Primate preaches on Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

What follow is the text of a sermon preached by Archbishop Fred Hiltz, Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Archbishop Hiltz delivered the sermon at St. Paul’s Basilica in Toronto on Jan 20.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
January 20th, 2008
St. Paul’s Basilica, Toronto

At the very heart of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is the Prayer of Jesus that they may all be one, even as you Father are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe you have sent me. (John 17: 21)

By way of reflection on this prayer Jean Vanier in his book, Drawn into the mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John, writes.

Today people of different faith traditions are working to bring people and churches together. Disciples of Jesus are walking towards greater unity and mutual love. Jesus reveals that unity, however, can only come as God lives more fully in each one of us, as we become holy through having welcomed the Holy One within us, and as each of us together begin to reflect his presence in our lives. We all have work to do to welcome the holy One within us and to love as he loves. (p. 302) These are lovely words to ponder in having just celebrated Christmas — the coming of God among us. Lovely words to ponder as we seek to fulfill his commandment to love. Lovely words to ponder as we seek to fulfill his prayer for common life in Him.

This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It was first introduced in 1908 as an octave of Prayer between The Church’s commemoration of the Confession of St. Peter (January 18th) and The Conversion of St. Paul (January 25th), the two great apostles whose writings continue to inform our understanding of the Church as the Body of Christ in the world, each of us members one of another in Him.

This year marks the 40th Anniversary of the production of materials for worship and reflection through this Week of Prayer. Annually a joint committee of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity select a theme grounded in the Scripture. This year’s theme is pray without ceasing. It is drawn from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians — one of the oldest, if not the oldest book in The New Testament. One can only fully appreciate this call to prayer in the context in which it is issued by Paul in his words of encouragement to the Church in Thessalonica.

Be at peace among yourselves, he writes. And we urge you, beloved, to admonish the elders, encourage the faint-hearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them. See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstance; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (Thessalonians 5:13b-18)

Having read through the resources prepared for the Bible Studies for the week, I was struck by the points for discussion posed for the study on day eight. They are as follows:

1) What gains have we made in our pursuit of Christian unity over
the past 100 years?
the past 20?
the past 5?

– – – Give thanks for these gains.

2) In what areas is there still much work to be done?

– – – Lift up these areas in prayer.

Let’s then recall and give thanks for Gains:

In the past 100 years — we give thanks for the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948. That Council stated that the goal of ecumenism is to call the churches to the goal of full visible unity in one faith and in one Eucharistic fellowship, expressed in common worship and in common life in Christ and to advance that unity so the world may believe.

A major step toward the realization of unity among the Church came in1952 when the World Council of Churches adopted what has come to be known as The Lund Principle which states that the Churches should hence forth act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel us to act separately.

Another very significant step was the production in 1982 of a document, commonly known as The BEM Document, — Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry. A production of the World Council of Churches, it represents the convergence of a common understanding of the essential nature of baptism, eucharist, and ministry, as set forth in the New Testament and Christian Tradition. Widely read, this document continues to have a profound influence on conversations between and among Churches.

This century has seen Christians using a Revised Common Lectionary for the Scripture readings appointed for Sunday Liturgy and that has inspired many clergy and lay leaders of a number of churches to come together in study and prayer in preparation for preaching and programs for spiritual formation in Christ.

We have witnessed some very historic moments in this century. Pope John XXIII’s declaration, Whenever I see a wall between Christians, I try to pull out a brick. John Paul II and the Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios I giving a common blessing from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome. John Paul II and Archbishop Robert Runcie jointly renewing their baptismal vows in Canterbury Cathedral.

Within this nation we think of the Founding of the Canadian Council of Churches in 1944. At that time there were 10 member churches — now there are 21. According to its Constitution, the Council is a community of Churches which confers the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour according to the Scriptures and therefore seek to fulfill together their common calling to the glory of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and also other churches which affirm the same faith but do make doctrinal confession. (Article II) So the Council is a forum for consultation co-operation and common witness among its member churches.

I’ve always liked the way someone put it when they said, If ecumenism is to take hold in Canada, it will come at the local level and it will come because the Spirit will move neighbours of faith to overcome their separation in order to embody the Gospel in their communities. In this regard we give thanks for initiatives on the part of local neighbouring churches in coming together for worship, and action in addressing the needs and hopes of their communities.

In the past 20 years — we give thanks continuing conversations between and among churches that have led to a number of agreed statements on matters of faith and order in the Church.

Again there have been some remarkable moments of witness to the unity to which we are called in Christ.

One was in 1998 — Jean Vanier had been invited to lead the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches in a time of quiet reflection. After his talk he invited everyone to follow his lead in a foot washing ceremony. People representing some 230 different churches participated. By way of reflection on the event, he wrote We are only just beginning to discover and to live the ecumenical and inter-religious dimensions of this act.

Another was in the year 2000 at an ecumenical liturgy inside St. Paul’s outside the Walls in Rome. John Baycroft, the former Anglican Bishop of Ottawa was the Director of the Anglican Center in Rome at the time. Reflecting on the service some weeks later he wrote, Even before the liturgy began you could feel that the opening of the Holy Door at Saint Paul’s was going to be very special. Leaders and representatives from a score of the major Christian Churches representing the vast majority of Christians in the world were gathering and greeting one another. It felt like a gathering of friends some old and some new, all meeting in mutual respect.

Pope John Paul II had generously invited the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury and the representative of the Orthodox Ecumenical patriarch to help him open the Holy Door. This wonderful symbolic gesture became a more powerful sign as I watched it happen. The doors did not swing open smoothly with a gentle push. On the first push or two they did not open at all. So these three leaders had to push harder together. And they did. And the doors opened. I am sure that many who witnessed this took to heart the message that if we want the ecumenical way to open up, and the Church’s doors to be open to all, we must push together and push harder!

Walking through that doorway together with so many other church leaders, he wrote, felt to me like a renewed commitment to walk together in Christ’s way of love?

The Churches in Canada marked the dawn of the new millennium in launching The Jubilee Inititatives.

A call for the Restoration of Right Relations among all peoples;
A call for the Reduction of International Debt, and
A call for the Renewal of the Earth.

All across Canada there was enthusiastic response to these initiatives — a tremendous witness on the part of the Churches Acting Together.

In 2001, the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada declared Full Communion with one another. Among other things that means full Eucharistic sharing, inter changeability of ordained ministries, and continuing commitment to consult with one another over matters of faith order and common witness. The conclusion of The Declaration reads,

We rejoice in our declaration as an expression of the visible unity of our churches in the Body of Christ. We give thanks for the gift of unity that is already ours in Christ and we pray for the fuller realization of this gift in the entire Church.

In the past 5 years — there have been a number of significant gains in pursuit of unity. There is an annual ecumenical retreat for Canadian Church Leaders. There has been continuing common witness through the ecumenical coalition known as KAIROS. Church Leaders have come together in signing letters addressing a number of issues including poverty, immigration, refugees and calls for just and peaceful resolutions to international conflicts.

On Sunday, April 22, 2007 hundreds of people gathered in St. James’ Cathedral in Toronto to pray for Afghanistan. In Emmanus, a newsletter of the Canadian Council of Churches, the service was described as follows. The people gathered to hold up in prayer the dark tragedy of Afghanistan and the pain of all its people; children, women and men. They gathered to hold up in prayer the pain of the members of the Canadian Forces and the troops of all nations who desperately long for peace in a torn and hurting place in God’s world.

On National Aboriginal Day, June 21st 2007 leaders representing eleven Canadian Churches and other religious organizations renewed commitments made 20 years ago in the signing of A Covenant Toward The Constitutional Recognition and Protection of Aboriginal Self-government in Canada — a significant moment in the long road to self-determination.

This year in the interests of raising public awareness of the establishing of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a Research Centre to preserve the history of the Residential Schools, Church Leaders will participate in a Sacred Walk beginning in Ottawa and travelling to a number of other places across the country.

On January 1st I was at Christ Church Cathedral in Ottawa celebrating The Feast of The Naming of Jesus. In the context of the liturgy a Canadian Anglican priest, the Rev. Canon Dr. John Gibault was commissioned for his new responsibilities as Director of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches at its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. As Canadians we rejoice in this appointment and uphold him in our prayers.

So in the past 100, 20, and 5 years we give thanks for these and many other gains, global and local in the pursuit of the unity Christ wills for the Church.

The second question I named earlier calls us to identify areas in which there is more work to be done. I will mention just three:

1) Common Witness to Shared Faith
It seems to me there is much more that we could be doing by way of a common witness in the celebration of Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and the Feast of the Reign of Christ. That is not to diminish in any way the richness with which these festivals are celebrated within each of our traditions but rather to share something of that richness in a way that reveals to the world our unity in the Gospel of God’s love in Christ Jesus.

2) The Recognition of Ministries
Here there is much work to be done. It will require of us all both humility and courage. It will involve a deep commitment to dialogue, intentional listening, mutual respect. It will mean an authentic commitment to the healing of old divisions and a capacity to embrace one another’s vocations in ways not seen before.

3) Our Compassionate Service to those in need
Many church leaders speak out for instance about homelessness in this city of Toronto. I believe we must continue to do that but more and more we must also speak and act together. A hymn writer put it so succinctly, One voice alone is ragged, together we are strong.

Within and beyond Canada Christians alongside people of other faiths as well are called to a commitment to the UN Millennium Development Goals:

To eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
To achieve universal primary education
To promote gender equality and the empowerment of women
To reduce child mortality
To improve maternal health
To combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
To ensure environmental stability
To build a global partnership for development

Within the next couple of years we must mobilize major public initiatives in calling on political leaders in Canada and among the nations to remain diligent in their resolve to achieve these goals by 2015.

So, we have much more work to do, work for which we pray the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit of God.

I conclude with an excerpt from remarks prepared by the Rev. Dr. Karen Hamilton and Pastor Willard Warnock.

As we mark the 100th Anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, celebrating it within the context of the yearnings, prayers, and initiatives for Christian Unity through the centuries, we do well to take stock of where we are on this Spirit led journey. It is a time to give thanks for the many fruits of prayer for unity. Dialogue has assisted in building bridges of understanding and has led to the resolution of some of the doctrinal differences that have separated us. In many places, animosity and misunderstanding have given way to respect and friendship. Christians who have gathered to pray for unity have often joined together in acts of common witness to the gospel, and worked side by side in serving those in great need.

Ultimately as someone once said, ecumenism is not about our plans for the reunion of the separated churches. It’s about playing our part in God’s plan for the gathering up of all things in Christ. With him let us pray without ceasing that we all may be one.


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