Week of prayer a timely reminder that true, lasting peace is still some way off
You may be surprised to know that this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity ended on Thursday.
Anything to do with Christian unity is indeed worthy, but to many people it is boring. They argue that if the churches and their members were following their calling properly, there would be no need for the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Sadly, however, there are still many examples of disputes within churches and also strong differences in doctrine between denominations.
This clearly underlines the need for an annual reminder about the need to emphasise a unity of purpose among the churches, but not necessarily an organic unity.
It would be a mistake to aim for this. There are infinite varieties of Christian belief, and each has its own adherents and attractions.
Sadly, however, this rich variety of worship is damaged by those who believe only they are on the right path, and that for others the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The Lord must have infinite patience to overlook such sectarian nonsense, and one of the central points of New Testament teaching is the importance of how we treat other people in the light of what we believe. “By their fruits shall you know them”. In other words, what we do is more important than what we say we believe.
Irrespective of all this delightful diversity, it is important to be reminded about a broad unity of purpose.
However, there seems to be less emphasis locally on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity than in the past.
Not so long ago, I remember reporting for this newspaper on high-profile pulpit exchanges by Protestant and Catholic leaders, but this seems to have lessened of late, although there were cross-community services at a local level in a number of places.
However, in the past week, there seemed to be nothing of note through the media from the leaders of the Presbyterian, Anglican and Catholic churches, though the Lay Leader of the Methodist Church delivered a challenging sermon at Darling Street Church in Enniskillen on the opening night of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Tellingly, Dr Fergus O’Ferrall said: “Each denomination in the now divided Church of Jesus Christ has a clear and urgent responsibility to examine whether or how aspects of their theologies, traditions or practices contribute to sectarian divisions.
“It is these very sectarian divisions which, we must confess, in greater part underpin the divided identities and loyalties within the population of Northern Ireland.”
The Methodist Lay Leader quoted Frank McGuinness, who wrote the deeply thoughtful and moving drama Observe The Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.
McGuinness said: “It was an eye-opener for a Catholic republican as I am, to have to examine the complexity, diversity, disturbance and integrity of the other side, the Protestant people.”
Dr O’Ferrall said, bluntly: “We must encounter those who differ from us to break down the enmity. That is our challenge.
“If we are to have a shared and flourishing future together on this island, we must rise to this challenge of learning the stories of those who differ from us, and seeing how God is working in those who differ from us.”
As I often state in this column, we in Northern Ireland pray for peace, but at the ballot box we seem to abandon our religious insights to care for one another and blindly vote for people who will immediately lock horns in political confrontation.
We cannot have it both ways.
The success or failure of the last-ditch Stormont talks also reflects our choice of the people we choose to represent us, so we are not blameless.
Dr Fergus O’Ferrall has done us all a service by reminding us how far we still have to go.
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is also a welcome and timely reminder that if we continue to ignore the wise and challenging teachings of the world’s largest religion — which still is Christianity — we do so at our peril.