Week of prayer helps thaw "ecumenical winter"

The ecumenical climate may have cooled off since its initial flowering 50 years ago, but the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Jan. 18 to 25, is still an important way for Christians to stay active, said Archdeacon Bruce Myers, the Anglican Church of Canada’s new coordinator for ecumenical relations.

Started in 1908, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is one of the oldest ecumenical activities.
Started in 1908, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is one of the oldest ecumenical activities.

“We believe that prayer informs, inspires, and strengthens us in the work to which God calls us—and one of those tasks is bringing the church to a more visible unity,” said Mr. Myers. “A good place to start is in common prayer.”

Canadian Anglicans will mark the week by joining other Christians for special ecumenical services, cooperative mission or evangelism work, and pulpit swaps. Liturgical material is available, jointly prepared by the Vatican and the World Council of Churches, this year under the guidance of a delegation from Poland.

Started in 1908, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is one of the oldest ecumenical activities. It predates the 1948 creation of the World Council of Churches and all the Anglican Church of Canada’s bilateral dialogues.

In short, the week of prayer has been a mainstay through what Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie in 1989 first called the “ecumenical winter”—a term that rankles ecumenists but remains in currency.

The “ecumenical spring,” in contrast, was in the 1960s and 1970s, when churches first began to explore their commonalities. The Second Vatican Council opened up more opportunities for engagement with the Roman Catholic Church. The World Council of Churches broadened its membership. Across the world, churches began to set up bilateral dialogues. Here at home the Anglican Church of Canada and the United Church of Canada considered forming one denomination.

Then seasons changed as the dialogues faced challenges. For Anglicans, a major obstacle arose in the 1980s when the agreements of the first phase of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission—on ministry, Eucharist, and authority—failed to gain traction at the local level. In 1975, the Anglican House of Bishops quashed plans for Anglican-United union. Further Anglican decisions around women’s ordination and human sexuality made some ecumenical conversations more difficult.

“Initial enthusiasm for the movement was falling off after a generation,” said the Rev. Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan, director for Unity, Faith, and Order for the Anglican Communion. “Hard realities set in and institutions moved more slowly than people perhaps hoped for.”

Ms. Barnett-Cowan has seen many changes in ecumenism over her lifetime. Growing up, she remembers that Anglicans and Roman Catholics would never attend each other’s churches. By the time she was a young priest there was a newly formed Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue of Canada and she was invited to join. Years later, she led the Anglican Church of Canada’s ecumenical work at General Synod, and now she staffs the Anglican Communion’s ecumenical dialogues, where she has a bird’s eye view of global ecumenical work.

Like many ecumenists, Ms. Barnett-Cowan finds the term “ecumenical winter” negative. She can point to much work that’s steadily growing in this quieter period, including the third phase of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, and the Anglican-Lutheran work that flourishes in places as far-flung as Hong Kong and Ecuador.

So a change in season is not a death knell.

“As Canadians, we know very well you don’t just hibernate in winter. There are still things you can do in winter,” said Mr. Myers, “The promise and the enthusiasm that we saw during the ecumenical spring may not be there but that doesn’t necessarily condemn it to death or dormancy.”

Mr. Myers references a gift of Nordic gloves that the General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, gave to Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. Mr. Tveit’s gift symbolized the continuing work in a colder season.

It seems appropriate that Canadians know how to work well in winter. The Anglican Church of Canada maintains various dialogues with the Roman Catholic Church and ecumenical councils and has re-engaged the United Church of Canada. Above all, its work with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada remains exemplary.

Since 2001, the two denominations have enjoyed a full communion relationship that means exchange of clergy and mutual recognition of baptismal vows. In 2013, they will meet jointly for the first time.

Mr. Myers and Ms. Barnett-Cowan hold up the Canadian Anglican-Lutheran relationship as an example of a bold union—especially at a time when some churches fret about declining attendance and the decrease in their “market share.”

These ecumenists emphasize that all of these successes—perhaps slower in winter—are undergirded by prayer, a discipline that can be refocused in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

“The unity of the church is ultimately a gift from God and not something we create,” said Ms. Barnett-Cowan. “We can only really come to be one in Christ when we are with Christ together in prayer.”

o   Access liturgical resources for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

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