Faith Leaders Gather to Promote Unity

By Jeff Brumley

Imagine Christianity in which all believers, regardless of denomination, worshipped, prayed and shared fellowship as one body.

Front row, from left: Father Alberto Esposito, VF (Pastor, Santa Maria del Mar Parish, Flagler Beach); Bishop Robert G. Schaefer (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Florida and Bahamas Synod); Bishop Felipe J. Estévez (Bishop of the Diocese of St. Augustine); Bishop Emeritus Demetrios Couchell of Xanthos (Bishop of the Greek Orthodox Church in America); Bishop Samuel Johnson Howard (Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Florida); Rev. Alexandra Hedrick (Stated Clerk, St. Augustine Presbytery, Presbyterian Church USA).
Back row, from left: Father John Tetlow, VF (Pastor, San Juan del Rio Catholic Church, St. Johns); Father Nicholas Louh (Proistamenos, St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church, Jacksonville and host of this year’s Ecumenical Vespers); Deacon David Williams (Chancellor and Ecumenical Officer, Diocese of St. Augustine); Rev. Dr. Russell Meyer (Executive Director, Florida Council of Churches); Rev. Dr. Milton A. Magos (Protopresbyter, St. John the Greek Orthodox Church) and Rev. Deacon Athanasios Kartsonis (Deacon, St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church). Photo credit: St. Augustine Catholic/Woody Huband

That is Christ’s vision, but can it be realized given the divisions of the faith? Bishop Felipe J. Estévez considered the question.

“From human logic, it seems impossible,” Bishop Estévez said. “But the Holy Spirit surprises us.”

As proof Bishop Estévez pointed to the 4th Ecumenical Vespers in Northeast Florida, which was held in Jacksonville on Tuesday, Jan. 17, at St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church.

The service brought together Catholic, Episcopalian, Orthodox, Presbyterian and Lutheran leaders to break bread and to pray.

Bishop Estévez and others said the gathering modeled on a small scale what could – and should – be true for the global church.

During a dinner in the church hall before the service, more than a dozen clergy shared food and conversation. Their denominational identities, and ecclesiastical ranks, were easily set aside.

The group of religious dignitaries then processed into the sanctuary, accompanied by singing by the St. John the Divine choir.

Bishop Estévez, Greek Orthodox Bishop Dimitrios Couchell, Lutheran Bishop Robert Schaefer and Presbyterian leader Alexandra Hedrick took turns reading Psalms and prayers during the liturgy.

“Evenings like this remind us that we are all one,” Bishop Couchell said later. “We are all Christians in this together.”

Father Nicholas Louh, pastor of St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church in Jacksonville giving his homily during the 4th NE Florida Ecumenical Vespers. Photo credit: St. Augustine Catholic/Woody Huband

And that is God’s dream for his church, Father Nicholas Louh said in his Vespers homily.

Those dreams are always great: for a united church that ministers both inside and outside its walls, said Father Louh, the pastor at St. John the Divine.

But it seems there is always something that keeps those dreams from being realized, he said, including being too focused on internal issues and ministries.

“We can get in the way of what God’s dream is for his one church,” he said.

It’s especially tragic because when Christ shed his blood carrying the Cross, he did so to become the head of his church.

“Of one church,” Father Louh added.

The choir of St. John the Divine Greek Orthodox Church help lead the congregation in the prayers for Vespers. Photo credit: St. Augustine Catholic/Woody Huband

God’s promise to be present wherever two or more are gathered together was fulfilled during the 4th Ecumenical Vespers service, he said.

And that unity is needed to lift the fallen, to wipe the tears of those who are mourning and to become light in the darkness.

In a world where Christians are dying for their faith every day, church unity is especially needed, Father Louh said.

God’s desire is for his church to be a place where people are connected to Christ, where there is reconciliation in Christ and which ministers to the four corners of the world, he said.

“Let’s go make God’s dream come true.”

That dream is closer to coming true than many realize, said The Rev. Dr. Stephen Goyer, the pastor of Riverside Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville.

While pride and social constraints always impede unity, the church’s varied forms are analogous to the different parts of the human body, said Goyer, whose church will host the Ecumenical Vespers service in 2018.

“We are all part of the same body,” he said. “But we should be in concert with one another just like we were here tonight.”