Why do we pray together? A reflection on Christian unity

By Harry Hagopian
19 Jan 2013

Back in 2006 I published this article on the calling of Christians in relation to the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (WPCU). It is written as a Christian for others who share the faith, but I hope it will also be accessible to those of other backgrounds and traditions. Though seven years old now, it still seems pertinent today. I have made a few small adaptations to avoid anachronism.

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"Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." Jesus, in - Matthew 18.20 (BBE)

According to established tradition, the dates for the yearly Week of Prayer for Christian Unity are from 18 till 25 January. They are meant to cover those days between the feasts of Saints Peter and Paul, and therefore carry a symbolic meaning to them. However, many churches - such as those of Jerusalem - choose to celebrate this week of enhanced ecumenism one week later, whilst some churches in the southern hemisphere celebrate it much closer to Pentecost.

What is this prayerful week all about anyway?

At the heart of the ecumenical movement striving for unity amongst Christians is the realisation that there is more that unites us than divides us. Indeed, the greatest rallying point is the presence of the Risen Christ who promised his disciples he would be with them till the end of time because he is 'Immanuel, that is God with us' (Matthew 1.23).

The gospels tell us of diverse ways that Jesus is present in our midst. In a practical sense, the theme of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity invites all Christian believers to reflect on those very ways in which Jesus is with us. Therefore, whenever Christians come together, they remember Jesus' promise to them, "Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven" (Matthew 18.19).

What matters is not so much the plurality of voices, or even their dissonant cacophony, but rather the fact that those voices are united in prayer. The still voice that speaks in each of our hearts is strengthened when we come together.

The theme for the ecumenical prayers in 2006 ["Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them"] was proposed by a group from Ireland who met at the Manresa Jesuit retreat centre in Dublin. Preaching on its relevance, the Rev Samuel Kobia, then World Council of Churches (WCC) General Secretary, reflected that the marks of ecumenical spirituality are a "readiness to rethink and to be converted" and a willingness "to bear the otherness of the other, including refugees, people of another colour and other faiths, the old and the poor - all God's people."

He segued, "As we meet, sing, pray and worship together ... we are one with our brothers and sisters in Bolivia, in Kiribati, in Botswana ..." Dr Kobia, in underlining the centrality of this week, was echoing Jesus' prayer "that they may be one, even as we are one" (John 17.22).

Those intentions are laudable as Christians strive to focus upon their sense of "unity in diversity". But how close to reality and practice are those intentions in our contemporary world? The challenge is not solely one of personal faith, but also of doubt, or self-doubt even, which together fuse our personal creeds with the collective consciousness of Christian fellowship. In the words of Marianne H Micks, Professor Emerita of Biblical and Historical Theology at the Virginia Theological Seminary, in Loving the Questions (1994), "A faith unventilated by doubt is as stuffy as a closed room".

Today, there are serious fissures in our faith. We seem to have lost the keen sense that we must be credible interpreters and loyal disciples of God's love to humankind. I believe therein lies the secret of a Mother Teresa, a Father Maximilien Kolbë, a Pope John-Paul II or an Archbishop Desmond Tutu who changed the world around them. In the words of St John Chrysostom, Patriarch of Constantinople and a contemporary of St Augustine, Christians are called to "shine like a light in a world of darkness".

Indeed, for Christians to come together during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, and to walk together the journey of faith, they need to be grounded in the Word of God, the revelation of God's face in Jesus Christ, the renewing force of God's Spirit, the discovery of the love of God the Holy Trinity.

The Church as an institution must learn how to commune more closely with its assembly of believers - that vast church of men and women outside the walls - and teach itself to be just a little less power-friendly and just a little more diakonia-friendly. What is required, perhaps, is a praxis not unlike that of the Early Church - more basic, and therefore more grounded.

As far back as 1974, the Lausanne Covenant (signed by 2300 evangelical leaders) spoke of the church as a community of God's people, rather than an institution, that must not be identified with any particular culture, social or political system, or human ideology.

Yet, we Christians have drifted away from issues that are pertinent to our faith. Our Faustian bargain for access and power has largely undermined the overall credibility of our love, witness, action, and thereby transforming relevance in the world. No wonder Pope Benedict XVI chose Deus Caritas Est (God is Love) for his first encyclical on 25 December 2005. In a world of mounting extremism, it is urgent to struggle against the dictatorship of relativism that feeds on our own egos and desires, and to learn that both the divine love (agape) and the physical love (eros) come together in our lives.

The Hebrew prophets might call us for repentance (shuv and nicham), but are we not too convinced of our own righteousness to seek true repentance? Are we not missing the transcendent meaning of love in our ecumenical relations, and are we not resisting the metanoia within the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15.11-24)?

In short, can we refine ecumenism by re-defining ourselves during one week of shared prayers, hopes and actions?

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* More about the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity on Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/wpcu

* The Ecumenical Prayer Cycle (http://www.oikoumene.org/en/resources/prayer-cycle.html) enables people to journey in prayer through every region of the world and through every week of the year.

* WPCU: seeking unity through diversity and justice: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17828

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a Middle East and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England & Wales and as Middle East consultant to ACEP (Christians in Politics) in Paris. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly an Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, consultant to the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide (UK), Ecumenical consultant to the Primate of Armenian Church in UK & Ireland, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net Follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian

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