February letter

“See how these Christians love one another!”

By the time this edition of Prospect has been distributed but after the time of writing, the 2023 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (WPCU) will have been and gone. Officially it runs from 18-25 January and most services take place on the Sunday, but this year the Shingay Group will be observing it a week earlier, on 15 January when some of us will visit Baldock Roman Catholic Church.

WPCU has been observed in one form or another since 1908 and each year the service is produced by different groups of churches, sometimes on a national basis, sometimes more locally, and this year it is the turn of the Churches of Minneapolis, USA, who have chosen the theme ‘Be-Longing: Praying for Unity amidst Injustice’. Remembering George Floyd, we are encouraged to promote racial justice across all levels of society (and here we remember too that 2023 sees the 30th anniversary of the death of Stephen Lawrence).

WPCU reflects the desire of Christians to embody the prayer of Jesus ‘that they may all be one’ (John 17:21) and the command ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’ (John 13:34), but you don’t have to know very much about religion to realise that Christians are still rather a long way from fulfilling these aspirations. Despite some shining examples of organic unity (for example, the Church of South India, and in this country the United Reformed Church) there are still very many divisions, some of them several centuries old, both between and within Churches and, indeed, within local congregations. The Church of England now has women priests and bishops but there are still those who cannot accept this, while the Roman Catholic Church does not ordain women even as deacons. Discussions (that is the polite term) about gender issues are ongoing in more than one denomination. Divisions between those who should be united cause great hurt and anxiety on all sides of the arguments.

I find it comforting that actually there is nothing new under the sun about this. The quotation at the head of this article comes from Tertullian, who was born in what is now Tunisia around 155 AD and died around 220 AD. He was a noted scholar and prolific writer who defended Christianity not only against external opposition but also opposed unorthodox views within the Christian community. Christians, he says, “are a body knit together by the sense of one belief, united in discipline, bound together by a common hope” and also “You can judge the quality of their faith by the way they behave”, but at the same time he is aware that in his time as in ours this is aspirational and does not, unfortunately, reflect reality. (He seems to have had a sense of humour, though: one of my favourites among his sayings is “Arguments about scripture achieve nothing but a stomach ache and a headache”!) Even before Tertullian, in earlier Christian writings, in fact in the New Testament itself, it is clear that disagreements among Christians are nothing new at all (if you doubt me, read some of St Paul’s Letters!).

Despite all this, however, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity asks us to remember every year that we are indeed called to be one and to keep working and praying for this.

So, a final word from Tertullian: ‘Hope is patience with the lamp lit’.

Priscilla Barlow


Roman Catholic Diocesan Commission for Dialogue and Unity