Sharing the sign of peace at this year's Toronto Week of Prayer ecumenical service. Michael Swan

Christian unity will take change

  • January 23, 2012

TORONTO - The ecumenical movement knows precisely what it wants and has wanted since the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity began in 1908 — full, visible unity of the body of Christ.

At this year's Toronto Week of Prayer ecumenical service, Rev. Ammonius Guirguis of St. Mark's Coptic Orthodox Church told about 700 in St. Michael's Cathedral exactly what they would have to do to get the unity they want. They would have to change.

"There will be a change, but it has to be preceded by changes in our behaviour," Guirguis declared.

New Testament visions of the end of time all stress the transformation that will happen, said Guirguis. There's no such thing as the Kingdom of God without change.

"One day we will all be around the throne and one day we will all praise God together without any ethnic or cultural or linguistic differences," said Guirguis. "We have to go through these changes. Let's all experience that change in order to qualify for the great change."

For some, the last 50 years of ecumenical dialogue seems the opposite of change — just more of the same old official dialogues chewing over the same old theological differences. But that's not how it seems from the inside of such dialogues, Prof. Margaret O'Gara recently told The Catholic Register.

"It's a lot of this kind of long-term, foundational work — which is very exciting, important," said O'Gara, a University of St. Michael's College theologian.

People have to realize what goes into the big breakthroughs. The last major ecumenical announcement, the 1999 Roman Catholic-Lutheran statement on justification by faith, was preceded by 50 years of serious, scholarly dialogue, said O'Gara.

Since 1976, O'Gara has served on five major ecumenical dialogues, including the Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue of Canada and the Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue of Canada. As an insider on official dialogues, O'Gara has seen phantom differences disappear as the talk moves people to new understanding.

Today ecumenical dialogues find themselves tackling both ancient, inherited differences and newer divisions, she said.

"Many people have noted that some of the questions in ecumenical dialogue have shifted," said O'Gara. "They've shifted away from the issues that have divided us in the past toward new sources of division."

From the definition of transubstantiation to how Christian faith is embodied in different cultures around the globe, ecumenists are still trying to discover the ways each church and each Christian will have to change before we achieve full, visible unity, said O'Gara.

"People are divided over questions they think they disagree about," she said. "So we have to study what was the disagreement and why did people disagree."

O'Gara has been named winner of the Washington Theological Consortium's Ecumenism Award. She will accept the award from 17 theological colleges and seminaries Feb. 2 in Washington, D.C., and deliver a lecture on the theme of change called "Dialogue of Transformation."

"I'm very honoured to get that award," said O'Gara.

For Aret Boyajian of the Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church, showing up for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a matter of priorities.

"It's important to have your priorities right," he said after the service. "Faith is important in the 21st century. It's even more important now. If the members of the body don't function together there is no experience."

"At least it's a start," said Anglican Lyn Inniss.

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