On my pilgrimages, I come across Christian churches from a wide variety of denominations. This includes everything from traditional parish churches and cathedrals to historic ‘free church’ chapels and newer Christian groups with contemporary worship styles who have adapted buildings such as old cinemas and so on. Sometimes, I’m able to go into the church building and even attend a Sunday service or a mid-week event of some sort although much of the time I am simply passing by, briefly praying for all those who worship, serve and minister in that place and for their wider community.
Just to take my 2020 pilgrimage to Winchester, my walking took me to places of worship as varied as a Pentecostal ‘Church on the Roundabout’ on the Isle of Wight, a historic Moravian chapel in a Wiltshire village and, certainly the most unexpected, an Indian Orthodox church on the outskirts of the city of Bristol.
But however much challenged, informed and fascinated I may be by these and the many other examples I come across, it’s also very encouraging to discover churches where local congregations are actively working with other Christian groups to try to re-gain just a little of the unity for which Our Lord himself prayed to his Father, that His disciples and those who followed after them would ‘be one, just as We are one.’ (John’s Gospel chapter 17, verse 22)
As I walk on pilgrimage, I see a steady trickle of such situations. Ones that I recall from 2020 include seeing posters in a small town in the south-west of Scotland, where all the local churches expressed their welcome to local people as well as visitors and gave details together of the different denominations’ services in their locality. I also came across an Anglican church in a quiet village in the Southampton area where one service each month was led by a Methodist minister, with local people encouraged to attend services from both traditions whatever their own religious background.
But it was in the Salisbury area that I visited a place of worship where the ecumenical approach of the congregation struck me the most. Having been kindly welcomed at this Roman Catholic church in a Wiltshire town, I later had the opportunity to look at their website where their commitment to working with other churches was expressed as follows, Whilst firmly rooted in the Rites, Practices and Traditions of Roman Catholics we are nevertheless very much aware of the Ecumenical nature of Christianity and the church’s role in Ecumenism; we play a full role in the local ‘Churches Together’.
Perhaps what particularly impressed me about this church was the realistic recognition of the diversity within which we all find ourselves, combined with valuing what was especially precious to them in their own experience as Roman Catholics. From their place of being firmly rooted, they could work with other Christians whose history and style of worship might be very different.
In this annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity held from 18th– 25th January, we are called anew to consider our own response to this issue. We too might ask ourselves how firmly rooted we are.
For my part, I will be attending special prayer meetings being held through the week. These are being hosted by a United Reformed Church minister in his capacity as chair of our local Churches Together. In the current difficult circumstances these will, of course, be held remotely.
Of course, this doesn’t seem very much considering the enormity of the situation we are in and I don’t suppose anybody really thinks that all the many expressions of Christian faith around the world will somehow be replaced by one body in an institutional sense. But let us give thanks for what has been achieved in our own communities and, above all, in our own hearts. Let us stay firmly rooted as we pray for just a little bit more of that unity of which Our Lord entreated His Father and only God Himself can bring about.