[The Churches of the Nativity and Holy Comforter] For two mainline Protestant congregations – one Episcopal, one Lutheran – that began worshipping together on Nov. 1, 2015, ministry truly is better together.
The members of the Lutheran Church of the Holy Comforter, founded in 1911, moved about a half-mile north on York Road to the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, which has worshipped at its chapel at York and Cedarcroft Roads since 1910. The congregations’ members, who jokingly refer to themselves as “Lutherpalians,” now worship and serve the community as The Churches of the Nativity and Holy Comforter. That changes on Sunday, Nov. 6, when they celebrate their anniversary and lose the ‘es.’
“It seems like we’ve been together forever,” said the Rev. David W. Eisenhuth, Holy Comforter’s pastor. “We now incorporate elements of the liturgies and hymns from both denominational traditions in a way that seems very natural. We are one church now, so we are losing the ‘es.’” The logo gets an update as well.
The Rev. T. Stewart Lucas, Nativity’s rector, agreed. “Looking back, I guess I’m surprised that the skeptics gave it a chance, but they did,” he said. “But, when you are both grounded in the importance of worship, the scriptures and prayer, you understand that these are the things that really matter. Everything else is secondary.”
That’s not to suggest there weren’t some hiccups along the way in combining the two congregations. “We had to counter the battle cry that ‘We’ve always done it this way’,” said Eisenhuth.
For example, the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, or communion, was an early test of the congregations’ resolve. Holy Comforter traditionally had used leavened bread and offered wine or grape juice by chalice or tiny cups, while Nativity studiously used unleavened wafers and distributed only wine by chalice for The Lord’s Supper.
The changes proved too difficult for a few members most committed to Episcopal or Lutheran orthodoxy or “denominationalism.” They have chosen to worship elsewhere. Their places have been filled by new members to Nativity and Holy Comforter, attracted by the friendliness of the joint congregation, where people of different racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds and sexual identities are welcomed.
The two congregations maintain their status as separate legal entities. But, in almost every other aspect, they worship and minister together as one church body. Members of both congregations sing in the choir, handle the flower arrangements, serve on the Altar Guild, and share duties as ushers. Holy Comforter members stepped up to help at Nativity’s Annual Spring Fair, supporting a tradition that has continued for decades. Nativity members brought their sewing skills to Holy Comforter’s Christian Action Group, which makes beautiful quilts for distribution to the homeless.
Attendance at Sunday worship services has roughly doubled what it had been prior to the partnership. “It feels good to have more people in the pews. We are more energetic and more creative as a combined church body,” said Lucas. “Two churches that were dwindling chose to come together. Now, we are rising.”
The unusual pairing of churches from different denominations has garnered the attention of national church groups, not only Episcopal and Lutheran but other mainstream Christian denominations facing some of the same problems that had challenged Nativity and Holy Comforter. Teams of church leaders and academics have visited to learn firsthand what is going on in North Baltimore.
“We have been a beacon for other churches that are struggling,” said Lucas. “Now we are looking out into the community to see where God wants us to do more ministry. We are about to purchase the 8000 square foot office building and parking lot next door. Who knows what God has in store for us next?”
Eisenhuth added, “We had members who said they wanted a Lutheran worship service. What does that mean? Increasingly, denominations will become passé and not that important. We needed to overcome fear of the future, fear of change.”
Both clergymen credited their respective bishops, from the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland and the Delaware-Maryland Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, for permitting this experimental partnership to go forward.
The congregation will celebrate their anniversary on Sunday, Nov. 6, at 10:30 a.m.