Yesterday marked the beginning of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Note that it is not the Week of Prayer for Christian Uniformity. There are many matters about which earnest and sincere Christians disagree: what church structures should be like, how to interpret some passages of scripture, what Christian unity would look like if it were ever to arrive, even if Christian unity is a worthy goal.
In the post yesterday where I re-launched this blog with the tagline Building a Church Without Walls, I shared some of my own remarks from a local Christian Unity week service. It should be clear from that post that I consider Christian unity a worthy aspiration and I do not see it coming about unless people at all levels of the church – from the clergy to the people in the pews – see it as a priority.
Rev. Dr Johnston McMaster, a colleague of mine at the Irish School of Ecumenics, has also prepared some remarks for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, centring on this year’s scriptural passage, Acts 2:42. The Irish School of Ecumenics has made his remarks publicly available to church leaders and others who might wish to reflect on them this week. I reproduce them below:
WEEK OF PRAYER FOR
JANUARY 18th – 25th 2011
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers.” Acts 2: 42
Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 2011
One in the Apostles’ Teaching, Fellowship, Breaking of Bread and Prayer
The theme of this year’s Week of Prayer is based on Acts 2 v 42, one of several summaries of the early church’s life. Acts is volume 2 of Luke’ writing, the continuation of the faith community’s narrative that began with a Gospel. The key themes of Luke’s Gospel are continued in Acts. These include the centrality of the Spirit and the profound concern for the poor.
Acts has a double agenda which has a subversive focus. The first agenda is in relation to the church in its subversion of the Greco-Roman society in which it is placed.
There are many encounters with powers and authorities and repeated affirmations of the disobedience of faith. In Ireland the relationship between faith and politics, church and state has changed radically and perhaps, irrevocably. Churches at the edge of power and politics have still to work out a very different relationship between faith and politics and what the nature of their unity is in this potentially creative place.
Luke’s other agenda is subversive of the church itself. Acts was written when a movement was gathering pace to make the early church more organised and respectable. Faith, order, ministry and practice were to conform to a definitive norm. This movement included putting women ‘back in their place’, by putting limits on and even excluding them from leadership in the church.
By the beginning of the second century women were being silenced and denied equality and leadership roles and we see this reflected in I Timothy (100-110 CE). Luke writes against this movement with the Spirit poured out in ‘all flesh’, men and women, and with many stories of women in Acts, often in key church leadership roles. In 2011 when the centenary of the women’s suffrage movement in Ireland is marked, there is still serious work to do in relation to gender equality issues in society and not least in the churches. Unity for Luke, and for us will include the unity and equality of the sexes in the community of faith.
A Snapshot of the Early Church
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
Luke offers a series of impressions or snapshots of the earliest faith community. The ‘They’ is inclusive, transcending class, culture and gender, the Spirit having been poured on ‘all flesh’ equally. The unity of the church is beyond humanity and patriarchy. Luke’s snapshot subverts the organisation and pattern of Greco-Roman society and the movement within the church itself towards patriarchy and the control and disempowerment of women.
The ‘apostles teaching’ in Acts is not adherence or obedience to a body of theology, formulated and defined. It is ethical praxis, a way of being the community of faith in relation to economic sharing, social solidarity and being with the poor and marginalised. It is also the practice of inclusivity and equality. These are the Lukan themes which Peter’s early speech on the Day of Pentecost has begun to express.
‘Fellowship’ is the rich word KOINONIA and it highlights the faith community as a shared partnership in which there is a mutual and profound regard for each other’s spiritual and physical wellbeing. KOINONIA is also a shared partnership in diversity and it is a way of being church with radical implications for shared power as well as what it means to seek the common good.
‘The breaking of bread’ has been integral to the faith community’s life together from the outset. It is the practice that highlights most the disunity of the churches at present. The fact that a shared partnership cannot share ‘bread’ together seriously negates all the marks of the church in Luke’s snapshot. For some it is the pain of separation with which we have got to live. For others the pain is inappropriate and unnecessary. For yet others the real pain is that in a world where the majority have no bread our division over the speculative and theological nature of bread is a denial of the gospel. The scandal of the Eucharist in the Corinthian churches was economic and therefore socially divisive. For Luke also the breaking of bread goes to the heart of economic sharing, and not surprisingly the ethical and economic practice of the KOINONIA had ‘the goodwill of all the people’ (Acts 2 v 47).
‘The prayers’ are not private but public prayers in which the faith community engaged with God and with the world of economic oppression and marginalisation, the militarism and violence of Roman society and the new trend towards the exclusion of women from power and leadership within parts of the church itself. Prayer is engagement with the messy life of the world.
Luke’s snapshot takes us well beyond the unity of the church. The Spirit poured out on ‘all flesh’ breaking down all ethnic, cultural, class and gender barriers, and the constant interaction in Acts between faith community and wider society, including power systems and authorities, reminds us that God’s purpose is the unity of all humankind.
Our shared prayer is ultimately for the unity of the whole inhabited earth, which is the essential meaning of OIKOUMENE. In modelling Acts 2 v 42, our prayer goes beyond Christian unity to the unity of all life.
— Prepared by Rev Dr Johnston McMaster, ISE staff member
I appreciate how Johnston draws our attention to the ‘snapshots’ that provide us a glimpse, back through time, of what the early church may have looked like.
It is quite a vision: a church where women’s gifts are not subordinated to those of men and the Spirit poured out on ‘all flesh’ ignores the distinctions of ethnicity, class, gender and culture that are now, sadly, reflected in many of our present-day church institutions. It is easy to forget this vision and think that the church might not have been intended to be this way; while on the other hand it can be easy to idealise that vision (the early church probably had more problems and disagreements than we think!).
A comment on yesterday’s post said:
I think Gladys needs to be more upfront about what she means by lines such as “why women may be prevented from using their gifts fully in your church?” What does that mean?
I didn’t have anything specific in mind when I posed that question: women’s gifts and ministries are more accepted in some denominations, and in some congregations within particular denominations, than in others.
I think Johnston’s reflections provide an important theological and Bible-based challenge to the way we think about women’s roles in the church. In addition, I’m a sociologist of religion, not a theologian, so I tend to look at questions around women’s role in the church in an empirical way:
- How involved are women in the church? (more than men, at all levels except the top leadership)
- Do women feel respected in their churches? (not in the Irish Catholic Church, as a recent survey tells us)
I think these empirical findings, combined with Johnston’s more radical or ‘subversive’ reading of Scripture, provide a springboard for thinking again about how our churches might begin to recognise and value the gifts of its women.
(Stained glass image of Mary Magdalene sourced on flickr photosharing, by Fergal OP)