While the progress of ecumenism can typically only be measured over decades, simple local events during the upcoming week devoted to Christian unity are critical to the future of the church, said an ecumenical leader in the United States.

The Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC), which represents 45 million members of 100,000 Christian congregations in the U.S., said it is more encouraging to measure movement in ecumenical matters over the course of a half-century.

“If you look year to year, it’ll drive you crazy,” said Kinnamon. “But if you look at it over the last 50 years, you can see signs of the spirit.”

NCC churches will join their fellow Christian churches around the world this month in marking the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Kinnamon, who in the 1980s chaired the joint committee of the World Council of Churches and the Vatican, which helped prepare the international texts and materials for the Week of Prayer, said organizers fondly dubbed the liturgical resources “the kindergarten of ecumenism,” as they were often the starting point for many churchgoers to think and learn about Christian unity.

“Who knows what influence this may be for a future leader of this movement or the church?” said Kinnamon. “So if you ask, ‘What will happen this year?’ I don’t know, but perhaps we’ll see the fruits of this year 20 years from now, when someone who was in the pew gives great leadership to future ecumenical events.”

Initiated in 1908 by Rev. Paul Wattson, an Episcopal priest in the United States, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is traditionally observed in the northern hemisphere from Jan. 18-25 (between the feasts of Saint Peter and the conversion of Saint Paul) but organizers urge churches to be flexible; many mark the week with events anytime in January. Churches in the southern hemisphere typically mark the week at Pentecost.

Since 1966, a joint committee of the Geneva-based World Council of Churches and the Vatican has developed the theme and resources for the week but various national church councils are invited to adapt the materials for local usage.

This year, churches are being asked to be mindful of Christians in Jerusalem. The theme, “One in the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer,” was chosen by a group of Christian leaders from Jerusalem and is based on Acts 2:42. The number of Christians in the Holy Land has plunged in recent decades due to persecution and discrimination.

Bishop Pierre Morissette, a Canadian Roman Catholic bishop, recently joined fellow bishops from Europe and North America in the Holy Land as a show of solidarity with the local church. While visiting Jordan, the bishops met with Iraqi refugees including survivors of a massacre of Christians at a Syrian Catholic church in Baghdad last October.

At the end of his visit, he spoke of mixed emotions about his experience. “On a human level, I was saddened to see so many difficult and discouraging challenges in the daily life of the local population in the West Bank,” said Morissette at a Jerusalem news conference Jan. 13 following the meeting.

“On the other hand, those same people have a surprising level of hope,” added Morissette. “On a spiritual level, the local Christians are very spiritual and pray continually to God to find a peaceful solution for the region. Surely God is hearing their prayers and ours and will grant peace in this troubled land. It is only a matter of when and how.”

Kinnamon noted that at the time of Israel’s independence, Christians made up nearly a quarter of the population of the West Bank. That number is reportedly down to less than three per cent.

“That’s a drastically reduced level,” said Kinnamon. “So, as friends there say, they’re being turned into keepers of museum pieces for Western tourists to visit ... That’s hardly a vital Christian community.”