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Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2002
For with you is the fountain of Life - Psalm36 :9

5 January   |   2002   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Last week, before we had even stepped into the New Year, I received my annual flyer from Father Frans Bouwen indicating the theme and schedule for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in Jerusalem in2002 . And my mind was momentarily teleported to those previous years when I was still living in Jerusalem and used to attend those prayers in the different churches! The opening day at the Anglican Church was always an inspirational way to begin the week. The choir singing at the Armenian Church was a divine experience in itself, and the colourful traditions of the Ethiopian Church were a constant source of renewal. Of course, one would never miss out on the Latin and Lutheran let alone Syrian and Coptic Orthodox Churches where reformation and tradition came together in a week of elegant hope. And talking about those distinctions between the four families of churches, I always remember with amusement a repartee by the late Catholicos Karekin I at an ecumenical event of the World Council of Churches when a Swiss journalist challenged him that the Armenian [Orthodox] Church was far too ancient for modern times! With the customary twinkle in his eyes, he quipped that the Armenian Church is indeed an ancient church, but it is not an archaic one!

In my opinion, that is what this annual week of prayers is all about! It is not about 'transforming' all the churches so that they become uniformly monochromatic! How lacklustre and how uninspiring that would be! Rather, it is about ordained and lay persons from different statements of belief coming together to celebrate as brothers and sisters the diversity of their ecclesial traditions - without forgetting the ultimate goal of re-assembling the Body of Christ into the oneness that befits our Lord and Redeemer. True, there are a host of historical, theological, cultural and psychological obstacles obstructing this coming together and impeding a unified proclamation of the gospel to the world. Nonetheless, it is only fair to add that some modest but meaningful strides have already been taken in this direction. There is a sense of reconciliation within the Christian world that is hard to underrate - or dismiss altogether!

But let me kick off with the preface to the flyer! "The theme for the Week of prayer for Christian Unity2002 , 'With you is the fountain of life' (Ps36 :9), suggests that to unlock this secret we need to find the way to the place where the fountain of life is. The symbol of the fountain reminds us of the necessity to return to the origin, to the principle, to the roots, to the essential. To walk together, Christians need to be grounded in the Word of God, the revelation of God's face in Jesus Christ, the renewing force of God's Spirit, the discovery of the love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Faith, prayer and common action can make water spring even from the desert rock of bitterness and cleanse the sin of division in Christendom. The scandal of a divided Christianity urges us to recognise what we share in common in the one baptism and to bear witness visibly to this in the world."

So, where are we on this road toward an ecumenical recovery that faces up to those challenges?

During my five years in Jerusalem, a precious time of learning as much as of giving, I realised on the whole that there is a genuine willingness to come together by most indigenous Christians of the Holy Land. Most of them are quite aware of their dissimilar confessional backgrounds, but they are even more acutely aware of their similar faith-centred background. Theirs is Christianity at a popular level that is yearning - and learning - to liberate itself from the shackles of history, theology, culture and psychology in order to reclaim the essence of the faith at a time of trials and tribulations.

>And the Church leadership is also beginning to follow - though perhaps not lead - this ecumenical trend. Indeed, I believe that this coming together of the Churches is happening - slowly but surely. One only has to look at the proactive involvement of the Churches - clergy and laity, leadership and grassroots - in the recent 'March for Justice & Peace' from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to deduce that a conscious sense of urgency has been injected into the daily lives of Christians across the whole country. And let us also not overlook the Jubilee Year 2000 as a paramount illustration of how the Churches can actively share together the belief that 'Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever' (Heb13 :8).

However, I also do not wish to be carried away with my own enthusiasm! I still maintain that a number of Churches - and leaders - are not yet ready to assume fully their ecumenical and grassroots responsibilities. There is still too much turf staking that goes on within many denominations. The Church as an institution - as the body of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ - has to learn to reconstruct itself more cohesively and with more integrity, courage and vision. It also has to learn how to commune more closely with its assembly of believers - that vast church outside the walls!

>I remember the stirring words of the theologian Joan Emri in her 1998 book where she avers that, “self-interest, self-involvement, self-indulgence, self-love, self-importance and self-image are too many 'selves' for the Church Universal to carry with it all at once.” Indeed, those self-imposed 'selves' weaken immeasurably the prophetic message of the Church worldwide and diminish its Christian ministry of love, reconciliation and forgiveness - ineffable virtues that Christians celebrate at least twice during the Christmas and Easter seasons.

And hand-in-hand with this re-doubling of effort at the institutional and populist levels, there is also the need to re-adjust slightly the intra-Christian dialogue between the various Church families or traditions. When discussing matters of dogma at those rarefied fora, it is helpful for the Churches to recall that dogma alone - which is not as prevalent within Judaism or Islam as it is within Christianity - cannot always deliver all the answers. What is helpful in equal measure is a love for the other that transcends dogmatic differences. By implication, what is therefore required is a fellowship not unlike that of the Early Church that is more basic - and therefore more grounded - than theosophical quibbles in order to guide the relentless dialogue over dogma itself. This is what I believe the lay communities of the Holy Land - knowingly or unknowingly, erringly or unerringly - are striving to achieve, and this is what the Church leadership should seek out too!

But the flyer from Father Frans Bouwen also indicated, "Our prayer for unity will also be a prayer for peace in our country and in the world." How true and how timely is the need to pray for peace in the Holy Land during this week! Indeed, this three-dimensional Jerusalem - where Judaism, Christianity and Islam intersect in their living and not-so-living earthly shrines - also has a sombre and dark side to it. This side has become frighteningly tangible over the past fifteen months, where violence has claimed so many lives, where animosity between peoples has become densely palpable and where raw fear and wrathful vengeance have traumatised many of its inhabitants. The Holy Land has regrettably become a beehive of rancorous and bitter memories, psyches and attitudes. Its symptoms manifest themselves in the political, religious, social or economic dimensions. This is a land at war for peace, a land where weakness is certainly not deemed as strength.

In the final analysis, though, it is the men and women of the Holy Land who will render Jerusalem what it is meant to be - or not to be! This city is the mirror of many faiths, the receptacle of many histories and the seat of many emotions. It is not an easy city to cope with, and the pain of its inhabitants gasps for peace with justice and security for all.

Al-Quds? Yerushalaim? Jerusalem? Irrespective, no wonder Jesus wept over it (Lk19 :41 -44)!

With all lowliness and gentleness, with long suffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace - Eph4 :2-3

The author was Convenor of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee (JICC) for five years.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2002   |   5 January


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