A Brief History of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
by Sr. Lorelei F. Fuchs, SA, Associate Director,
Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute, New York, NY

A worldwide observance, the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity began in the Episcopal Church in 1908 at Graymoor, in New York’s Hudson Valley. Ten years earlier Paul James Wattson, a priest of the Episcopal Church, co-founded the Franciscan religious congregations comprising the Society of the Atonement at Graymoor with Lurana Mary White, also an Episcopalian. Wattson was a vigorous advocate of Anglican and Roman Catholic reunion, and he emphasized the role of the papacy in the reunion of Christians.

Fr. Wattson had few supporters in his church. One of them was the Rev. Spencer Jones, a rector of the Church of England, and noted catechetical author. In 1907 Jones suggested to Wattson that a day of prayer for Christian unity should be observed throughout the world every year on the Feast of St. Peter (June 29). Fr. Wattson liked the idea but recommended a “Church Unity Week” beginning on the Feast of the Chair of Peter (at that time January 18) and ending on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul (January 25).

First observed in 1908, Church Unity Week was eventually called the “Church Unity Octave” by Fr. Wattson, since there were eight days between the two feasts. The following year the members of the Society of the Atonement were corporately received into the Roman Catholic Church. As part of their commitment to pray and minister for the fulfillment of the prayer of Jesus ‘that all may be one’, the Friars and Sisters of the Atonement continued promoting the Church Unity Octave. Meanwhile, the Faith and Order movement expressed interest in common Christian prayer for unity and in 1926 published “Suggestions for an Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity”, proposing that more Christian churches pray together for unity. In the 1930s Wattson changed the name “Church Unity Octave” to the “Chair of Unity Octave”, emphasizing the role of the papacy in the union of the Christian churches. In 1935 Abbé Paul Couturier, a Catholic priest in France, advocated a “Universal Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” during which Christians would pray together ‘for the unity Christ wills by the means He wills’. Common Christian prayer for unity continued to grow throughout the world.

With the Second Vatican Council, 1962-1965, an increasing number of Roman Catholics joined other Christians each year in January for common prayer for unity. The council’s Decree on Ecumenism, promulgated in 1964, called prayer the soul of the ecumenical movement and encouraged the observance of what is now known as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. In 1966, the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and the Vatican Secretariat (now Council) for Promoting Christian Unity began collaborating on a common international text for worldwide usage. Since 1968 these international texts, which are based on themes proposed by ecumenical groups throughout the world, have been developed, adapted and published for use in the United States by the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute. To assist in this endeavor, the GEII invites contributions from ecumenists and church leaders in America.

By 1991 an observance called Ecumenical Sunday had also become fully integrated into the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. It began as a response to local councils of churches which hoped to find a common Sunday when local churches might interpret to their members the meaning and work of the ecumenical movement. In 1983, the National Council of Churches’ Governing Board urged their member communions to name such a Sunday. Eventually, conversations among organizers of the Week of Prayer and representatives of the NCC and local councils led to placing Ecumenical Sunday within the Week of Prayer context.

Each year the theme and texts for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity are initially prepared by an international group whose members are appointed by the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The international committee preparing the Week of Prayer resources divides into two working language groups, French and English. Based on the texts of these groups, the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute prepares the present resources for the observance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in the United States.

An ecumenical group in Argentina prepared the initial materials for this year. Migration and the impact migration has on the lives of peoples, countries and churches around the world was its focus. 2 Corinthians 4:5-18 was its scriptural passage, and “Treasure in Clay Jars” its theme. The planning committee for the US observance met just months after the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Our group readily interpreted the inherited theme and text in view of the effect this one day shall have on the rest of our lives.

Following the Greek Interlinear New Testament, we chose “in earthen vessels”
() instead of the NRSV’s “in clay jars” (2 Cor 4:7). It is more common in American English usage, as well as more poetic. The treasure we have is God’s gift to us, a treasure in history throughout time, in earthen vessels. It is fragile. It is incarnational. This moved towards the idea of inclusivity and receiving the other as brother, sister – i.e., the Christian community is inclusive and welcoming because of the incarnation. We thus interpret “earthen vessels” by identifying the treasure as gift. We give the idea closure by adding the hope-and-faith-filled note of 2 Cor 4:16 to our theme text, which reads in full: “We hold this treasure – this gift – in earthen vessels... therefore we do not lose heart...”.

Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute
PO Box 300, Garrison, New York 10524-0300