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Week of Prayer for Christian Unity



The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity started its life over a hundred years ago as an initiative from the Roman Catholic Church. I think back over many different expressions of the Week – lectures and prayer groups, pulpit exchanges and visits. I remember as a curate being put down to go to a local Methodist church and discovering to my horror that I had much more work to do: designing the service, choosing the hymns, and writing a longer sermon than my Anglican heritage had prepared me for. Ecumenism seemed very hard work to me!

What touched me then and stays with me right up to today was the steward, a lay person in that chapel, who prayed for me in the vestry beforehand, that they might be touched by the Word of God coming from my lips, and that my preaching would be a blessing to them. It was humbling and affirming, as well as raising the bar rather than higher that I was expecting. Being somewhere different, and doing something differently, was a gift to me. It enlarged my experience of faith.

In this Epiphany season, which started with the visit of the Magi, those outsiders to the household of faith, we are reminded how we often need the stranger, the one who is different, the perception from beyond our experience to glimpse more of the truth. For to be very sure, none of us has a monopoly of the truth, and indeed the motto of the Anglican Communion comes from the gospel of John, that we might be lead into all truth. This week reminds me I need the truth which only others can bring.

It is, of course, a week of prayer, though often and locally it has developed into a week of activity. This aspect of the week teaches us something significant, that ultimately unity is God’s gift. We can strive for it, hope for it, work for it and pray for it, but ‘being one so that the world may believe’ comes from God himself.

So pray for unity, and not just this week. In many places every Thursday is a day of prayer for Christian unity. Go to Glasshampton monastery, Mucknell Abbey or our own cathedral, and this is what you’ll find they’re doing. Pray for the unity only God can bring which might surprise all of us.

This is a polarising world. Media comment enables disagreements and arguments to be entered into without great thought, reactive rather than responsive. Some of the greatest debates among Christians are no longer between different denominations, but within them. The fault lines between conservatives and radicals are in themselves ecumenical. So a conservative evangelical might have more in common with their catholic conservative counterpart than with a fellow radical evangelical on the issue of, for example, male headship and the place of women in church.

We have to admit that the Bible is not always as clear on some issues as we might wish for. This has led Archbishop Justin Welby, who, like his predecessors in Canterbury, has struggled with maintaining the unity of the Anglican Communion across so many different cultures, to speak about the developing the virtue of good disagreement. This is the grace for which we should pray in this week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and it demands a measure of humility.

When I read Holy Scripture, I notice that there seemed to be a good deal of disagreement in the household of faith from the very start. Peter and Paul went head to head over whether the Church’s mission included the Gentiles as well as the Jews. In Paul’s own letters you can see how his own views developed and changed with time. There’s never been a time when unity meant unanimity.

Yet in our divided world, even a divided church can come up with  a message of hope for the world’s sake. Look at how our political discourse coarsened and hardened during the Brexit debate; how politicians in America and Brazil encouraged supporters to storm key institutions of democracy; how easy it is to raise the temperature. In all this, surely the gift from a very human church with its strengths and weaknesses is to commend the power of good disagreement, and to do that we need to learn that – for which there will be plenty of opportunity. So only next month the General Synod will be looking at how we progress church action around same-sex unions.

Pray then that we may learn the skills of disagreeing well. Take heart from St Paul who in his letter to the Romans chapter 14 asking them not to pass judgement on one another: ‘let all be convinced in their own minds. Those who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain  in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God. Do not judge one another, do not make one another stumble.’ That’s challenge enough for my prayers for this week

Page last updated: Tuesday 10th January 2023 3:40 PM
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