So, as of yesterday, we are in an octave (eight days) of prayer for Christian Unity. It may be me, or where I live and minister, but it is my perception that this is treated as of rather less significance than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Maybe we feel that much of the ecumenical work has already been done, or that the results of several decades of effort has yielded so little in the way of visible progress towards unity. Or perhaps we have so broadened our definition of unity that we no longer feel it there is anything to work and pray towards. How high a profile does this Week of Prayer have among your local churches?
Christian Unity is often thought of as something to left to the enthusiasts. Christians brought up in earlier generations often have a clear sense of denominational identity that sees members of other denominations as, indeed, “other”. Younger Christians may wonder what all the fuss is about – after all we are “all one in Christ” – aren’t we? We attend the nearest church that provides a reasonable fit for our theological and cultural expectations (not necessarily in that order). The institutional governance side of church is irrelevant – right?
Well, I think that these issues are NOT irrelevant. Our relationships with one another are of supreme importance, but they are not limited simply to our private, inter-personal relationships. Our institutions are (or should be) there to help us relate to one another in a Christ-like way, but they can be (and sometimes are) used to exclude and set boundary markers that are unhelpful.
I think that my sabbatical experiences have made me more eager to work and pray for our Christian Unity than ever before. I was “emotionally ambushed” a number of times, and a couple of these related to our unity in Christ. On one occasion it was hearing sung the words of the hymn “Let us build a house” that did it.
On another occasion we were with an English-speaking RC congregation in Rome where the priest encouraged the congregation to pray for some Anglican-RC consultations taking place that week, at the end of which an NZ Anglican bishop would preach at Evening Prayer the following Sunday. Both experiences left me longing for a Church where we are able to share real unity and fellowship in spite of theological diversity.
But this applies not only to inter-church, inter-denominational relations, but within our denominations as well. We have a tendency to bandy around various labels – liberal, conservative, evangelical, catholic, charismatic etc. – which are intended to pigeonhole people. (And doesn’t it save us having to think about what we/they might actually believe and have to teach us when we are fighting our corner)! Eric Kyte has a “rambling thought” about Churchmanship and labels at The Elves Are Heading West.
The author of John’s Gospel tells us,
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
(John 1:14 NRSV – emphasis mine)
Perhaps in our concern for truth we could all show a little more grace and humility. It is John’s Gospel also which records for us Jesus’ own heartfelt desire for unity among his followers. So let’s make it our prayer too.
You have called us in the body of your Son Jesus Christ
to continue his work of reconciliation
and reveal you to the world;
forgive us the sins which tear us apart;
give us courage to overcome our fears
and to seek that unity which is your gift and your will;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.