg said he and Bishop Wright will definitely talk about where they’ll take this partnership next. But Bishop Wright doesn’t want to stop there, with just the Jewish and Episcopalian communities.
“I think there’s a statement to be made with the other sibling of the Abrahamic faith,” he said.
He said he thinks his clergy could pray and worship alongside leaders in the Islamic community here in Atlanta. So who knows, next year the Episcopal clergy could be renewing their vows in a mosque.