By Christopher Epting
Ecumenists often lament the fact that, with all the full communion and agreed statements between the various Christian communions, very little seems to be happening “on the ground” so that “people in the pews” (and pulpits) can get excited and involved. This paucity of activity can sometimes be blamed on people like me, engaged in national and international dialogues, often to the exclusion of giving adequate time on the reception of these agreements. Allow me to atone by making some specific suggestions:
The Graymoor Ecumenical and lnterreligious Institute not only encourages all of us to observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (Jan. 18-25 each year) in our local congregations, but offers suggestions. On the “Ecumenical Sundays” falling within the Week of Prayer (Jan. 18 or 25 in 2009), evening prayer services can be scheduled in a central location, using resources from the Graymoor website: www.geii.org.
During the Week of Prayer, worship daily in different congregations using the traditional prayer forms of the host congregation, but perhaps including leaders, readers, and choirs from the other participating churches. Conclude the event with refreshments and fellowship. Even where joint worship cannot be shared, have pulpit and/or choir exchanges.
But don’t let the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity be only an annual event. Include activities and events of neighborhood churches in your Sunday bulletins and ask the other churches to do the same for yours. Pray in your own church for the ordained and lay members of the Christian congregations in your area. Teach about the various Christian communions in your own education programs so that your people will understand similarities and differences.
Organize a benefit concert to share the music used in different traditions. How about tours of area churches conducted by guides who can share something of the architecture, history, organization, and liturgical traditions of the congregation? As always, conclude with refreshments and fellowship.
Include regular prayer for ecumenical ministries and organizations in your area Display material about those organizations and, during worship, call for an offering of food or money designated for the use of these ecumenical agencies. In cooperation with such organizations, sponsor a speaker series featuring theologians, ecumenists, teachers, or social justice leaders who can help us all learn more about living a faithful Christian life.
Invite representatives from ministries dealing with interchurch marriage and family support groups to address an adult forum after your Sunday liturgy or during an evening program. And don’t forget the young people. Local musicians, storytellers, and crafts persons offer unique opportunities to gather young people from various Christian traditions. Organize shared youth retreats and even consider merging youth groups where numbers are small. Why not one ecumenical, Christian youth group of about 30 in your community rather than three or four with eight or nine members each?
Joint Bible Study: The theme for the 2009 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is “That they may become one in your hand” from Ezekiel 37:15-19, 22-24a. Resources are available at the Graymoor website to engage in daily or weekly, Bible study around this theme and its implications. This can be done in parish halls or homes, ecumenically or in your own church family joined together with those around the world exploring the same texts.
Churches Uniting in Christ adds the following suggestions for local ecumenical interaction: Invite a member of a local church to teach about his or her tradition. This could happen in an adult forum, Bible study group, Sunday school, or at regional denominational meetings. Pray for neighboring congregations by name.
Consider inviting a member of another church to serve on an outreach committee or other commission in your parish. Develop joint support groups for single parents, other singles, or divorced persons.
The point is there is much that we can do already ecumenically that we are not doing. In a time when new breakthroughs seem few and far between and there is a tendency to remain focused on survival or our own internal struggles, it is more important than ever to explore these and other creative ways to demonstrate the oneness which is both Christ’s gift to us and his heartfelt prayer for us.
The Rt. Rev. C. Christopher Epting is deputy for ecumenical and interreligious relations for the Episcopal Church.