The annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service organized by the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism was held in Sourp Hagop Armenian Apostolic Cathedral on Sunday, January 17 where all were warmly welcomed by Bishop Meghrig Parikian, Prelate of Canada. Bishop Mary was our homilist in a service created by the Christian community of Latvia and rooted in the words of 1 Peter 2:9 “Called to proclaim the mighty acts of God”.
Those are the simple facts about the service (Detective Joe Friday would be happy) but I’d like to take a brief look behind “just the facts” and consider the importance of the service as more than an annual exercise in ecumenical outreach. To do that I’d like to take you back in time to April 1995 and share a story from my experiences in seminary.
I studied at Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax - a seminary with ecumenism at its heart. Founded in 1971 by the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and United churches it was an early leader in making ecumenical cooperation a reality in graduate studies.
In my first year I volunteered to be a member of the optimistically named Eucharistic Sharing Committee. Rather than attempt to put aside the church imposed impediments to true eucharistic sharing amongst our communities, our little committee was charged the more realistic task of organizing the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity service each year. That was a much more manageable goal.
Back to April 1995. The usual pattern of study each week at AST was to have common classes Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Wednesdays were our denominational days when we separated to study the specifics of our own traditions. For the 15 or so Anglicans this meant our social agency placements Wednesday morning, studying Anglican formation in the afternoon, a Eucharist together at 5:00 p.m. and we finished off with supper in the cafeteria.
That sunny day in April was the last day of classes and, for those of us in our final year, the last day as students at AST. As it happened it was a Wednesday and as good Anglicans we had finished our classes but were going to have one final celebration of the Eucharist at 5:00 p.m. as usual. As it happened, Fred Hiltz, Suffragan Bishop of Nova Scotia and PEI at the time, was scheduled to be the celebrant and preacher.
That morning those of in the graduating class were on campus to have our photos taken, heave a collective sigh of relief that we had made it through seminary, and start to plan for the dreaded canonical exams.
Into that relative calm came the terrible news that our school President had taken his life that morning. Our insulated seminary world was shattered and a profound grief took hold. Every person dealt with it in their own way. It was an awful afternoon but, in the midst of it, there was a deep need to carry on and share the eucharist at 5:00 p.m. as planned.
As the hour approached the small chapel began to fill with students, professors, friends, neighbours, strangers. Fred was a calming presence for us all and celebrated and preached in a way that no one could have anticipated a day earlier. When it came time to share the eucharist the 100 plus people formed an enormous circle around the chapel and all took part. No one declined.
In that moment we desperately needed to be the one undivided body of Christ and all our differences were laid aside. We were simply sisters and brothers in Christ who were loving and supporting one another in a time of immense grief and sorrow. It is an image that has stayed with me all these years and remained a touchstone for my understanding of our need for ecumenical ministry.
Back to 2016. In the service which featured music that ranged from the haunting voices of the Armenian choir to the rousing sounds of an ecumenical mass choir that got people on their feet, it was a day of firsts as noted by our host, Archpriest Karnig Koyounian. He named the music as something new to his community and to have a female bishop delivering the homily was, to put it mildly, a different experience for him.
Bishop Mary underlined in her homily how there are many roads to the same destination – our Lord – and we are not to focus on our differences but on what unites us as children of God. Beloved, forgiven, and empowered to share the good news to a world that desperately needs to hear and experience it. Her words were a powerful reminder of our shared call to “proclaim the mighty acts of God”.
She reminded us of the need to continue to meet and worship together, to listen to each other, to respect our differences but to focus on all that unites us, and to move outside the insularity of our communities to share our common message of hope and love in Jesus Christ. It was a word of hope that was well received and struck a common chord with everyone present.
As a tangible sign of our one mission to be salt of the earth and light to the world, the clergy and church representatives were invited to taste a small pinch of salt and light a candle from a principal flame.
In the end, the service was a reminder of all that unites us and yet an acknowledgement that we are different and that is to be upheld as well. At times I think some people envision Christian unity as taking the colours of the rainbow and forcibly mixing them together into some unappealing gray sludge when really it is celebrating the diversity of the rainbow in its shared beauty and common purpose.
Why then a Week of Prayer for Christian Unity? It is a starting point. Perhaps we can all look around our communities and find occasions throughout the year to join with our sisters and brothers in Christ in ecumenical friendship and be surprised by where the Spirit may lead us.
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