The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity began in the early twentieth century in the Roman Catholic Church and spread quickly to Protestant and Orthodox branches of Christianity. In 1948, with the founding of the World Council of Churches, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity became increasingly recognized by different churches throughout the world.
The heartbeat of this week focuses on the Church being united as the universal mystical body of Christ. It finds its roots in the prayer of Jesus that His followers be one in the way He experienced oneness with God (St. John 17:21). Somehow in the pursuit of unity, it has been my experience, we have failed to achieve this oneness and digressed to hegemonic displays filled with invitation to sameness, rather than the beautiful equality of oneness.
When I first encountered The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I often heard that the worship experiences would be a melting pot of all theological, cultural, and racial perspectives and that this would show how we valued the diversity and unity in God. The problem I found was that much like a true melting pot all the ingredients were expected to lose their unique flavor with the taste and texture of the dominant culture prevailing. When there have been nods toward difference they have often been nothing more than cultural appropriation that ignores the lived realities and experiences that have given birth to the traditions. Sanitizing hymnody is nothing more than a sacrifice on the altar of political correctness; it is not unity. At best it is conformity.
To consider culture in our worship experience is more than changing the picture of Jesus or Mary on the front covers of our worship aids or advertisements. It is not enough to invite a Gospel choir to sing a selection or two and call it unity. Culture is the basis of all ideas, images, and actions. To move culturally is to move by a set of values given to you by your culture. The basic criteria for culture include mythology, history, social organization, political organization, creative motif, and ethos (Cone 1997). If our unity services are to be truly reflective of the oneness of the Body of Christ, some weighty matters need to be considered.
As we reimagine the potential of our gatherings for The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity we might consider the task of the church. Fundamentally the Church refers to the communal gathering around washing, texts, and meal, as these are interpreted as having to do with Jesus Christ, and yet it is so much more (Lathrup 1993). It is the place where people develop their power of reason to understand themselves, their relationship to others, and their position in the universe in light of the teachings of Jesus (Fromm 1978). This constitutes an invitation to discover and celebrate not just our differences, our unique gifts, but what makes us different and how those differences play a major part in the whole.
What we should vision for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity this year and beyond is not so much a melting pot, but perhaps a tossed salad. Each ingredient bringing its own unique flavor separate, distinct, and perfect. When these ingredients come together, they make one delicious offering where no one is diminished and no flavor appropriated. Unity in not about sameness, unity is an act of solidarity. We are called to be one with, even when we are not one of. Seeing and acknowledging the difference allows each to be truly known and understood, while being valuable as a contribution to the whole. Perhaps this week rather than focus on Jesus as coming to die on the cross our attention should be focused on Jesus who showed redemption through a perfect ministerial vision of righting relationships (J. Cone 2011).
Peace Is Possible,
Bishop Edward Donalson, III | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor
Cone, James H. 1997. Black Theology and Black Power. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
Cone, James. 2011. The Cross and The Lynching Tree. Maryknoll: Orbis.
Fromm, Erich. 1978. Psychoanalysis & Religion. New Haven: YAle University Press.
Lathrup, Gordon W. 1993. Holy Things. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.