The Palm Beach Post, Jan. 17, 2003
By Steve Gushee
Not even Jesus had all his prayers answered.
He earnestly prayed that his followers would be united. They have, on the contrary, fought, divided into countless sects and mercilessly killed one another for centuries.
Still many people pray, if little else, for Christian unity, and next week is the official time to do that. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity has its roots, no doubt, in Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that his followers may be one.
The contemporary idea for an eight-day period of prayer for unity took root in the early 20th century. The Rev. Paul Watson proposed in 1908 an octave of prayer from Jan. 18 on the feast of St. Peter through Jan. 25, the feast of St. Paul.
By the late ’50s, the Protestant World Council of Churches was preparing materials to observe the week. Some churches used them.
The Second Vatican Council in the early ’60s gave a much-needed boost to the idea of unity. The wonderful spirit of Pope John XXIII encouraged participation in Christian unity and the Week of Prayer.
Different churches, both Protestant and Catholic, would often host an evening of prayer, coffee and conversation for all Christians in the neighborhood.
That would fill the week with self-conscious prayer for unity across denominational lines, generate good feelings among the various churches and good news beyond them. Those were heady, promising days for some of us.
The enthusiasm did not last long. Vatican politics began to deflate the high hopes of the council. Changing social issues and falling membership among mainline Protestant churches distracted them. Ecumenical activities took a back seat to other things. Fewer Christians seem as interested in unity today.
Still, the Week of Prayer continues. The World Council of Churches and a Vatican office now collaborate to promote the week. The Graymoor Ecumenical Institute, managed by the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement, a Roman Catholic monastic order in New York, works hard for unity and publishes study materials for the week.
A united Christianity, however, is a tall order.
Unity was an almost instant casualty of the infighting, greed and cultural differences in the growing early church. Politics and power soon made it worse. The Reformation and continuing theological differences compound the problem.
The scandal of division plagues the church today as much as any crisis it has ever known.
Prayer might help — even though it didn’t work for Jesus.