The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is January 18-25, 2011. The theme of this week is "One in the Apostles' Teaching, Fellowship, Breaking of Bread and Prayer." The theme, based on Acts 2:42, was developed by the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Commission on Christian Unity. I shall observe this week by participating in an ecumenical prayer service at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Orlando on January 25th at 10:30 a.m.
I ask United Methodists to participate in ecumenical services and to pray for greater Christian unity among the churches and Christians.
When Melba and I were visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, we hired a Muslim guide. After commenting on the often vicious rivalry among the different churches which occupy this holy site, our guide stated, "Christians are divided, but Islam is one!" I do not know how he would explain Shiites and Sunnis, but his mockery of Christianity for its divisions hurt. How can we expect the world to believe in the one Savior when we as his believers are divided among ourselves?
Despite its failure to produce union of churches, the ecumenical movement in the 20th century did accomplish much. It broke down the attitude of suspicion which divided Christians and inaugurated a new era of mutual respect and cooperation. Today there is much more of what John Wesley called "catholic spirit:' "the peculiar love we owe to those who love God" is to give our hand to all those "whose hearts are right" with our heart.
It is disturbing that independent congregations keep popping up. There is little accountability for doctrine or discipline in these situations, and the mulitiplication of such congregations solidifies the sin of schism. The American market may not care one way or the other, but any community which claims the name of the church of Jesus Christ takes on responsibilities whether it is aware of it or not.
The historic churches in which congregations are bound in a covenant of doctrine and discipline continue to participate in ecumenism. The main focus of ecumenism today is achievement of full communion by which different churches recognize each other's fidelity to the apostolic faith, ministry, and sacraments.
As time goes on, and full communion is developed between the Protestant churches, and eventually between some of the Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church, the Holy Spirit will lead these churches toward an even more visible union. I suspect the missionary situation of Christianity in the 21st century will impell churches toward a more visible union as a way of bearing more faithful witness to Christ , defending Christian beliefs, and evangelizing secular people. That possibility may appear remote today, but it is no more unlikely than was the shift of the population of Christian believers from north to south during the last one hundred years.
While the Holy Spirit continues to lead the church to fulfill the prayer of Jesus Christ that all of those who believe in him may be one (John 17), we can pray for unity today and establish closer relationships between United Methodist congregations and those around us, especially those with whom we have formal relationships through the National Council of Churches and the World Methodist Council.