Ecumenism is the focus of Bishop Burrows’ letter this January
A highlight of the Christian Year should be … at least ideally … The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity which is observed all over the globe from January 18 to 25. The week was originally chosen as it concludes appropriately on the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul, when we can reflect together on that apostle’s great insights concerning the implications of our oneness in Christ. In my childhood, in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II, there was great freshness and excitement about Unity Week … Vast crowds relished the opportunity to worship, often for the first time, in one another’s churches. While special services in many locations continue to take place during the week, it is hard to replicate the atmosphere and the enthusiasm of those early days.
In many ways, and this is something to celebrate, many of the ecumenical novelties of a generation ago have now become so commonplace that we take them for granted. There is an ease and naturalness about many of our comings and goings today that no longer requires (in the eyes of some) a week of special observance. In a great number of inter-church families in particular, the call to develop mutual insight and to relish diversity in the midst of unity is a daily vocation and opportunity. On a much more mundane level, the post-Christmas lull and the dark nights of January make it hard to organise large scale events at this time of the year.
SUGGESTIONS DURING UNITY WEEK
So it is that at this stage the demand for, and attendance at, special Unity Week liturgies is not perhaps quite what it used to be. In that context I might make just two simple suggestions. First, even if there are not as many ‘special’ ecumenical services as we once witnessed, we probably all should do more to experience and understand what our Christian neighbours of other traditions normally do at worship. Even yet we may have limited knowledge of the spirituality and devotion of others, and sometimes this gap in our insight can even lead to caricature or exaggeration. So ask yourself – when did I last attend the normal weekly worship of another church, simply to taste the atmosphere and be attentive to all that happens? It can involve quite a mental effort to leave one’s comfort zone, and simply drop in as a guest on the worship of others, but it could be a very worthwhile modest initiative to take during Unity Week. Indeed it could lead to many a valuable discussion locally.
The second suggestion follows from the first. In the past separated churches in Ireland often defined themselves rather negatively, over and against ‘the other’. There were for example certain opinions and devotions that ‘we’ preferred to avoid, simply because ‘they’ cherished them. Now things can be a great deal more positive and open. When we experience the church life of others in the very way I mentioned in the previous paragraph, we might ask ourselves – ”are there aspects of their life and worship where they are more effective than us? What things do they appear to do better than us?” We should be receptive to benefiting practically and even surprisingly from the ideas of others, and equally hope that we will have something fruitful to offer them. We may not all become organically united in our lifetimes, but awareness of the possibilities of what nowadays is often termed ‘receptive ecumenism’ can be a source of hope and mutual strength. In an ever more secular and indifferent world, the least that Christians should do in their witness to society is to try to borrow and share their own best ideas.
HOW FAR ARE WE STILL FROM LIVING THE ‘DO TOGETHER EVERYTHING EXCEPT WHAT CONSCIENCE REQUIRES US TO DO SEPARATELY’ PRINCIPLE?
And as we do all these things, and think of the continued negative consequences of Christian disunity in all our communities, we might keep asking ourselves how far we still are from living out an ancient ecumenical principle first articulated in the Swedish city of Lund … Namely that we should always as believers ‘do together everything except what conscience requires us to do separately’. To live authentically by that principle in our parishes and towns would be challenging, transforming, costly and amazing. But is this honestly something we could not achieve in our time?
We rejoice at the nomination of the Revd Canon Robert Jones to serve as incumbent of Kiltegan Group. Although he currently ministers in Belfast, Robert is a son of our diocese and has had a long and richly varied ministry across the Church of Ireland. It is excellent that at this point he wishes to make a move in a homeward direction! The date of Institution will be finally determined early in the new year, but it is likely to be in early March. Robert’s coming anew amongst us, bringing so much accumulated wisdom, will be greatly welcomed not just in his parish but also among the family that is the diocesan clergy.
Michael Cashel Ferns & Ossory