352 member church bodies. 120 countries. Over 3,000 people.
Those numbers made for a fascinating experience at the World Council of Churches Assembly in Karlsruhe, Germany, in early September. I was blessed to be present, closing out my sabbatical as one of over 20 from the United Church of Christ (USA) who participated as observers, staff, and official delegates.
I have always loved experiences of the global Church. Each encounter I’ve had with our global partners –in the Philippines, East Timor, Israel-Palestine, Haiti, and Columbia- has stretched my own understanding of what it means to be faithful witnesses and expanded my understanding of scripture. Those nine days at the World Council of Churches Assembly similarly enriched me, and at times gave me “Holy Spirit shivers.”
In our first worship service, the congregation was invited to pray the Lord’s Prayer together, using whatever language we preferred. Suddenly there was a glorious chorus of voices, all following a familiar cadence and lifting the same treasured words taught to us by Jesus in holy scripture, pouring out in countless dialects and native languages. I silenced my own voice just to take it all in, an overwhelming feeling of the Holy Spirit washing over me. It’s likely the closest I will ever get to the experience of that first Pentecost. Many voices and languages and peoples, but one faith uniting us all.
“I ask not only behalf of these but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one.” (John 17:20-21) Jesus prayed these words, according to the Gospel of John, just before his betrayal and arrest, an earnest prayer for his disciples’ faithfulness and unity.
It’s a prayer at the heart of our identity in the United Church of Christ, too. “That all may be one” is proclaimed in our UCC emblem. It’s a reminder of how we came to be, the merger of two distinct denominations in 1957, the Congregational Christian Church and the Evangelical & Reformed Church. It’s also a nudge to continue the work, to honor that impulse toward unity that birthed us by making it our ongoing commitment.
I saw stunning glimpses of that unity at the World Council of Churches Assembly. I also saw the limits we place on that unity, even in a space such as that. Though we worshipped together twice every day, we never celebrated Holy Communion. The diverse practices and beliefs of those 352 member churches made gathering at Christ’s Table to partake of that blessed sacrament impossible.
Our unity is incomplete.
This past Sunday we celebrated World Communion Sunday, a day when Christians across the globe gather at our sacramental tables to remember we are bound by the Holy Spirit in one family of faith. I give thanks for our unity in the Spirit, for the value the United Church of Christ places on Jesus’ prayer “that they may all be one.” And I continue to pray for a deeper unity than what we have yet realized.
—Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister