Is a week of prayer for Christian unity enough? Or has it outlived its time and we need to think and act and pray for unity, period! Inter-religious/spiritual, inter-racial, inter-cultural, inter-political, inter-social/economic, inter-national, inter-generational, inter-sexual/gender, inter-able, and across any and all divides between ourselves and others, let’s have a week, a month, a year of prayer and action for unity together!
Christians are in the midst of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Beginning with the feast day of St. Peter on January 18 and ending with the feast day of St. Paul on January 25, it is eight days to recognize that as the earliest Jewish and Gentile Christian Church represented by Peter and Paul found unity despite their vast perceived differences, so we need to seek and act in unity as followers of Jesus in our diversity and our time. This prayer for unity is based on Jesus’ prayer in the Gospel of John (17:20-21a) “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.”
The Week of Prayer began as a Roman Catholic observance in 1908 with a “Church Unity Octave” initiated by Fr. Paul Wattson. It has continued, expanded and evolved since then, with the support of the World Council of Churches founded in 1948, and in the 1960’s with protestant and Roman Catholic joint production of worship materials globally and in Canada. These materials, created each year by a local community somewhere in the world and then translated and adapted for national to local contexts, are a continuing resource for common yearly prayer gatherings across Canada and around the world.
This prayer for unity is laudable and serves an urgent purpose. Disunity continues to mark and mar the Christian church for many reasons, from differences in history, practises and beliefs, to racial/cultural differences and prejudices. Pray for unity? Yes! And work toward greater unity with ecumenical partners (meaning various denominations/groups within the Christian community), yes! And many do, including in a Week of Prayer service this Sunday, January 20, 2 PM, at Grace Lutheran on Fort Street. With Anglicans, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, United Church and others. We will sing and pray and stand for greater unity together as Jesus prayed.
But is it enough? For all the reality of religious plurality and diversity of every kind, a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is only a starting point toward greater unity together. But it is an important beginning.
Brian McLaren in his book, The Great Spiritual Migration, How the world’s largest religion is seeking a better way to be Christian, outlines a “Charter for a Just and Generous Christianity.” It includes “a deep thirst for a more authentic, honest and sustaining spiritual life; a compelling hunger to do justice, to show compassion and walk humbly with God; a powerful desire to understand and engage with the critical problems of our world; a profound need for space to grapple honestly with our questions of theology and practise; an impatient readiness to move beyond narratives of decline to narratives of hope and empowerment; and a growing loneliness for a sense of shared identity and belonging that transcend institutional affiliation.” Seeking unity together for this purpose, compels Christians to seek greater unity together with all others in common action and wherever possible, common prayer together.
Could a week of prayer lead ultimately to lives of prayer and action for global unity? Maybe that is what Jesus’ prayer has meant all along.
Rev. Lyle McKenzie is Co-Pastor of Lutheran Church of the Cross, and part time Chaplain in UVic Multifaith Services.
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* This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, January 19th 2019