On Friday evening (Jan. 18), I had the privilege of participating in a unique church gathering in the town of Manchester. As pastor of a local congregation, I was invited to lead some prayers at a worship service celebrating the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Thanks to the efforts of the pastor of our local Polish National Catholic Church, that congregation hosted this important occasion.
The service itself was beautifully prepared and led reverently by the priest who presided. If this little church had been filled to the rafters, I would be writing to tell you how uplifting it was to see so many people from different Christian backgrounds so deeply committed to the cause of ecumenism. Unfortunately, what I have to tell you instead is that only five of us were present on that midwinter night.
As the pastor of a church in Connecticut’s smallest town for nearly twelve years and now serving a church that has undergone a significant downsizing in membership over the course of a generation, I have long ago made peace with Jesus’ promise that good things happen when even but two or three are gathered. Nevertheless, I do believe, quite strongly, in fact, that what I experienced that night is an indication that the fires that burned in the worldwide church in the days after Vatican II, when Protestants and Catholics and Orthodox worked feverishly to try to find ways to come together, have long since died out. Yet, having said that, I also want to state quite vociferously that these fires must be rekindled…and that we have to start doing it on the local level.
For a variety of reasons, many of which I explore in my book “Crossing the Street” ( Energion 2012), it seems to me that churches in local communities and neighborhoods need to commit themselves to placing ecumenical relations up high on their list of priorities for their churches. Some may resist this notion as they might contend that there are enough internal church issues about which they have to worry. They might say that there just is not enough time for this and that local congregations have to prioritize. This process, in their view, might leave ecumenism relatively low on the list.
My contention is that there are positive steps churches can take. A classic example is that of that priest in my community who saw that this week of prayer for unity should not go by without such a service. His is a great example and there is much more that can be done: Protestants and Catholics and Orthodox can learn about each other in Confirmation and membership classes and RCIA, youth can be led to visit houses of worship other than their own, clergy can coordinate pulpit exchanges, and folks from different traditions can walk and work TOGETHER in movements to eradicate poverty and hunger. While many communities and neighborhoods work at some aspects of the ecumenical task, it seems to me that we need a more indepth and all encompassing approach, one that includes education, prayer and action on behalf of others!
Though there were not many of us in that little sanctuary that night, I am sure glad I was there. For, in the midst of just a few, the spirit of Jesus was present, the Jesus whose words spoken so long ago still speak to us today: ‘ I pray…THAT THEY MAY ALL BE ONE’-