The first, foremost, and final thing Christians are called to do in ecumenism is to pray for the unity of the church. This prayer is Jesus’ own prayer, and we who are disciples of Jesus are called to make it our own. Such prayer entrusts our hopes, fears, doubts, angers, and joys to our heavenly Father. It also forms us to listen to His will and obey it.
Happily, prayer is the most visible form of ecumenism today. Most Christians are able to pray with one another, at least privately if not always publicly. Joint prayer services are common and encouraging signs even when the sacraments are not shared. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is one of the oldest ecumenical institutions. Celebrated from January 18 to 25 in the northern hemisphere and around Pentecost in the southern hemisphere, this special period of prayer had its seeds already in 1908 when an Anglican priest proposed an “octave for unity” (eight days of prayer). The Faith and Order movement picked up the idea in 1926, and in 1966 the World Council of Churches and the Catholic Church began jointly publishing worship materials for this event every year. Prayer for the unity of the church also belongs in daily prayer. It is implicit in the prayer our Lord taught us: “Your kingdom come; Your will be done.”
Prayer for the unity of the church will bear many fruits, and one of these fruits is love. Love makes us recognize true children of God, true brothers and sisters of Christ, in Christians outside our own church boundaries. We look upon them and see not strangers or foreigners but members of our own body, persons to be loved as God first loved us. Remember that Jesus’ prayer for the unity of his disciples was accompanied by the command to love one another, precisely so the world would recognize Jesus’ disciples by their love.
This love has consequences for our theological discussions. As Luther put it in his explanation of the Eighth Commandment in the Small Catechism, we are to “come to [our neighbors’] defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” All of us want to be taken by what we intend at our best, not by our failures to live up to our own ideals. We owe the same to our Christian neighbors (not to mention everyone else!). We should seek the best that they have to offer, not magnify the worst. It’s very easy—too easy—to attack another person’s theology. But such actions are not signs of Christian love. Ecumenical love means seeking out the best in our neighbor’s theology instead of the worst. Such love builds trust and makes the next fruit of ecumenical prayer possible.
When we pray for Christian unity, and when we grow in love for one another, it becomes possible for us to speak to each other with complete honesty. Dishonesty is in fact a great temptation in ecumenism. Often we are facing old enemies. We remember our worst experiences of them, the negative stereotypes we’ve been raised on. We assume they haven’t improved. We suspect that they’ve probably gotten worse, and we’re not interested in hearing the real story. Or, we have forgotten what we ourselves have done wrong. We have a rosy picture of our own history and conveniently overlook our own serious mistakes. We don’t want to hear someone else’s version of the story. Or, we are frustrated and embarrassed by the current state of our churches but we don’t want to look bad in front of others. We make ourselves appear better than we are in reality. We lie about our real sins and failures.
Can ecumenism succeed in such conditions of dishonesty? Certainly not. Our churches will reconcile only when we value the truth more than our own reputations. But there is also a danger on the other side. Love often wants to cover over the difficult spots as if they didn’t exist. Love is by nature self-sacrificing. It can appear that the best way to advance the ecumenical cause is to sacrifice our own beliefs, commitments, or convictions. But this is also an error. The discipline of honesty directs the discipline of love in the right way, toward the fullness of God, in whom there is no competition between love and truth.