January 18-25 is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Since 1908, when it was launched by Lurana White and Episcopal priest Paul Wattson, co-founders of the Society of the Atonement religious order, Christian churches of all denominations worldwide have devoted this eight-day period each year to joining together with their Lord in praying “that they may all be one” (John 17:21, NRSV).

In my own praying for unity during this particular Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, I’ve been especially conscious of the fact that when I’m praying, I’m doing so along with my Catholic sisters and brothers — some of whom have been my annual partners in praying for unity in the same worship spaces until the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted that practice.

I’ve served as a member of the Baptist World Alliance delegation to the joint commissions for two phases of international ecumenical dialogue between the BWA and the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity — Phase II from 2006 through 2010, and the current Phase III that began in 2017, for which I am co-secretary, a role that includes serving as the liaison between the joint commission for the dialogue and the BWA.

Phase I of the dialogue met from 1984-1988, exploring our common commitment to Christ as revealer of God and Lord of life, and issuing the report Summons to Witness to Christ in Today’s World.

Phase II, which met from 2006-2010, addressed ongoing differences regarding our mutual understandings of the relationship of Scripture and tradition, baptism and communion, the role of Mary in the life of the church, and the church’s structures of ministry, along with remarkable convergences on these matters, detailed in the report The Word of God in the Life of the Church.

In the current phase of dialogue, we’re returning to the summons issued by Phase I to bear witness to Christ together in today’s world through envisioning concrete ways in which we do that.

In 2017, we met at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary, where we explored the sources of common witness. We met in Rome the following year to discuss the global contexts in which we are called to offer common witness, and in 2019 we gathered at the Warsaw Baptist Theological Seminary in Poland to address the contemporary challenges to common witness.

We were to reconvene in Rome in December 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic required the postponement of that meeting.

We held a two-day virtual meeting of the joint commission in June 2021 to re-connect, worship together and consider possibilities for meeting in some fashion that December.

The outcome of those discussions was a plan for a hybrid meeting: the full international commission meeting virtually at the beginning and end of the week, with two regional in-person working groups meeting during the intervening days, one in Europe and one in North America, with commission members in South America, Australia and India joining the working groups virtually.

Pandemic developments during the early fall led to the cancellation of the European working group meeting in Rome and the substitution of a virtual format for that working group.

Members of the joint commission from Canada, the United States and Jamaica were able to gather at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina, Dec. 6-10, 2021, and to meet virtually with other international colleagues during that time.

We identified forms of common witness which global Baptists and Catholics have already been offering in particular places and imagined ways in which we might do that more fully, and we planned for the continuation of our work in 2022.

And we worshiped together — masked and appropriately distanced, but once again in the same worship space with one another.

It gave us a renewed gratitude for the times when God graciously enables us to embody the unity we already share in Christ through the Spirit in common experiences of worship, and it made us more deeply conscious of the urgency of our prayers that we might embody this unity even more fully.

When I think of my experiences of ecumenical dialogue over the years, it is the experiences of praying together and engaging in other acts of worship together that first come to my mind, though I also think of our deep theological discussions and rewarding friendships forged over meals, coffee breaks and evenings out.

This week, I am trying to be more conscious of the fact that when I pray, and especially when I pray for the unity of the church, I am praying along with my Catholic dialogue partners.

If I can consciously pray for more visible expressions of unity along with these other Christians from whom I differ significantly about a great many important things, shouldn’t I be able to envision doing so with other fellow Christians closer to home denominationally but whose differences with me sometimes seem even more insurmountable?

May God help me to do that, this week and always.

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