Gracious Father, we pray for your holy catholic church. Fill it with all truth and peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in anything it is amiss, reform it; where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in need, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it, for the sake of Jesus Christ, your Son our Lord. —Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 2006
Let us pray for the holy Catholic Church of Christ throughout the world; for its unity in witness and service, for all Bishops and other Ministers and the people whom they serve, for all Christians in this community, … that God will confirm his church in faith, increase it in love, and preserve it in peace. — Authorized Services for the Book of Common Prayer (The Episcopal Church), 1973
O God our Father, we pray for thy Church, which is set today amid the perplexities of a changing order, and face to face with new tasks…. Bid her cease from seeking her own life, lest she lose it. —The Methodist Hymnal, 1964, 1966
“Neither pray I for these alone, but for them which shall also believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” — Jesus’ High Priestly Payer, John 17:20–21, King James Version, 1611
New Year’s Eve seems as good a time as any to pray for the whole church of Christ on earth. We pray every week for the whole Church in our parish.
I’ve been reading the comments of Nicholas Lash, a Roman Catholic theologian and respected professor at Cambridge University in England, in the December 11 issue of The Christian Century, who was asked in an interview about the state of ecumenism today. He made a few comments but also remarked that generalities about ecumenism are not that helpful. “At least we’re not at war with one another anymore,” he said.
In some ways there is a condition of detente, but in others, there is a constant, willful eroding of one constituency by another. I have a great deal of respect for the people and clergy of groups I have worked with and known — mostly mainstream Christians. But I remain deeply suspicious of “non-denominational” outfits – whether the independent mega-churches or the “ministries” that sell youth materials, send musicians around, or want to come speak and ask for a free-will offering. What I’ve come to see is that “non-denominational” does not mean uber-open minded (as if they have gotten past the squabbling which divided Christians in the past). It means they have no accountability to anyone except their immediate machinery. For some clergy, it means no accountability to anybody except the one congregation they’ve put together by grand-standing or upstaging others.
Yet in some important ways there is an ecumenical open-mindedness which now characterizes many church bodies. I don’t include the patriarch of Rome (Lash’s term) who publicly stated in 2007 that the rest of us are not really the “church” as he understands the church. There are many small, conservative bodies also who won’t have anything to do with those of us whoa re liberally disposed.
There are issue-oriented movements which supercede the denominational divisions with some degree of success, such as the Institute for Welcoming Resources that unites the individual movements within denominations to work for the full inclusion of LGBT people in the Christian church. Lutherans Concerned modeled its Reconciling in Christ program on the Methodist program of the same name more than 25 years ago. Now every major and even marginal denomination has some kind of entity working independently of its own body and with some kind of loose cooperation with other programs: the Methodist’s Affirmation and Reconciling Ministries Network, the Episcopal Church’s Integrity and the Alliance of Lesbian and Gay Anglicans, More Light Presbyterians, Orthodox Axios, Brethren Mennonite Council for Lesbian and Gay Concerns, American Baptists Concerned for Sexual Minorities; the Gay, Lesbian and Affirming Disciples Alliance, the Moravian Sanctuary, Seventh-day Adventist Kinship International, Quaker Friends for Lesbian and Gay Concerns. This is not an exhaustive list; there are more at www.godmademegay.com.
Perhaps I am naive to go on believing that these groups, although narrowly focusing on the single issue of including sexual minorities in the Body of Christ, are modeling the ecumenical and universal Spirit by patiently workin today on today’s issues, rather than hunkering down around issues from two, three, five or ten centuries ago.
Yet we painfully acknowledge that what divides the church is most often not doctrine but human nature. At best, we are all anxious to be the church but each of us lunges and pulls in opposing directions with enthusiasm energy that tears at our unity. Our cultural and political differences constantly interfere with our best intentions to reform the church to be more welcoming, compassionate, wise and generous. At worst, each of us is self-important and the pawn of pious power lust, anxious to protect our own fiefdoms and crown ourselves as God’s vicars on earth.
True prayer for the church universal must begin with a prayer of humility and repentance, and the expectation that none of us has the will nor the wisdom to unite the whole Church. The French Jesuit and visionary philosopher Fr. Pierre Tielhard de Chardin once ventured that the closer all of us come to Christ the closer we would be to one another. Those who pray a real ecumenical prayer must acknowledge “Thy will be done,” and then get out of the way.
—Pastor Dan Hooper, Los Angeles