The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has a whiff of the ‘worthy cause’ about it, for those who are not opposed to the idea of ecumenism altogether. Perhaps ‘Christian Unity’ sounds like something that would be a good idea, but it seems a very long way off. Indeed, one respondent to the survey my School conducted last year, when asked about ecumenism and Christian unity, wrote rather earnestly: ‘Don’t give up!’
In these surveys, we asked people to provide examples of ecumenical activities or events that they had participated in. Services for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity figured prominently in the responses.
But as my colleague Dr Andrew Pierce has pointed out in the article, ‘Re-imagining Ecumenism,’ (other aspects of which I discussed on my blog earlier in the week), the very idea that ecumenism is all about working for Christian Unity tends to shift the focus to the divisions among churches rather than what the churches already share.
Dr Pierce’s suggestion is that the Christian churches in Ireland adopt the mind-set that they are already unified, and that the task of those involved in ecumenism is making that unity visible.
The services that have been happening this week are an example of how that can be done. I attended one last night in the Methodist church Enniskillen, which was organised by the Fermanagh Churches Forum – an entirely lay-led organisation.
This year’s theme for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is ‘you are witnesses.’ The scripture passage is Luke 24, which includes the news of Jesus’ resurrection to the women at the tomb, Jesus’ discussion with the travellers on the Road to Emmaus, and how Jesus reveals his resurrected self to his followers in the breaking of bread. Adopting Dr Pierce’s mind-set, we might say that Christians in Ireland ‘are witnesses’ to a unity that is not always recognised or celebrated.
The Fermanagh service incorporated this chapter of Luke and featured preaching by Rev. Noel Mills, who was invited up from Sligo for the task. Rev. Mills focused on the witness of the twelve disciples.
His message was essentially that the disciples were all flawed human beings, some coming from the most undesirable sectors of society. There was Matthew the tax collector (a corrupt civil servant), ‘doubting’ Thomas, cynical Nathaniel, an unknown like Thaddeus, Judas who betrayed Jesus, and Simon the ‘zealot’ – who would probably have been considered a ‘freedom fighter’ in his day, to use the polite term.
Rev. Mills’ message was that as part of Christian witness, it is okay to sometimes doubt, to get discouraged, to wonder if what you were doing was worthwhile at the end of the day. But as he concluded his sermon, talking about Simon the zealot, he said that it was Simon’s infectious enthusiasm for Jesus’ way that ultimately attracted others.
Enthusiasm. Our surveys revealed that Irish ecumenism could benefit from an injection of enthusiasm. The people I’ve encountered in Fermanagh say that they are enthusiastic about what they are doing in the Churches Forum, but they think it doesn’t seem ‘exciting’ to others.
As a Church of Ireland woman from Co. Wexford said in our survey:
‘[The ecumenical movement needs] to keep up whatever joint activities have been begun and not to become despondent. Not to confine joint activities to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity!’
The prayer with which the Fermanagh service ended captured this idea of moving beyond:
Take us from where we are, to where you want us to be; make us not merely guardians of a heritage, but living signs of your coming Kingdom; fire us with passion for justice and peace between all people …