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By Lorelei F. Fuchs, SA
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. Working in two language groups, French and English, this international committee takes its lead from an ecumenical body in a particular part of the world which it invites to propose a scriptural theme and draft text. 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.
This year’s theme has its origins in the experience of Christian communities in the South African region of Umlazi, near Durban. This year’s materials reflect the concerns and experience of a people who have undergone great suffering. A legacy of racism, unemployment and poverty continues to raise formidable challenges for its people, where there is still a shortage of schools, medical clinics and adequate housing. When a member from the preparatory group in Umlazi met with the international group, they reflected on the search for full visible unity among Christian churches in light of the experience of Christians of Umlazi and their invitation to ‘break the silence’ which oppresses and isolates people in their suffering. Together, they selected Mark 7: 31-37 as the scriptural theme for the octave’s 2007 observance, with the theme title from verse 37,“He even makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak”. They crafted a biblical framework, centered around hearing, speaking and silence, within which both the search for unity and the search for a Christian response to human suffering find a home. This twofold focus is reflected in the Ecumenical Celebration of the Word and in the Daily Scripture & Prayer Guide, intentionally addressing both the reality of human suffering and the search for the visible unity of all Christians. Graymoor’s planning committee interpreted this twofold focus in terms of having ears opened and tongues loosened, and re-crafted the theme title as “Open our ears and loosen our tongues”.