Do Good, Seek Justice: Thoughts on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

On 18 January 1908 — 115 years ago — the first Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was observed. Known then as the Church Unity Octave, the observance was initiated by the Rev. Paul Wattson and Sister Lurana White, cofounders of the Friars and Sisters of the Atonement. Father Paul, whose cause for canonization is underway, was also a principal in the founding of Catholic Near East Welfare Association.

Since its creation, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, as well as the ecumenical movement, has moved from the periphery of the consciousness of the Western churches to the very center. Two important examples are the founding of the World Council of Churches and Vatican II (1962-1965), in which the Catholic Church committed itself irrevocably to the search for Christian unity and interreligious dialogue.

There have been great strides in ecumenical rapprochement among different churches in the latter years of the 20th century; in some ways ecumenism became the “in thing.” Some participants and observers — naively, perhaps — even awaited or expected a restoration of Christian unity in their own lifetime.

But as the first quarter of the 21st century draws to a close, that enthusiasm has waned. Opponents to the ecumenical movement remain, yet one observes a certain malaise even among those once enthusiastic about ecumenism. For a while there was talk of an “ecumenical winter,” which while vigorously denied has remained difficult to disprove.

To some extent ecumenism was taken for granted. What once started as a small group of people facing hostility became a small group of people facing indifference. With some exaggeration, ecumenism was not rejected; but neither was it seen as all that practical or necessary.

The year 2022 witnessed the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A blatant violation of the United Nations Charter, the invasion became and remains the center of intense media coverage. At the same time, although less visibly, civil war has raged in northern Ethiopia. Both wars have been terribly destructive and have forced millions of people from their homes. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates some 7.9 million Ukrainian refugees are scattered throughout Europe. The number of civilian casualties, as of December 2022, is estimated at 6,884, which is by all accounts a very low figure. Military casualties and Russian casualties — military and civilian — are almost impossible to accurately ascertain. However, Russian military casualties are estimated to number in the tens of thousands.

Refugees from the Tigray region, where the Ethiopian conflict is the worst, are estimated at approximately 174,000. The number of casualties in the conflict is difficult, if not impossible, to estimate. This is partially because the number of casualties from the famine caused by the conflict is included in the overall statistics. Generally, however, the number of total casualties in the conflict has been estimated at about 500,000.

Why am I pointing out two major conflicts in a reflection on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity? It seems incongruous, until one realizes the two conflicts — presently among the worst worldwide — are conflicts between Christians, and worse, among members of the same traditions.

To be clear, neither of these conflicts are “religious conflicts” in the traditional sense. They are not conflicts over theology or dogma, although in Russia a cultural philosophy infused with some religious elements has been used to justify the invasion. And while some church leaders may have been coerced into supporting war, they are not leading a theological crusade; the motivation and goals are political.

A Ukrainian serviceman holds an Orthodox icon inside a church near the town of Lyman, Ukraine, 7 October 2022. (photo: CNS/Oleksandr Ratushniak, Reuters)

What is, however, important to note is that while religion has not played a direct and active role in exacerbating these conflicts, neither has religion — in these cases, a shared faith in Christ — played a major role in preventing or ending them.

Always, the ecumenical movement has been in danger of becoming an irrelevant elitist academic exercise. The goal of ecumenism is not solely and merely dogmatic agreement; the goal is Christian unity. If dogmatic disagreement is something to be overcome, how much more is violent conflict to be overcome? Christ’s prayer “that they all may be one” is unthinkable if Christians are killing each other.

A certain success may have made the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and the ecumenical movement appear elitist and irrelevant. However, as these two major military conflicts clearly demonstrate, the struggle for Christian unity has real life-and-death impact in our present world.

As CNEWA observes the Week of Prayer throughout our world, we recognize that Christian unity is a profound peacemaker, and without a just and lasting peace, nothing else we do is sustainable.

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