Years ago, the last week of January was celebrated throughout the Catholic world as the Church Unity Octave. Beginning on the former feast of St. Peter’s Chair at Rome and concluding on the current feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, observers of the octave prayed for the unity of various Christian communities with the Church of Rome.
Each day, a Christian community dating back to the Reformation as well as the older Orthodox communities were commended to the prayers of Catholic parishioners. Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists, and other Protestant communities were accorded their own particular day on which they were remembered with prayer and on which their unique history would provide food for thought. The dignity of the Anglicans, the hymns of the Methodists, the fraternity of the Presbyterians and the lives of their founders were considered, enriching the Catholic faithful in the knowledge of their “separated brethren.” Over the last half century, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has gradually replaced the older Church Unity Octave and an emphasis on what unites Christians rather then on what separates the followers of Christ has been stressed. The sacred Scriptures, a common repertoire of hymns, preaching and prayer followed by home-baked cookies and coffee became the substance of this midwinter observance.
During the 1970s and 1980s, ecumenical observances became very fashionable. Late January and the eve of Thanksgiving and some civil holidays were occasions for ecumenical gatherings. Area clergy from the assorted churches also met sometimes monthly for discussion and sandwiches. Priests and ministers served more frequently on various civic boards. On a higher level, Rome entered into dialogue with the various Protestant communities highlighting shared truths. But then sadly, at least on the local community level, interest in church unity began to wane. By emphasizing common roots and common objectives and common rituals, the impression might have been given that one church community was a good as another. All that mattered was that one was a good person — how often has that observation been made. By losing sight of — or by ignoring — the unique characteristics of each religious community, an illusory and transitory fellowship evolved which stumbled when the critical moral issues of the late 20th century surfaced. It was not doctrinal differences that soured much recent ecumenism but rather moral issues that drew the line in the sand.
Divergent views on abortion, as well as on divorce, cohabitation, homosexuality, cell research, gender, ordination, religion in public life, and Sabbath observance, among other items, forced ecumenical participants to question exactly what they were celebrating. A Catholic clergy pledged to uphold traditional marriage might question sitting cheek to jowl with United Church of Christ ministers who bless same gender unions. Roman Catholic priests faithful to the male priesthood might wonder about the role of a female ordained in the Episcopal Church. Obviously there is a lot more to be considered regarding the unification of churches than who is going to perk the coffee and bring the oatmeal cookies.
But God, characteristically, brings good out of evil and light out of darkness. The Catholic community has lately found much in common — at least from a moral point of view — with the Evangelical and Pentecostal communities. Pro-life and marriage and family concerns have brought these Catholic and Protestant communities — so liturgically contrary — into a serious dialogue. Perhaps true ecumenism will be attained more by ministry conducted in the streets rather than by ceremonies offered in sanctuaries.
Full church unity is an eschatological reality. A sinful church will always be plagued with internal and external division. Yet, working toward authentic unity is clearly God’s will as well as a moral duty and the goal of common sense. Joy in what unites believers and honesty about what separates adherents must enliven all ecumenical efforts. Thus the growth of all, and not just the conversion of some, should lead to more effective unity.