Catholic and Anglican archbishops of Armagh speak on 2024 Week of Prayer theme

12 January 2024 • Persistent link:

EA: Hello everyone, Archbishop Eamon Martin here, along with Archbishop John McDowell in Armagh. And we’ve just decided to have a conversation together about the week of prayer for Christian Unity, which takes place every year from the 18th to the 25th of January. And we were just reflecting there that this year the theme of the week of prayer for Christian Unity is “go and do likewise,” words chosen, of course, from the beautiful parable of the Good Samaritan. And this year, the resources have been prepared by the Christian churches in Burkina Faso. And we thought it would be a good idea, John and I here, just to have a conversation about the week of prayer for Christian unity in the context of these resources. The parable of the Good Samaritan, of course, is very well known by all of us.

John, from your point of view, where do you think that parable comes from in the story of Jesus and the context of it?

JM: Well, I think it’s probably interesting that when he gets asked this question, I suppose a fairly fundamental question about how can someone inherit eternal life, and he’s never afraid to go back to fundamentals, so he goes back to what is still the daily prayer of Jews around the world “the Shema”: you should love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your [soul] and your neighbour as yourself. And then works that out in the circumstances in which he finds himself, and, [it’s] striking that he is never afraid to go back and to begin the conversation from the fundamentals again.

EA: Yeah, and it really expresses the fundamentals to love God with all your heart, your soul with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself. I suppose in the same way as the Shema calls on the Jewish people, the Christian Church calls on all of us to hear that really challenging message from the Lord.

JM: And it’s interesting, without wanting to sort of dwell too much on it, that you have this unconditional call to love God. You love the Lord with all your heart, all your soul. There’s nothing conditional about it at all. It’s a call for surrender. I suppose as a word of yourself, but that the call to love your neighbour is conditioned by “you should love your neighbour as yourself,” that you’re never to put your claims, on whatever, above your neighbours. And similarly, in many ways, it’s a very good template, I suppose for civic life and political life as well as religious life.

EA: Yeah, and of course, it led to the big question “who is my neighbour,” and it was really in that context that Jesus told this amazing and beautiful and very challenging parable. Who is my neighbour? Of course, he himself lived out a message of crossing the road of going beyond yourself to look to the other. So, in the context of this parable, we’re thinking about, of course, the Shema, that great command to love God and to love neighbour, but also to reflect on who is my neighbour. And I think that is why the churches of Burkina Faso chose this parable this year, because there is so much division in the world at the moment.

JM: Yeah, I suppose most traditionally, this would have been interpreted by Churches in Ireland “who’s my neighbour?,” the other! And it’s sort of Catholic-Protestant, but in Burkina Faso there’s such a huge range of ethnic diversity of Muslims, Christian sects, local religions, that the range of type of neighbours is very very wide now as it is for us. The range of people who are believers or non-believers are from different ethnic backgrounds, different world religions, means that we probably do need to broaden our understanding of what a neighbour is, that it’s not just the old Catholic-Protestant thing anymore.

EA: Of course, here in Ireland, we have been thinking a lot together as churches on the challenges that we’re presented with, with trying to build reconciliation and healing and a post-conflict situation, and we know the struggles that we still have, to try to be able to do that, and naturally we do tend here to think in terms of Protestant and Catholic. It is true, of course, though, that on an all-Island basis and looking at these islands more generally, I think that there are new challenges because people are being asked to welcome newcomers, and it’s a particularly difficult situation at the moment across this island. The tensions that emerge in communities, in political discourse about, you know, do we welcome everyone? You know this saying “Ireland is full.” You know, “we’ve no more room to welcome,” and I think this question “who is my neighbour has become much more challenging for us here.

JM: Yeah. I think so. It’s also to be a call to the churches to think in terms of themselves simply as the Christian people of Ireland, from different traditions, but nevertheless, that’s our basic identity in Christ. And therefore, when we think of the other, we’re not always thinking about someone from another Christian tradition. We’re thinking about other people, who regardless of how unfortunate our history has often been, it’s probably never been quite as anarchic as it is, for instance, in Burkina Faso and quite as harmful to people and to cultures.

EA: Yeah, and I was actually reading the resources for the week of prayer for Christian Unity, which are prepared for us by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, and it’s quite inspiring really to hear how the Christian churches in Burkina Faso have united together to bring relief, to bring consolation, to bring hope, particularly to the many people, maybe three million people, who are displaced due to the awful ethnic conflicts in Burkina Faso. And it’s a good example of where we tend to hold on in Ireland to our traditional tribal, if I dare say that, associations, and that is perhaps why we have this ongoing sectarianism here. We still have the so-called peace walls to keep communities apart. We still tend to interpret nearly everything in terms of the other side. But the parable of the Good Samaritan, the challenge that Jesus puts to his disciples is, “Are you prepared to cross the road? Are you prepared to go out to the one who’s different?” And of course, in this particular case, we know that some of the people you might have expected to respond to that passed by on the other side, and who was the one who took the step? It happened to be the Samaritan, the person you wouldn’t have expected, rather than the religious leaders of the time. So it was someone who was putting their beliefs into practice who reached out to cross over the other side.

JM: Yeah, yeah, I think someone who didn’t allow a series of religious traditions or whatever, important and precious as they may be, to trump their basic humanity, that they responded as a human being to another human being who was in, you know, great difficulty and probably would have died had he been left there. And I think that’s the call for us as we have, I think, tried to say over the past couple of years [as] church leaders together about a bond between people and that bond of common humanity and that Jesus Christ was the first person to conceive of the human race as a unity […] no one before him really had done that. For many years we’ve still tried to divide it up in as many ways as we can without recognizing that underlying unity in Christ that is there, not just with people who believe, but that he’s the foundation of all things. Without him there’s nothing made that was made […].

EA: And I think we do have to be conscious that we’re having this conversation in the context of a week of prayer for Christian unity. And we did say in our St Patrick’s Day message a few years ago as church leaders, that we’ve often become a slave to the past, really. We’ve really held on to a lot of our differences rather than seek the connections that unite us. And you know, I really do feel, John, that, you know, our own work together where we try to do things together, we try to model things together, is a way of saying that look what unites us is much more important than the things that divide us.

JM: Yeah yeah, I mean those things in our own traditions that are significant or important are the things that have formed Us in the spiritual life in many ways, but I suppose it’s the nature almost of modern Life that probably those have cross-fertilized far more than we realize, that we borrow much more from one another and from others outside than we ever thought. I mean, there’d be very very few people today who when they’re picking up say a book or a resource to do with spirituality or whatever, or prayer, are going to particularly look at what the denomination of the person is who wrote it. If it speaks to them and is helpful to them, then you know it’s for them in a sense.

EA: Yeah, and I think with social media now, too, that people are learning a lot more from other traditions and from other Christian traditions and the richness and the diversity that that can bring. I’m very conscious of the challenge of this week of prayer for Christian Unity. Those four words that Jesus used at the end of the parable, he says now “go and do likewise.” Having told this very striking and inspiring parable, he then turns to the questioner, and he says: now, if you want to know who is your neighbour, you must “go and do likewise.” I mean, what do you think are the challenges that we face to “go and do likewise” to follow what the Lord’s asking of us?

JM: Parables have all, I think, for a long time have been almost infantilized. They’re almost as though they’re only for children and we were all brought up “what’s a parable? An earthly story with a heavenly meaning,” you know, which is practically useless, in a sense, in terms of its applicability to our lives. So what they do is they kind of break open a worldview, they completely shatter it in a sense, and although there’s been a huge work done to locate Jesus within Judaism, there’s no doubt, but there’s also a case to be made that he shattered it as well. It was too small for him, and any of those distinctions, sort of petty distinctions, he didn’t like. And I think that’s the call to us to recognize our primary identity is in Christ and that all of our other identities, and there are elements of our identities, and there are many of them, are subordinate to that, and need to be tested against that, in an intellectual sense, I suppose, which isn’t maybe very helpful for this sort of activity, but it should show through in our lives.

EA: Yeah, and that is the challenge, of course, to try to make this have some practical impact on how we live our lives. And I’m very conscious that we’re in a year 2024 with a lot of elections coming up potentially. And what tends to happen in this part of the world, at this juncture, is that people retreat back into their corners. They retreat away from each other. I feel the challenge “go and do likewise” is saying to the Christian churches here in Ireland at the moment is to move more and more into that middle space together. To enable conversations such as these, so that we can understand each other, where we’re coming from, a little bit more. You think of all of the vexed issues that we have to deal with, like Legacy, with getting our assembly up and going again, with trying to bring a new middle ground, rather than creating these extremes or perpetuating extremes where no one dares to cross to the other side. I think that’s the big challenge that I feel these resources are presenting to all of us this year, you know.

EA: So perhaps, then could we recommend, Archbishop John and I, to you to maybe download the resources from, that’s Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, because there are some beautiful reflections for each day of the week of prayer for Christian Unity. So that you in your families, your homes, your parishes, your congregations might find that that parable of the Good Samaritan speaks to you in a new and fresh way this week of prayer for Christian Unity.

EA: So Archbishop John and I are going to just maybe pray together using some of the prayers for the week of prayer for Christian Unity. So let us pray:

God of boundless love, we pray that all people may come to know your unlimited mercy and your infinite love.
Fill us with your love, make us one in you. God, our Shepherd, we who are scattered ask you to gather us into one fold.
Fill us with your love, make us one in you. God of mission, enliven us by your Spirit and send us again to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth.
Fill us with your love, make us one in you. God of our journey, in our weakness and fear we often pass by on the other side. Grant us grace to risk embracing the stranger in need, tending their wounds of body, mind, and spirit.
Fill us with your love, make us one in you. God of communion, we pray that we may work together for your greater glory and spread the good news of salvation for all.
Fill us with your love, make us one in you,

EA: So, we join our prayers to those of Jesus who taught us when we pray to say:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever, Amen.

EA: Lord Jesus, who prayed that all might be one, we pray to you for the unity of all Christians according to your will, according to your means. May your Spirit enable us to experience the suffering caused by division, to see our sin, and to hope beyond all hope. Amen.

JM: And the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit be upon you and remain with you always. Amen.

EA: Amen.

Thanks be to God.