The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in Rome: a Methodist perspective My first time in the city for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (18-25 January) was a very busy one, including two Sundays when Ponte Sant' Angelo Methodist Church Rome invited preachers from different traditions to come on successive Sundays.
The first Sunday, we enjoyed the visit of Rev Tara Curlewis, formerly General Secretary of the National Council of Churches of Australia and a minister of the Uniting Church of Australia. She took her text from the First Book of Samuel, dealing with the call of Samuel and invited us to Hear and respond to God's call to us for justice and peace in God's world. She spoke powerfully from her experience of being part of the WCC Living Letters team visiting the Philippines, listening to those whose relatives had been killed or disappeared because they spoke out against injustice. She testified to the power of the voices of outsiders who could make a difference in standing up for human rights. Similarly in Australia the Church was actively involved in speaking up for the Stolen Generation of aboriginal children taken from their natural families. She concluded: “God`s call often involves working to change human systems that are broken and may lead us down difficult paths.”
In the afternoon she was the invited preacher of Churches Together in Rome who took the service devised by churches in Brazil around the key text from John 4: “Give me to drink…” In an imaginative service involving representative churches contributing to the well from which water was drawn, and a dramatic reading of the gospel text, Tara preached on The Path to Unity is daring to Share and Journey with the Neighbour who is Different. Using the text from John 4 which provides markers for the path to greater visible unity, she drew on examples of the work and witness of the Church in Brazil as well as her own experience of working with those of other faiths in the aftermath of the Sydney café siege. She concluded by inviting us to cross boundaries of tradition and denomination as we gathered at the well with Jesus, taking the living water, the water of our common baptism, and filling us with enthusiasm as the water overflows. The service was assisted by members of the Pontifical Brazilian College who led songs and the psalm from their liturgical tradition as well as two traditional hymns.
The second Sunday, Ponte Sant' Angelo was privileged to have as its preacher Fr. Tony Currer from the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity. He took as his text verses from that same John 4 reading, inviting us to explore the encounter of Jesus with the other, the woman of Samaria at the well, in a part of the countryside where he need not have gone. He drew on the example of Christians in Brazil, which had produced this years’ service, where Roman Catholics and Protestants/Pentecostals had worked together in a form of spiritual ecumenism which was a starting point for our journey together as Christians. Are we willing to drink from other wells and receive the Living Water of God?
Later that same day, many of those involved in different aspects of church life in Rome gathered at the Basilica of St. Paul's Without the Walls for Papal Vespers on the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul in the very place where the Week of Prayer has been marked since its promotion by Fr Paul Couturier in 1935. Significant church leaders and representatives of Orthodox, Eastern Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and Methodist churches were present to hear Pope Francis talk about the need to act now for unity and to travel in that spirit, rather than waiting until we were agreed on every detail. The words of dialogues were no substitute for radical and concrete demonstrations of unexpected love. Archbishop David Moxon, Director of the Anglican Centre, has reminded us on his blog that ecumenism means, making our unity real where we are by our combined solidarity for righteousness and justice, as in the initiative of the Global Freedom Network in opposing the evils of human trafficking.
The vital role that men and women religious of different Christian Churches play in the ecumenical journey was at the heart of Pope Francis’s meeting on the previous Saturday with participants of an ecumenical conference on consecrated life and the search for Christian Unity. The four day meeting came in the context of both this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and the Year of Consecrated Life. Participants concluded each day with Vespers in the Orthodox, Anglican and Catholic traditions, and ended with the liturgy presided over by Pope Francis in the Basilica of St. Paul`s without the Walls.
In his meeting with the men and women religious on the Saturday at midday, Pope Francis recalled the words of the Second Vatican Council document ‘Unitatis Redintegratio’ stressing that spiritual ecumenism is the soul of the whole ecumenical movement. Consecrated people like yourselves, he said, therefore have a particular vocation in this work of promoting unity. The Pope also mentioned ecumenical communities like Taizé and Bose which have taken up this vocation and are privileged places of encounter between Christians of different denominations. The Pope spoke of three conditions at the core of the search for Christian unity – firstly, there is no unity without conversion of heart, which includes forgiving and asking for forgiveness. Secondly he said there is no unity without prayer and therefore men and women religious who pray for unity are like ‘an invisible monastery’ bringing together Christians of different denominations from different countries around the world. Thirdly, the Pope said, there is no unity without holiness of daily life, so the more we put our search for unity into practice in our relations with others, the more we will be modelling our lives on the message of the Gospel.
The rest of the conference was a rich meeting of women and men from very different orders and institutions, some ecumenical, some rooted in one particular ecclesial tradition. Some were ancient (Augustinian, Benedictine, Franciscan, Dominican, the Croziers) and others were communities with particular charisms to share, some with missionary orientation in different parts of the world. We learnt to listen to the testimonies of the various contributions and see the common threads of people dedicating themselves, as lay or ordained persons, to the consecrated life of holiness, of prayer, worship and service, with vows or rules for the disciplined life. I was able to share my understanding of the whole people called Methodist being a religious order, originally as a movement for renewal within the wider church “to spread scriptural holiness through the land” in small groups of women and men bound by mutual accountability for the development of their spiritual life and the expression of it in social holiness. Kurt, Cardinal Koch, the President of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, gave an address on the Importance of Ecumenism in the Year of Consecrated Life, quoting from the Reformed theologian Jurgen Moltmann who highlights the rediscovery for Protestants of the value of a life of communion, united by prayer and work. Our common roots, in our shared baptism, and in our use of the traditions of the early church, should enable us to walk together in the apostolic life and mission of the Church. He reminded us of the example and witness of Fr. Paul Couturier, the passionate pioneer of spiritual ecumenism, creating what he called “an invisible monastery” in the world into which all churches might come together in unity.
On the Thursday of the Week, a united service of Word was held at the Centro Pro Unione, in the building where the ecumenical observers to the Second Vatican Council met just fifty years ago, at an event hosted jointly with the Lay Centre (Foyer Unitas). I was privileged to preach at the service presided over by Archbishop David Moxon, my counterpart in the Anglican Centre, and took as my text “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” prior to a lecture given by Professor Geoffrey Wainwright entitled “Methodist and Catholics in Post-Conciliar Dialogue 1965-2015”, reflecting from a personal perspective as one at the heart of the dialogue on the international ecumenical stage on the progress made in understanding and working together of Catholics and Methodists.
That evening I was invited to address students and staff of the Venerable English College on the topic of Holiness and Heaven: the Methodist contribution to ecumenical dialogue. I drew on the ecumenical experiences I have had during my life, and opened up a conversation on the nature of shared and common purpose of Catholics and Methodists in their pursuit of holiness as expressed in the formal dialogues but also in our worshipping and working together practically as an expression of our visible unity.
All told, this has been an incredibly rich Octave of Christian Unity in Rome which opens up for the Methodist Ecumenical Office Rome many more opportunities for connections with other traditions as well as offering to others the chance (sometimes for the first time) to reach a deeper understanding of the particular charisms of Methodism and its place in the wider Church.
The Revd Dr Tim Macquiban, Director, Methodist Ecumenical Office, Rome