As given to us in John’s gospel, on the night before he suffered and died, our Lord prayed for his followers at some length. The heart of his prayer is, I believe, summed up right here (John 17:22-23):
The glory which you have given me I have given to them, that they me by one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be perfectly one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
If ever a prayer has gone unanswered, this would seem to be it, right? The number of different “brand names” by which Christians identify themselves numbers in the tens of thousands. Most recognize most others as authentically Christian, though some do not. But even where authenticity is recognized, there is an impaired relationship. In the ministry of God’s word, and the ministry of God’s table, our divisions are painfully evident.
Or sometimes … not so painfully, and therein lies a problem. Sooner or later, it’s a natural human impulse to accept that which cannot be changed. It becomes the new normal. So, institutional division between professing Christians has, to a large degree, simply been normalized in our own minds. Ironically, the most contentious quarreling these days is within particular Christian bodies, among those who are ostensibly in full communion with one another. As Episcopalians, we have become experts at that! But once there has been a formal separation, and the generation that initially experienced the separation has died off, passions cool, and the fact of the separation is accepted as a given reality. Episcopalians and Congregationalists and Greek Orthodox and Presbyterians and Roman Catholics all worship among their own on Sunday morning, but bear one another no particular ill will when they meet at a restaurant or across a backyard fence on Sunday afternoon. Some have even come to rationalizes the existence of these various brand names as divine gifts–different styles of worshiping and thinking and living that appeal to different kinds of people.
The days between January 18 and January 25 make up the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. An “octave” is a period of eight days, and this octave is anchored on one end by the feast of the Confession of St Peter and on the other end by the feast of the Conversion of St Paul. The observance was established by a Franciscan religious community–the Graymoor Friars of the Atonement–in 1908. At that time, the members of the community were Episcopalians. Shortly thereafter, they were received into the Roman Catholic Church.
Sadly, the Octave (or Week, as it is now more commonly known) does not enjoy a high degree of awareness beyond a small circle of Christians who have taken a particular interest in ecumenism. I suspect this low level of interest may be attributable to the fact that our divisions are insufficiently painful. The divisions themselves have certainly not healed, but the accompanying wounds, in most cases, have. They no longer hurt. We’ve accepted the scars, and even started to celebrate them. So we’re not very motivated to put very much effort into treating an ailment that isn’t inflicting any serious pain.
But if our hearts are not painfully broken by our divisions, it is because they have been hardened. I am quite certain, however, that the heart of Jesus is quite broken by it all, that his petition as our High Priest on the night before his passion is still awaiting fruition. It is wonderful that various churches can share ministries of compassion and social outreach. It is wonderful that we can sometimes bear common witness on issues affecting the common good, though we are as likely to be divided in that respect as we are theologically. It is wonderful that we can be in civil conversation with one another across our differences, and I give thanks for the various bilateral and multilateral ecumenical dialogues. But it is an absolute scandal that, where it counts the most, in our proclamation of the Word of God on the Lord’s Day and in our participation in the mysteries of his Body and Blood, we must retreat to our separate enclaves.
In our acceptance of division, in our normalization of the endless array of Christian brand names, we overlook thw very practical reason that Jesus prayed for our unity: “…so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” That the world may know. Many who are reading these remarks have heard my standard parish hall “stump speech,” which talks about the massive shift our society is making from being Christian at the core to being secular at the core. In a cultural world that is presumptively Christian, we can get away with a certain amount of division. But in a cultural world that is presumptively non-Christian–or even anti-Christian–then our divisions cripple us. To the extent that we quarrel among ourselves, we are just an object of ridicule to the world. To the extent that we cannot let God heal our own divisions, how can we dare to tell the world that we are the herald, the earnest money, on God’s project of reconciling the world to himself in the person of his Son?
So, for this month’s observance of the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, my personal petition is going to be simply this: “Lord, let me hurt more. Lord, let the anesthetic of normalization wear off; let me feel the pain that your own heart feels over the lack of unity among your holy people, among those who have been buried with your Son in the waters of baptism.” When more of us feel the pain of our separation, we will be motivated to make ourselves more readily available to the grace of God to work in our midst, because the healing of our division is surely not something we can accomplish on our own.