Drive towards Christian unity takes scenic route
In case you did not realise it, we have just ended the ‘Week of Prayer for Christian Unity'. In the last few days, people of different denominations held joint services, and many clerics swapped their pulpits to address each other's congregations.
To be accurate, many Protestant clergy exchanged their pulpits, but there were few enough swaps between Protestant and Catholic clerics simply because this kind of practical ecumenism is still a step too far for too many people in Northern Ireland.
The idea of holding such a week of joint celebration began in 1908, when relations between the main Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church were less warm than they are today, though much remains to be done.
Some traditionalists fear the concept of ‘Christian unity' but most realists are convinced that there will never be one mega-large Christian denomination.
Some like me say: “God forbid.” Christian understanding and mutual respect is fine, but a variety of denominations gives everyone a much wider choice.
The concept of ‘unity' also remains largely an ideal in nearly all of the main denominations. The Roman Catholic Church faces many rifts, while the idea of gay marriage is still greatly divisive among most of the main Reformed churches.
Even on a parish basis, some individual congregations are divided because of personal differences between members, and examples of people whose animosity, ego or bloody-mindedness are bad advertisements for the Christianity they claim to espouse.
Nevertheless, there are many heartening examples of Christian unity in action, whatever the theological differences. These include joint ventures among Catholics and Protestants at grass-roots level, and also the work of long-established centres like the Corrymeela Community. We have come a long way since the days when Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland paid their respects to departed friends and colleagues from ‘the other side' by standing outside the church at their funeral, but fearing to go inside.
On a wider basis, the secular world may not pay much attention to the ‘Week of Prayer for Christian Unity' but the very fact that it exists at all is a challenge for all of us to try to live in a better, friendlier way with all our neighbours.
The point was put well this week by the Roman Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, Noel Treanor, in an address at Whitehead. He started by asking the very practical question: “How do we carry the new wine of Christian hope and resilience, and keep it alive in such a harsh world and against so much of human experience that seems to negate the love of God?”
He added that regardless of whether “we be cleric or lay, politician, community leader, entrepreneur, journalist or social commentator, we need urgently to waken up to the resources of our common Christian heritage to lead us out of the blind alleyways of fear-driven politics, divisive protests and self and mutually destructive violence”.
He also neatly summarised the importance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity as a time “when we all, in street and pub, club, back room, public service, church and temple, need to awaken to the urgency of the Gospel to shape a future of respect and care for all, without exception, no matter what our past. We need to do this before it is too late''.
That is the prophetic voice of the church ringing out loud and clear, and in a language which all of us can understand, not only during the ‘Week of Prayer for Christian Unity', but all the year round.