“It’s one of the easier things we can do as divided Christians and it’s one of the most important things we can do as divided Christians,” said Archdeacon Bruce Myers in an interview with Anglican Journal.
A quote from Belgium Roman Catholic Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier (1851-1926), sums it up best, said Myers: “In order to unite with one another, we must love one another; in order to love one another, we must know one another; in order to know one another, we must go and meet one another.”
People who don’t normally come together unite to pray and sing for eight days, and in so doing, they “hopefully recognize the points of contact, similarities and fundamental things they share as people of faith and as sisters and brothers in Christ,” said Myers.
For over 100 years now, Christians worldwide have come together, traditionally from Jan. 18 to 25, to pray for Christian unity.
In these face-to-face encounters, “we have that first step of ecumenism and of making visible the church’s unity,” Myers said. In these encounters, stereotypes, caricatures and preconceived notions are chipped away “and you have an authentic relationship.”
The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and World Council of Churches (WCC), through its Commission on Faith and Order, jointly publish the text for the shared prayers. The theme for 2013 is: “What does God require of us?” (Micah 6:6-8).
The prayers are “specifically and intentionally put together each year so that Christians of all traditions-Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, Pentecostal, Roman Catholic-can use them, while respecting their own integrity, traditions and disciplines,” said Myers.
The fact that this week-long event exists is “extraordinary,” he said. For centuries, most of these various church members “not only would not or could not pray together, they were persecuting each other.”
The first Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, an idea conceived by two Anglican priests, Paul Wattson and Spencer Jones, was in 1908.
Asked whether the fact that Christians continue to seek and pray for unity for more than a century now signifies a lack of progress, Myers said: “You don’t heal divisions that go back [some as far as 1700 years ago] and extend so deep, not just theologically but culturally in a lot of ways, in just a couple of generations or a hundred years.”
“If you take the long view on these things, which you have to do in the case of something like ecumenism, we’ve actually been working at breakneck speed compared to the depth and length of some of these divisions,” Myers added.
Before the reforms of Vatican II, he pointed out, Roman Catholics were praying for Anglicans as heretics and schismatics. With the reforms of the Vatican Council, Anglican baptism was recognized by Roman Catholics as “equally valid as theirs,” and “we have a special place in the relationship with the Roman Catholic Church,” said Myers.
Myers also noted the efforts of KAIROS, a Canadian ecumenical peace and justice group supported by diverse churches that now has global partners. “We seek to do our peace and justice work together instead of separately.”
Ecumenical shared ministries, he added, also provide opportunities for people of different denominations to work together in their communities.
Diocese of Calgary Bishop Greg Kerr-Wilson, an active supporter of ecumenism, agreed. In his former diocese, Qu’ Appelle, a historic covenant was signed between the Anglican diocese and the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Regina in 2011, whereby the two churches made a commitment to specific initiatives in such areas as worship, mission, education and social justice.
The Week of Prayer, Kerr-Wilson said in an interview, “gives focus and intentionality” and is a “very helpful reminder” for churches to keep working together.
Other examples of movement include the Anglican Church of Canada’s full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, its continuing dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church and its new round of consultations with the United Church of Canada.
Churches are also going beyond the old forms of unity such as organic union, and are exploring “new models of unity” that evolve over time, said Myers. They include examples such as “reconciled diversity,” where churches agree to disagree but try to do as much as they can together in other areas of work such as peace and justice, and “mutual exchange of gifts,” where churches acknowledge what tradition from other churches they can receive. Such an arrangement acknowledges “that the church, in its fullness, is not located in one single expression of the church or one single tradition or denomination,” explained Myers. It’s akin to a family whose members have “different gifts and different strengths that when brought together form a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.”
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity provides motivation to heal our divisions, said Myers. Being “comfortable in our divisions is the greatest risk right now in the ecumenical movement.”