Unity and a week of prayer among Christians

Living and growing

Posted: Friday, January 21, 2000

Growing up in the 1950s, I learned early on that, as a good Catholic, I was not, for any reason, to venture into a Protestant church. Some unknown danger lurked there which had the power to corrupt me. This attitude, which was characteristic of many Christian Churches 40 years ago, reflected the legacy of suspicion and fear from the days of the Reformation. In the Europe of the 1500s, State and Religion were closely allied. Kings and cardinals vied with each other for influence and prestige. In the years following the Reformation, kings and dukes used the new divisions in Christianity as vehicles for asserting various claims to power. In this milieu the flames of religious fervor were exaggerated while politically-motivated wars were fought in the name of religion. As a result, Catholic and Protestants came to hate and fear each other.

Today much has changed. Not only do I feel welcome in churches of other denominations, but my own Catholic tradition has borrowed much from other Christian Churches. A repertoire of hymns that is commonly known among parishioners of a variety of faiths is beginning to develop. Churches join together in common efforts such as Juneau's Glory Hole or the ecumenical ministry at Lemon Creek Correctional Facility. Juneau's Cooperative Church Council sponsors Advent and Lent luncheons which develop themes of common understanding.

These tentative steps toward unity are the result of a yearning for unity that is expressed annually during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was first observed in 1908 at the behest of an Episcopal priest, Father Paul James Wattson. Through the century just past, the notion of praying for unity among Christians has caught on. And since the Second Vatican Council, 1962-1965, Churches which had been former adversaries have begun talking to each other. The fruits of those talks can be seen in a number of recent joint statements or declarations.

The most significant of these statements issued recently was the ``Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification'' by the World Lutheran Foundation and the Roman Catholic Church signed three months ago. The question of whether one was justified by faith in Christ or by doing the work of Christ has been a major point of theological dispute and a rallying cry for dissension between these two great Churches for nearly 500 years. This Joint Declaration has found common ground on this sticky issue and, more importantly, has nullified the mutual condemnations that have stood in place since the mid-1500s.

Further, in August 1999, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to enter into full communion with the Episcopal Church. The two groups will recognize each other's orders and will be sharing pastors, while maintaining the distinctness of their liturgies. In March 1999, a joint commission of the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion issued an agreed report on local/universal church, entitled ``The Gift of Authority,'' which tackles the sticky question of the role of the Pope in any potential union of a Protestant denomination with the Roman Catholic Church. Each of these declarations is a small step on the road to unity among Christians.

This year, the week of Jan. 23 to 29 has been designated as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity here in Juneau. I urge Christians of all stripes to recognize Christ's call to unity (John 17:20-21) and to pray fervently this week that unity among Christians will be realized. We pray for unity, first because Christ has called us to be one; and secondly because the divisions among Christians are a scandal. Those who do not believe in Christ are put off by the bickering they see among Christians.

All Juneau area Churches are invited to join in the week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which will be initiated at each of the participating churches on Sunday. Prayer will continue during the week in the individual places. Then on Saturday evening, Jan. 29, at 7 p.m., people of various Christian faiths will gather to raise their voices together in prayer and song. All who look forward to the day when Christians will be one are invited to join that celebration.

Michael Nash is the pastor at the Cathedral of the Nativity.

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