The Churches and Prayer

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Ruth Patterson, the first Presbyterian woman to be ordained, is founder of Restoration Ministries and has worked for almost fifty years promoting dialogue and prayer in Northern Ireland. Here, she highlights the importance of openness and prayer to church unity.

The question of dialogue and prayer among different Churches sometimes features far down the list of major concerns. Yet dialogue, understanding, respect and mutually beneficial relationships are of the essence for the future of this island and of the world.  If we cannot, as Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox have meaningful dialogue and somehow walk together, how are we ever going to advance inter-faith dialogue and dialogue with the secular world? We persist in building walls instead of bridges, exercising caution instead of risk, battening down the hatches rather than practicing a generosity of spirit that manifests itself through honouring the other through forgiveness and rejoicing in the others’ well-being.

There is a commonly held misconception that unity means uniformity – how boring that would be!  When God created this world, he created diversity and saw that it was good. The desire in his heart is that we recognise and accept that we are called to unity in that diversity. The best definition of unity I have ever come across is that it is simply diversity embraced by love.  We each have so much to offer the other from the riches of our own tradition and culture and life experience.  Without openness to such a truth then our lives, our faith, our journey, are somehow the poorer.  I am not called to try to get you to be like me (or vice versa), but rather to encourage you to embrace the best that is in your tradition – for that is what you have to offer to the body, just as I am challenged to embrace the best that is in my tradition. Having said that, being Protestant or Catholic is not the most important thing about us. The most important thing is who we are in God, in Christ. Our primary identity is in him, before gender, political persuasion, religious affiliation, culture. In that realm lies the basis of our unity – beloved daughters and sons of God. This may come as a surprise to some, but that unity is already ours. It’s not something we have to strive for, but rather recognise (know again) and accept. It’s just that most people haven’t yet become aware of the fact, even though the truth of it has been around since the beginning of time.

How do we awaken such awareness? The challenge to unity in diversity, to a new understanding of ecumenism, is not something that can be forced upon people. And we, to whom church matters and faith matters, have no right even to challenge, unless we ourselves have unlearned some things from the past and are willing to have our eyes opened to the vital importance of such a way of seeing. That requires that we ourselves are willing to do some inner work. The biggest journey of reconciliation I will ever make is the one within myself. If I begin to make strides with that, then any outer journey towards reconciliation or unity becomes gloriously possible.

The key to such inner reflection is prayer, nurturing the loving relationship between God and I. As I am open to such nurturing, the sacred space inside me expands to embrace the other who is different and I begin to see them as my sister, my brother. Picture a room full of people, each one representing a different tradition or denomination. They are standing in a circle with a gap between each. If I keep looking at my neighbour on either side of me, the gap remains. If, however, I focus my eyes on the centre where Jesus is standing, drawn by his love, his truth, his beauty, I immediately take a step towards him, and another.  So does my neighbour on my right and my neighbour on my left. Before we know it, the gap is closed. Diversity is embraced by love itself and the unity that has been there all along is recognised and appropriated – and this island, and the world, is transformed.