Week of Prayer for Christian Unity offers churches an opportunity to share the ‘gifts of differences’

By Melodie Woerman
Posted Jan 25, 2024

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby speaks during a service of evening prayer in Rome on Jan. 25 during which he and Pope Francis commissioned a group of 50 Anglican and Catholic bishops to go out into the world to be witnesses of Christian unity. Photo: Screenshot, Vatican Media YouTube

[Episcopal News Service] The Rev. Margaret Rose, ecumenical and interreligious deputy to the Presiding Bishop, has been busy the past eight days, as she has participated in several observances of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The week, which began on Jan. 18 with the Feast Day of St. Peter, ends on Jan. 25, the Feast Day of St. Paul.

On Jan. 24, she attended a service at the Interchurch Center in New York, and she said the sermon preached by the Very Rev. Patrick Malloy, dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, described the value of Christians coming together during this annual observance.

“We, as Christians, are more divided than ever,” Rose told Episcopal News Service, but those divisions don’t center on doctrine, she said, because those types of disputes don’t seem to occupy Christians much these days. Instead, “the fissures today are that we are divided by race, by class, by political ideology. So, this week is about sharing the gifts of difference.”

Across the country and the globe, a variety of services involving Episcopalians and Anglicans marked this year’s observance.

On Jan. 25, at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury, and the Most Rev. Ian Ernest, director of the Anglican Centre in Rome, were part of an ecumenical evening prayer service at which Pope Francis officiated. During the service the pope and Welby commissioned a group of 50 Anglican and Catholic bishops to go out into the world to be witnesses of Christian unity. Two women were among the Anglican bishops.

Pope Francis greets an Anglican bishop (right) and a Roman Catholic bishop after they and 48 other bishops had been commissioned during a Jan. 25 service in Rome. Photo: Screenshot, Vatican Media YouTube

During the commissioning, Pope Francis addressed the bishops, saying, “Brothers and sisters, 14 centuries ago, Pope Gregory the Great commissioned St. Augustine, first archbishop of Canterbury, and his companions, to set out from Rome to preach the joy of the gospel to the peoples of England. Today, with gratitude to God for our sharing in the gospel, we send you forth, beloved co-workers for the kingdom of God, so that wherever you carry out your ministry, you may together bear witness to the hope that does not deceive and the unity for which our Savior prayed.”

Welby said during the commissioning, “Brothers and sisters, God reconciled us to himself through Christ and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. As we send you forth from the tomb of the apostle to the nations, we call on you to make this ministry your special care. As you preach and celebrate the sacraments with God’s holy people, bear witness to the one hope of your calling. May your ministry alongside one another as Catholics and Anglicans be for the world a foretaste of the reconciling of all Christians in the unity of the one and only church of Christ for which we pray this day.”

The two then together invoked God’s blessing on the pairs of bishops, using words from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

The bishops were part of the “Growing Together” summit that paired bishops from the Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions for discussion and pilgrimages in Rome and Canterbury. Its aim was “to strengthen bonds of friendship and commitment between Anglicans and Catholics for joint witness and mission in a fragmented world.”

At the Anglican Centre in Rome on Jan. 23, Ernest celebrated the Holy Eucharist, and the preacher was Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state. In his sermon, Parolin said that while it is good for Christians to gather this week, “We must acknowledge, however, that our joy at being together and worshipping together is also tinged with sadness, since we have not yet reached the stage where Catholics and Anglicans can share fully at the Lord’s table.” But, he added, “instead of discouraging us, may that sadness urge us on, to work and pray with ever greater commitment for the coming of that day when we will at last be one at the altar.”

On Jan. 24 at the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Munich, Germany, the Rt. Rev. Mark Edington, bishop of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe, read one of the lessons at an ecumenical service that also included representatives of the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria and the Romanian Orthodox Church.

In New Orleans, Christ Church Cathedral was the host on Jan. 22 for the annual areawide Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service, at which Louisiana Bishop Shannon Duckworth was the preacher. She was joined by the local bishops of the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The Cathedral of St. Philip in Atlanta hosted a service of Evensong on Jan. 21. The cathedral’s curate for ecumenical and interreligious relations, the Rev. Salmoon Bashir, preached the sermon.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was started in 1908 by Episcopalians with the specific goal of reuniting with the Roman Catholic Church. It has since become an annual ecumenical observance sponsored by the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity.

This year’s theme comes from Luke 10:27 – “You shall love the Lord your God … and your neighbor as yourself” – which leads into Jesus’ story about the Good Samaritan.

–Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Diocese of Kansas.