When the Rev. Dr. Hugh Thomson Kerr was elected moderator of the General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church of North America in 1930 – as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was called in that day – it allowed him to tour the country and hear different viewpoints about the state of the denomination. When he returned to his home congregation at Shadyside Presbyterian Church in Pittsburgh, he felt the need to try to bring Presbyterians together.
After some contemplating and consulting with the church’s Division of Stewardship committee, it was decided that on one of its then-quarterly communion Sundays that this tradition would be recognized and performed simultaneously with other congregations in the region as a way of unifying Christians in the Pittsburgh area. Little did the Rev. Dr. Kerr or Shadyside Church know that 90 years later this experiment would grow into a practice celebrated annually around the world.
World Communion Sunday occurs every year on the first Sunday in October. It’s a tradition that started in 1933 at Shadyside Church, was adopted as a denominational practice in 1936 and in 1940 was promoted by the organization that would become the National Council of Churches as a tradition to occur around the globe.
“Dr. Kerr was concerned about totalitarianism and the need for the church worldwide to take a stand against that,” said Tim Engleman, a church historian at Shadyside, recalling a conversation that was had with the Rev. Dr. Kerr’s son by another church historian.
According to Tim, it took a couple of years for the Rev. Dr. Kerr’s idea to come to fruition, with 1933 being the first time the joint communion service was held at Shadyside and its neighboring congregations. It’s unknown exactly how many other churches in the area participated in the collaboration during the first couple of years.
On Oct. 2 when World Communion Sunday is observed at Shadyside Church, it will mark the 90th consecutive time the tradition is being held where it was born. The history and longevity of this global practice is not lost on the church body.
“It’s a source of pride in the congregation,” Tim said. “Having read Dr. Kerr’s book on the Christian sacraments, he places a very high emphasis on the importance of the sacraments. He states in that book that you can trace the celebration of communion right back to the earliest days of the Christian church. Communion, whether it’s World Wide Communion (as it was originally called) or not, is a way that we unite with not only all Christians that are alive today but all Christians of all time.
“There’s a very high sense of appreciation at Shadyside Church about reformed liturgical worship and there’s still a high emphasis on the sacraments. To me, it’s just an affirmation of what the power of the Lord’s supper can do and the mystery of how we’re united with Christians of all time. It’s a reminder every year of that.”
“World Communion Sunday holds a significant place in the heart and history of Shadyside Presbyterian Church,” added the Rev. Austin Crenshaw Shelley, the current pastor at Shadyside. “The Rev. Dr. Kerr was a visionary perhaps ahead of his time, and for his witness to the power of the gospel to connect neighbors near and far through the celebration of the sacrament of communion, we continue to offer deep gratitude to God.”
Communion is held year-round on the first Sunday of the month at Shadyside, but in October special hymns and sermons accompany the World Communion Sunday service there where it is noted that this is where the tradition was founded. “God of Our Life,” a hymn written by the Rev. Dr. Kerr, is sung annually as well. An engraved plaque in the chancel at Shadyside commemorates the history of World Communion Sunday at the church.
“To know that we now break bread and pour the cup in the same sanctuary where this now global practice of World Communion began can be overwhelming,” Austin said. “But then again, the sacrament has never belonged to any one congregation or denomination, and that is precisely the point. When we feast at the Lord’s table, we do so with thanksgiving for Christ, and for all the faithful throughout time who have witnessed to God’s steadfast love in every place.”
World Communion Sunday has also been a time of special occasions at Shadyside Church. For instance, when the Rev. Dr. Craig Barnes (a former pastor at Shadyside and current president of Princeton Theological Seminary) held his candidating sermon at Shadyside, he chose to preach it on World Communion Sunday. Austin preached her inaugural sermon on the first Sunday in October as well.
“I chose to preach my first sermon on World Communion Sunday in 2021,” Austin said, “as a sign of my intention to remain rooted in what has been good and just in Shadyside’s history while also focusing our gaze toward the future God holds in store. One of the most powerful moments of that first worship service for me last year emerged as I presided at the Lord’s Table with my new colleagues, the Rev. Lynn Portz and the Rev. Kendra Buckwalter Smith. If I am not mistaken, it was the first time that three ordained pastors who are all women celebrated the Lord’s Supper together at Shadyside on World Communion Sunday.”
In 2016, Shadyside chose to celebrate its 150th anniversary on World Communion Sunday. Four years later during the height of the pandemic, Shadyside held worship online and was able keep the tradition alive with its virtual communion in early October.
“It was disappointing in one sense (that the congregation couldn’t be together), but on the other hand, it’s a way, as I said before, that Christians everywhere of all time were united even if we weren’t there together,” Tim said.
Regardless of the state of the world, World Communion Sunday has been a focal point at Shadyside Church and around the world. The connection it brings to congregations is immeasurable, exactly what the Rev. Dr. Kerr was trying to accomplish in the early 1930s.
“Any Lord’s supper is deeply meaningful,” Tim continued. “Sometimes when I take communion, I’ll think of relatives or friends who have passed on. I know that in that moment I’m somehow connected to them. So, on World Communion Sunday, I often will think more specifically about that. We’re all connected together.”
This year on World Communion Sunday another special occasion will occur at Shadyside as another new pastor will be officially added to the staff on that day. The table at Shadyside will also include an added communionware item with special meaning.
“This year, as we celebrate World Communion for the 90th time at Shadyside, we will add to the table a flagon that we received as a gift from our missions partners in Soche, Malawi, when we traveled there for the dedication of a preschool center for orphans and vulnerable children this past summer,” Austin said. “While we were on that trip, the Rev. Joseph Maganga, our brother in ministry, invited me to celebrate communion with him at Khola Church. As I lifted the chalice to continue saying the words of institution, I noticed initials that I recognized – the chalice had been made by Deacon Garret Smith of Shadyside Presbyterian Church and given as a gift during our last visit to Malawi.
“This Oct. 2, I will feel especially connected to our Malawian friends halfway around the world as they lift a chalice made here and we pour from a flagon made there. And my prayer will be for all of us to encounter together, despite the waters and lands that separate us, the presence of the risen Christ.”