May my words be in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Good evening. I'd like to begin by thanking your parish priest for his kind invitation to address you all this evening; and for your even kinder attention to my few words. I am here, of course, because this is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. This spiritual endeavour is now over 100 years old, having been begun in the time of Pope Pius the Tenth. It might seem strange, looking back now, that this ecumenical prayer movement began on the watch of a man whom history remembers, if his Wikipdedia page is to be believed, as one who vigorously opposed what he termed 'modernism' and instead promoted traditional devotional practices and orthodox theology. But perhaps it may be said with the benefit of hindsight that his vision of better ecumenical relations between Christians of various traditions achieved through prayer was prophetic.
Many in his day realised that secular influences in society were on the increase; but few foresaw how prevalent they would become and how they would serve to undermine Christian values within the Western world – a society, it should be noted, that was founded upon the values of the Christian faith. Perhaps Pope Pius understood the dangers more clearly than most – and understood that the day would come when it was important for Christians to work together to fight the dangers that faced them all.
Certainly much has been achieved over the course of the last century that to bring Christians together. Sadly there still exists parts of the world where one type of Christianity fights against another; but thankfully that has become so rare as to make it remarkable. And this is good, because we live in a time when the external threats to the faith on a world-wide basis have never been greater than at any time since the bad days of the Roman Empire. The persecution of Christians around the world is rampant. And figures from Open Doors, a charity that tracks the persecution of Christians around the world, show the problem is getting worse not better. Another charity, International Christian Concern, lists 100 countries around the world where this is a serious issue. To try and put that number in context, that is more than half of the countries in the world.
There are problems in the West also. For example, whoever would have thought that faith schools in this country, that have generously welcomed through their doors children from all backgrounds for generations, would be condemned in the media for practising unjust discrimination for wishing to make sure that the children from their own faith communities, the communities these schools were founded to serve, were given priority when there were not sufficient places in those schools for all who might want one? Or that the day would arise when the right of faith communities to have denominational schools was publicly called a breach of human rights – arguing that they should be replaced with schools that promote the ethos they themselves advocate, secularism?
These are but a few of the issues that face Christians; and which can be better dealt with if all Christians, whatever their tradition, deal with them in solidarity. Christ, we know, established but one Church – something we affirm every time when we say in the Creeds that we believe in a Church that is One. And Christ, we know from Chapter 17 of St John's Gospel, prayed that his followers would be one, even as he and the Father were One. We may live out what our Lord asked of us in this imperfectly; but even so surely we are less imperfect when we work together on the issues that affect us as brothers and sisters in Christ.
So, as I end, I suggest that we ought be doubly grateful to Pope Pius for introducing this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. First, naturally, because it is the reason that we come together this night in prayer and fellowship. And secondly because it makes is easier for us to work together as Christians to resist those forces that threaten our faith within our society – and perhaps, indeed, our society because they weaken the values upon which it is based. Even so, my prayer, as I finish, is that the day when come when the need for such a week as this has ended, because our prayers have been answered, and we are truly United in Christ. Amen.