Lutherans in the Twin Cities

A decade of Celtic prayer

Ten years ago, Pilgrim Lutheran Church (ELCA) in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul took a long hard look at itself and started dreaming. What would a new worship service look like, if the congregation could add one? Like so many other neighborhoods in the Twin Cities, Pilgrim has had its share of “de-churched” individuals who had some previous experience in the Christian faith but no current home in a church community. How might a new type of worship experience make a difference?

With their mission statement in mind, “to be a home for hungry minds and souls,” Pilgrim’s dream quickly moved to strategic planning. A worship renewal grant from the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship, supported by the Lilly Endowment, undergirded the congregation’s tactical decision to add a service that was both contemplative and global. The Irish roots of St. Paul and the Scottish, Irish, and Celtic identities of its nearby colleges led to an indigenous approach to style, and Pilgrim launched one of the Twin Cities’ first Celtic worship services.

March 2012 marks the 10th anniversary of Pilgrim’s Celtic contemplative communion services and an exciting milestone for the congregation. Offered the second Sunday evening of the month from September to May, this unique worship experience immediately filled a need in the community and became an effective and pivotal outreach for the congregation.

This Celtic cross is from the churchyard of Kildalton on the island of Islay, Scotland. Stock photo

March 2012 marks the 10th anniversary of Pilgrim’s Celtic contemplative communion services.

“The service was strong from the beginning, “ reflected Pastor Carol Tomer, “so much so that Pilgrim received a second grant from the Calvin Institute two years later to begin a Nordic evening service. Since the first service, we’ve been very committed to keeping it going. We are aware that not all alternative services started by congregations have this staying power.”

For Tomer, the service has been an exciting avenue of relationship building with the community. “Using worship, which is at the core of our Lutheran tradition, as a way to connect with those who are exiled from the church, for whatever reason, or have never been in a church before has been meaningful to me. We see individuals who wonder if it’s safe to come back into the church attending the Celtic service. Out of this experience some of them decide to look more deeply and closely into becoming a part of the congregation.”

A rare opportunity for contemplation

Celtic Christianity developed in Ireland after St. Patrick introduced Christianity there in C.E. 432. The Celts, a nature-loving people, preferred oral tradition to the written and appreciated stories that engaged both the imagination and the senses. With its parables, poetry, songs, and community, the Christian faith was a natural place for them to find a home.

Pilgrim’s Celtic service is contemplative, without a sermon. Participants worship and receive God’s presence through prayers, poetry, litanies, scripture readings, music, and silence. When worshippers arrive, they are invited to light a candle and place it in a sand-filled Celtic cross. This light-filled cross becomes the circle around which the congregation gathers for Holy Communion later in the service.

Tomer acknowledges there are aspects of the Celtic tradition that are not Christian. However, if there is a question about Celtic worship being pagan, Tomer has never heard it. Pilgrim is explicit about drawing upon Celtic Christian resources and undergirding its worship with the ark of Christian liturgy and a classically shaped service of Holy Communion.

About Celtic worship, Professor Dirk Lange, associate professor of worship at Luther Seminary, responded: “A Lutheran, trained in experiencing God in Word and Sacrament, could see Celtic worship/spirituality as pagan since it does focus on God’s presence in the created order, however it also focuses on our connectedness with the created world. Part of our spiritual journey is to live into this connectedness, at least as far as I understand Celtic spirituality and its prayers and songs.

“Martin Luther understood God to be in all creation. But we are not always able to recognize God in all of creation or hear God’s promise everywhere, therefore God makes Godself known with certainty in Word and Sacraments.”

While the historic Celtic definition of pilgrim involves wandering rather than arriving, a steady stream of Celtic worshippers have joined the congregation. Others worship only at the Celtic service. Either approach is fine with Pastor Tomer.

“It has been exciting to see the constant path of pilgrims finding their way back to the Christian community. We started out by pushing the envelope from the inside: How can our liturgy bring the Gospel to the de-churched in particular? The outcome has all become a part of Pilgrim’s mission.”

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