From No turning Back
The theme of this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is “pray without ceasing.” Taken from the short letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, this exhortation to pray without ceasing reminds us of the necessity of prayer for the Christian life. Paul wants the church to help the weak, to encourage the fainthearted, and admonish idlers, not to repay evil for evil. And in the midst of their rejoicing they must “pray without ceasing.” But today this prayer without ceasing is set alongside the great prayer of Jesus for the unity of his followers. Jesus prayed that his followers may all be one: As you, Father are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. When we pray without ceasing for the unity of the church, our prayer is joined to the prayer of Jesus for the unity of his followers, and we know that his prayer will be effective.
I think Christians have sensed for a long time that prayer is really at the heart of the ecumenical movement. Why is this? When we pray together without ceasing for the unity of the church, we stop listening to ourselves and we can hear God speaking. I think this was the experience of Paul Wattson, who started the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity one hundred years ago. He prayed, and he learned that God wanted to overcome the divisions that kept Christians apart. And so he began to call members of his church community together to pray for the unity of the church. Paul Wattson heard God speaking. When we pray together without ceasing for the unity of the church, we stop listening to ourselves and we can hear God speaking. This was also the experience of Paul Couturier, who thirty years later heard the prayer of this week and said: But these all express Roman Catholic ideas! We should find a prayer that all Christians can pray together. Paul Couturier heard the Lord say, For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways. And so today, following the insight of Paul Couturier, we pray for the unity of the church as Christ wills, in the time that he wills, by the means that he wills. When we pray together without ceasing for the unity of the church, we hear God speaking.
When we pray together without ceasing for the unity of the church we also hear each other praying. This is really a significant experience, isn’t it? Have you ever been having an argument with someone that is interrupted by the bell signaling a scheduled worship service? You may have to stop in the midst of making a really good point, put down your books and papers, set aside your ideas, and find your way together to the chapel. Perhaps you are visiting at this chapel, or perhaps your debate partner is visiting, or perhaps both of you know very well the way to this space. Both of you must page through the hymnal, say the words of confession together, and perhaps line up together to receive the eucharist that binds us into one. Suddenly the earlier debate looks a bit different, doesn’t it, as we realize that our opponent in argument is really our brother or sister in Christ and that both of us are asking God to forgive us, to heal us, and to show us the truth. When I pray with my dialogue partners in the search for Christian unity I can never treat my disagreement with them as the last word, because I discover that God has the last word, and it’s directed at both of us.
When we pray together without ceasing for the unity of the church we also hear each other praying. Listening to the prayers of others is a bit like listening to other languages, and of course sometimes we begin to learn the language of our ecumenical partners as well – we learn a second language – and the ear of our heart is opened. This has certainly been my rich experience from praying with my ecumenical colleagues. From my Mennonite and Methodist colleagues I have expanded the number and kind of hymns that I love to sing. From my Orthodox colleagues I have learned to love icons and the long chants of Vespers. From my Anglican colleagues I have learned to relish the beauty and rhythm of plainsong and of the spoken word in liturgy. From my United Church of Canada and Pentecostal colleagues I have learned to relax in the tradition of more spontaneous worship. From the Lutherans and Presbyterians I have learned what a good sermon sounds like, and from my Evangelical colleagues I have even learned to give a fair testimonial of what God has been doing in my life this week. When we listen to the prayer of others it slowly becomes our prayer too; it becomes like a second language. It is not that we ever forget how to pray in our mother tongue, which is for me the prayer styles and beautiful rhythms of my own Roman liturgical tradition. No, it is not that we forget our mother tongue. But, with Charles Wesley, we can sing within ourselves, Oh, for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise, and we can rejoice in the many other tongues used by Christians all around us.
When we pray together without ceasing for the unity of the church, we get tired. It seems to demand so much perseverance. It seems to go on for so long. How long, O Lord, must we wait for the unity of the church for which you prayed? We want to work together to proclaim the gospel, to help the weak, to encourage the fainthearted, to admonish idlers, not to repay evil for evil. Haven’t we prayed long enough for the unity of the church? A hundred years? A thousand years? What’s taking you so long? Can’t those other churches see that the traditions of my church and its customs and insights are really the best way, the truest way, to be a Christian? When we pray together without ceasing for the unity of the church, we get tired. We realize that prayer for unity has its delights, but it also has its challenges. Prayer together without ceasing is not always fun: sometimes it is an ascetical discipline, a long, Lenten fasting from a shared eucharist and from a shared pooling of all the richness of our traditions.
When we get tired, we also get tempted. This, too, is an experience of togetherness that Christians know well. The Princeton Proposal for Christian Unity says that today many serious Christians are tempted to substitute identity for truth. Rightly turning from a kind of liberal indifference, some Christians are tempted to ask, says the Princeton Proposal, “Is it Catholic enough?” “Is it Reformed enough?” “Is it Mennonite enough?” “Does it adequately express the ethos of the United Church?” instead of asking, “Is it true?” We turn our traditions into brand names. I think a focus on identity rather than truth can be a special temptation for our colleges in the Toronto School of Theology, since we are sometimes set in unhealthy competition with each other. We can be tempted to seek our identities alone instead of seeking the truth together. But Jesus reminds us that our unity is needed for the world to believe. In fact, we in the TST colleges are blood relatives of each other, made one by the blood of the cross of Christ. This is the truth to which we witness together, our deepest identity anyway. Let it refresh us when we tire even as it binds us into one.
I have said that when we pray together without ceasing for the unity of the church we hear God speaking. We hear each other praying. We sometimes get tired and even tempted. And finally, when we pray together without ceasing for the unity of the church, we can even hear each other talking when we leave the chapel. Praying together sharpens the ears to hear not just prayers but also theological and exegetical insights. From each other we learn not only styles of prayer; we also learn styles of thought, and we learn to add these different styles to our own.
This happened to George Vandervelde, our colleague and teacher from the Christian Reformed Church who died one year ago this week. In his search for Christian unity George often prayed with Romans. This led him to decide that the Heidelberg Catechism’s statement accusing Romans of idolatry in their eucharistic teaching and practice was mistaken. His church used this teaching. So for ten years he argued with his church about it. He finally succeeded in persuading the Christian Reformed Church to lift its accusation of idolatry against Roman eucharistic teaching and practice.
When we pray together without ceasing for the unity of the church we also learn different styles of thought. I remember one dramatic experience of this very clearly. I was drafting a statement of agreement for the international dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Disciples of Christ. Our topic was complex and important. We had spent five days at an ecumenical monastery for men and women. We ate together, talked together, and, repeatedly, prayed together. But now it was late at night, the meeting would end the next day, and we had run into a roadblock. As midnight came and went, our small drafting group of three colleagues sat together in a mood of dismay. We stared at the words of the Roman Catholic position and saw no way to reach agreement or even to formulate our disagreement. My mind seemed drained of thought, numb with effort. Suddenly, gently, my two Disciples colleagues, David and Nadia, began formulating the Roman Catholic position. This was my position, but they said it for me. Accurately and sympathetically, they found for me the right words to express the position of my church communion when I myself could not find them. I remember being astonished at the time, and recognizing that we had actually achieved a common mind on the question. The next day our entire dialogue group came to a major agreement because of our late-night work. We ended our week of dialogue with a service that was filled with joyful song and prayers of praise.
Such a noncompetitive achievement is sustained and made possible when we pray together without ceasing and search for the truth. When we hear God speaking, we begin to hear each other speaking as well. In fact, we begin to hear God speaking through each other and then we know that we’re really praying.