These days we like to pick and mix. Go into the centre of any British town and you will find a bewildering array of takeaway food outlets to cater to different tastes – pizza, burgers, Indian, Chinese, kebabs and good old fish and chips, to name but a few. Choice is the thing and this applies to the most fundamental things in life: education, healthcare, where we live and the kind of work we do. Choice also extends to the manner in which we practise our religious faith.
Are the various churches on our high streets like the takeaway food outlets which we choose depending on our mood or our preference? Choice can be a good thing in matters do to with the practice of our faith because we aren’t all the same and what suits one person will not be helpful to another. However, it is a scandal if churches exist separately and apart from each other because all Christians worship a God who creates all things, makes himself known in Jesus Christ and is active in the world through the work of the Holy Spirit. Churches may differ in their worship style, their theology and their organisational structures but their members all live in relationship with God. Our unity as Christians stems from that common relationship of love and is rooted in the very life of God. In today’s world where there are so many alternative belief systems on offer it is important to recognise that there is more to unite Christians than to divide them.
This month marks the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity which is traditionally held from 18-25 January each year, although other dates are sometimes chosen in the Southern hemisphere. Not many people know that the idea of this special week of prayer for unity among Christians originated in Gloucestershire, where I live. Spencer Jones, the vicar of Moreton-in-Marsh in the Cotwolds was in correspondence with Paul Wattson, an American Episcopalian priest from New York State and the first Octave of Prayer for the unity of all Christians was celebrated in 1908 in Moreton-in-Marsh and in Graymoor, USA.
Today, we have moved on from the ideas which inspired Spencer Jones and Paul Wattson who believed that unity would be achieved if all Christians returned to their historic roots in the Roman Catholic Church. We now value each and every Christian tradition for the insights and understandings it contributes to our common pilgrimage of faith. However, Jones and Wattson together set in motion something which was taken up by others. Since 1966, it has been a joint project of the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches and is now an international movement of prayer.
One of the great joys of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is discovering something of the situation of the people who have prepared the study material for our use. With a focus on the parable of the Good Samaritan, in 2024 the Churches of Burkina Faso are challenging Christians around the world to ask themselves what it means to love their neighbour. For them, this challenge comes in the midst of extreme political instability and a serious security crisis. Our context is very different, but the call of Christ to each and every one of us is the same, ‘You shall love the Lord your God… and your neighbour as yourself’ (Lk 10:27). Let’s use this year’s Week of Prayer to prayerfully ask ourselves what that call means to us and to our churches, wherever we are.
Rev Dr Alison Evans is a retired Baptist minister. She worked for many years as the Gloucestershire County Ecumenical Officer and was for a time a member of the CTE Enabling Group. She is the secretary of the Society for Ecumenical Studies. She divides her time between Gloucestershire and Oxford where her husband Malcolm is Principal of Regent’s Park College.