Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

“Christians of Istanbul are divided into several strikingly different traditions. The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is when these traditions encounter each other, Istanbul style, and we are privileged to experience it.”

“Christians of Istanbul are divided into several strikingly different traditions.  The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is when these traditions encounter each other, Istanbul style, and we are privileged to experience it.”

ImageWe are privileged each year to experience the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Istanbul style. This has been the 40th year it has taken place here.

The unity in each year’s Week of Prayer is not seen in theology, worship style, ritual, language, dress, doctrine, or any sort of outward form. We have found unity first in the willingness of Christians of extremely different backgrounds in Istanbul to encounter each other in worship and in prayer. We Christians differ radically, all around the globe. Some of us who are raised in one particular tradition can be repelled, just as much as we can be enthralled, when we first face a markedly different Christian tradition or practice. Yet the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in Istanbul shows a trust among various Christians that each tradition offers a true way to be together as God’s worshipping people. By seeking that way we can transcend our individual parochial backgrounds.

The second arena of unity is seen in the willingness to host each other. Each participating congregation opens its house of worship to others. Hospitality is a famed virtue of several cultures, but it is strongly present in the Middle East. In her address to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) General Assembly in 2007, the broadcaster Krista Tippett noted that hospitality is a virtue that cannot be politicized. Its primary sign is a demonstration of care for the other. The virtue of hospitality is that we do not dwell on the other’s language or culture or religious background or any other difference, but we ceaselessly empathize with what that the other person needs and feels. We try to meet those needs and respond generously to those feelings. During the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, each of us has been looking to how we can pray and worship God together. Hosts offer their guests the best that they know of how people meet God in worship.

The host churches taking part this year were three Eastern Orthodox ones (Greek, Armenian, and Syrian), the Protestants (Turkish, German, and English speaking), and the Roman Catholics (French speaking). The attached photo shows the interior of the Holy Cross Armenian Church, one of our gathering places. A group of lay people and clergy traveled from church to church each evening, with the various clergy sharing the reading of scripture in their own languages, while the clergy and congregation of the host church conducted their service in their usual style and language. With this variety of rituals and tongues, no one always knows what’s going on. But the experience of undergoing this intense display of diversity together makes a powerful statement about where unity lies.

The number of Christians in Turkey is small today — about one percent of the population — yet the history of Christian traditions here is rich indeed. From the early years of Christendom the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, and Syrian Orthodox churches have sunk deep roots into this soil, with their numerous houses of worship, monasteries, and holy saints and sites. It’s remarkable how the different Orthodox worship rituals and their polities differ, although they all maintain the tradition of a male clergy. The Greek Orthodox language of worship is Greek; the Armenians use the Armenian language; while the Syrians use Aramaic, the language of Jesus. The clergy of these orthodox groups dress in black, but the headgear varies. There are numerous other differences in the use of icons and religious art; the style of music; the use of the altar; and so on.

There are questions facing the worshippers in this type of visitation to each other’s services. Many Christians “cross themselves,” making the sign of the cross with their right hand on their face and chest, at various times during their worship service. Many Protestants don’t do this. So should they follow suit when worshipping in a church where people cross themselves? And which way of crossing yourself should you use, since various Christians use various methods? Another problem: if, in your church, women and men pray and preach together, then how can women of your church participate in the services of other Christians who don’t recognize the participation of women in this way? And yet another: the Protestant pastor was scheduled to read the scripture in the Greek Orthodox service. Each scripture reader before him first approached the presiding Patriarch, bowed to him, and then kissed a box of bone relics of a saint of the church, before starting the reading. What should the Protestant pastor do, since his tradition “Protests” against such practices?

These questions are not going to be settled by insisting on uniformity. And dwelling on them will squash the inspiration we have received from the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: that we marvel at how differently we have come in 2100 years to acknowledge Jesus as the Christ. Churches can model for society how diversity can be lived.

Ken & Betty Frank

Ken & Betty Frank serve with the American Board in Istanbul, Turkey.  They share the job of General Secretary of the American Board.  They also serve on the board of the Istanbul Interparish Migrant Program (IIMP).