By John A. Dalles
It gleams like a polished jewel in the center of a compass, in the ivory-marble floor of the church’s Chancel. It is a part of the history of Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, a brass tablet which quietly reminds all who pause to read it:
World Wide Communion Sunday
Was originated in
Shadyside Presbyterian Church
By Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr
Each year on the first Sunday in October, faithful Christians in every land gather to unite at Christ’s table. How fitting it is to note that we celebrate what began 64 years ago in “The Great Lantern” (the name the congregation has given t heir imposing Richardsonian Romanesque Sanctuary). In the Depression days of 1933, with the storm clouds of Nazism and fascism hovering over Europe, it was a startling notion that sisters and brothers in Christ might transcend geographic, political, and theological barriers at the Lord’s Table. Even today, the concept may seem like a distant, idealistic dream. Yet the quest to eliminate walls separating Christ’s flock was not new to the people of what was and remains a benchmark Presbyterian congregation. Their Senior Pastor, Dr. Kerr, was a pioneer in expanding tht Gospel in every sense of the word.
Dr. Kerr’s illustrious Shadyside pastorate began in 1913 and lasted until 1945. He was frequently the orator at academic and public functions. When Lindbergh came to Pittsburgh, it was Dr. Kerr whose address welcomed him at a great banquet held by the city. Any congregation with a radio or television ministry owes a debt of gratitude to Dr. Kerr, who rightly understood that the world’s first radio station, KDKA Pittsburgh, could be the vehicle to utilize the achievements of technology for the glory of God. The church’s worship services were the first anywhere to be broadcast by radio. The first radio message broadcast to the Arctic was from Shadyside on Christmas Sunday evening 1922, as was the first church service broadcast to Little America, on Easter Sunday morning, 1929. Dr. Kerr wrote 20 books, including A God Centered Faith, The Christian Sacraments, and Preaching int eh Early Church, as well as material for A Year with the Bible, a daily Bible guide which circulated for 50 years. Dr. Kerr was also the author of the noble hymn text “God of Our Life, Through All the Circling Years”, written for the Fiftieth Anniversary of Shadyside in 1916.
What happened that first World Wide Communion Sunday? What hymns were sung? What scripture was heard? The Rev. Dr. F. Moran Roberts, immediate past Senior Pastor of Shadyside, recalls that on three occasions he searched the vast church archives for an original bulletin that might answer these questions. All three times, it managed to elude him. “Yet.” Says, “Davitt S. Bell (the late Clerk of Session and church historian who in1930 accompanies Dr. Kerr in his travels as Moderator of the General Assembly) was a credible witness who said that Dr. Kerr conceived this notion during his moderatorial year.” Dr. Kerr’s younger son, the Rev. Dr. Donald Craig Kerr, pastor emeritus of the Roland Park Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD, who was 16 in 1933, recalls that World Wide Communion Sunday grew out of the Division of Stewardship of the church, in an attempt to bring churches together in a service of unity where everyone would receive both inspiration and information and, above all, know how important the church was, and how each church was tied to the other. When asked how the idea spread from that first service to the world acceptance of today, he said, “The concept spread very slowly at the start. People did not give it a whole lot of thought. It was perhaps during the Second World War that the spirit caught hold, because we were trying to hold the world together. World Wide Communion symbolized the effort to hold things together in a spiritual sense. It emphasized that we are one in the Spirit and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The compass design in the Chancel in which the commemorative plaque rests (crated during extensive renovations in 1937), is an unusual ecclesiastical symbol which speaks of the growing significance of World Communion in that ear. The Hymnal of 1933 was new that first World Wide Communion Sunday, and offered worship planners a fine selection of hymns as: “In Christ There is No East or West,” “Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life,” “Jesus Shall Reign Where’re the Sun”, “Christ for the World We Sing,” “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”, “From Ocean Unto Ocean”, as well as these words of Christian unity in John W. Chadwick’s hymn, penned in 1864, but as stirring today:
“Eternal Ruler of the ceaseless round
Of circling planets singing on their way,
Guide of the nations form the night profound
Into the glory of the perfect day:
Rule in our hearts, that we may ever be
Guided and strengthened and upheld by Thee.
We are of Thee the children of Thy love
Our brother is Thy well-beloved Son;
Descend, O Holy Spirit, like a dove
Into our hearts, that we may be as one;
As one with Thee, to whom we ever tend;
As one with Him, our Savior and our Friend.
We would be one in hatred of all wrong,
One in our love of all things sweet and fair,
One with the joy that breaketh into song,
One with the grief that trembles into prayer,
One in power that makes thy children free,
To follow truth and thus to follow Thee” (alt. JAD)
(The article, reprinted by permission, continues with mention of innovations regarding World Communion Sunday at the time of its writing, 1997)
Afterword: Today at Shadyside Presbyterian Church, on World Communion Sunday, the pastors wear pectoral discs that repeat the words of the brass tablet in the Chancel floor. In 2018, Shadyside Presbyterian Church’s associate pastor John Magnuson again searched the church archives in hope of finding early records of the observation of World Wide Communion there. He was rewarded with a bulletin from World Wide Communion Sunday on October 1 1939. The sermon was titled "The Amazing Significance of a World Wide Communion Service." Rev. Kerr's hymn “God of Our Life” was the opening hymn.
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