Brief History of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, January 18-25, 2016
by Rev. Timothy MacDonald, S.A., Associate Director
Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute
The Church Unity Octave was first observed in January, 1908. Celebrated in the chapel of a small Atonement Franciscan Convent of the Protestant Episcopal Church, on a remote hillside fifty miles from New York City, this new prayer movement caught the imagination of others beyond the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement to become an energetic movement that gradually blossomed into a worldwide observance involving many nations and millions of people.
To fully appreciate this stream that had been fed by some and had converged with others in the historical development of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we will note some aspects of the movement's early history. Two American Episcopalians, Father Paul James Wattson and Sister Lurana White, co-founders of the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement, were totally committed to the reunion of the Anglican Communion with the Roman Catholic Church. As such, they started a prayer movement that explicitly prayed for the return of non-Catholic Christians to the Holy See. Needless to say, such an observance would attract few of our separated brothers and sisters except for a small number of Anglo-Catholics and Roman Catholics themselves. This idea of a period of prayer for Christian unity originated in a conversation of Fr. Wattson with an English clergyman, Rev. Spencer Jones. In 1907 Jones suggested that a day be set aside for prayer for Christian unity. Fr. Paul Wattson agreed with the concept but offered the idea of an octave of prayer between the Feast of St. Peter's Chair on January 18 and the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on January 25.
When Fr. Paul and Sr. Lurana became Roman Catholics, Pope Pius X gave his blessing to the Church Unity Octave and in 1916, Pope Benedict XV extended its observance to the universal church. This recognition by papal authority gave the Octave its impetus throughout the Roman Catholic Church. Until his death in 1940 Fr. Wattson promoted the Church Unity Octave, later known as the Chair of Unity Octave to emphasize its Petrine focus, through his magazine, The Lamp.
What were some of the important historical antecedents to this octave of prayer? Certainly in the 19th century, the desire for Christians to pray together was part of the spirit of the age among those alarmed by the divisions which weakened the power of Christian witness. In 1846, for instance, the Evangelical Alliance was established in London and had developed both international and inter-church connections. Ruth Rouse noted that it was “the one and only definitely ecumenical organization . . . which arose out of the Evangelical Awakening in the 19th century” (A History of the Ecumenical Movement: 1517-1948). The concept of unity espoused in their constitution was union among Christian individuals of different churches for renewal in the Spirit; they would not deal with the question of the reunion of churches. The Alliance set aside one week beginning on the first Sunday of the year, for united prayer by members of different churches to pray for renewal in the Spirit.
The Association for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians was founded in 1857 with Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox participation. Its purpose was “for united prayer that visible unity may be restored to Christendom.” Unfortunately Rome withdrew its support for the Association. The problem, of course, was not the act of prayer in itself as much as the questions that surfaced concerning the nature of the church and the nature of the unity being sought through prayer. This difficulty would not begin to be resolved until almost the middle of the 20th century.
It is noteworthy that the popes had urged Roman Catholics to pray for Christian unity but from the particular stance of return to the Roman Catholic Church. In 1894 Leo XIII encouraged Catholics to recite the rosary for the intention of Christian unity. Again, in 1897, he decreed in Provida matris that the days between Ascension and Pentecost should be dedicated to prayer for reconciliation with our separated brethren. In his encyclical Divinum illud, Leo sought to establish this practice of prayer as a permanent feature of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Lambeth Conferences during this period also promoted prayer for Christian unity. Rouse notes that the second conference of 1878 was typical of the concern of Anglicans for reunion. At that conference, the bishops spoke of their desire that the conference support the observance of a season of prayer for the unity of Christendom.
In 1913 the Faith and Order Commission of the Protestant Episcopal Church published a leaflet promoting prayer for unity on Whitsunday and in 1915 published a Manual of Prayer for Unity. The preparatory Conference on Faith and Order at Geneva in 1920 appealed for a special week of prayer for Christian unity ending with Whitsunday. Faith and Order continued to issue “Suggestions for an Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity” until 1941 when it changed the dates for its week to that of the January Octave. In this way, Christians, who for reasons of conscience, could not join with others in prayer services could share in united prayer at the same time. These various efforts while not attaining wide observance among the churches was to pave the way for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity which came to be observed widely throughout Christendom.
In 1935 Abbé Paul Couturier, a priest of the Archdiocese of Lyons, sought a solution to the problem of non-Roman Catholics not being able to observe the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. He found the solution in the Roman Missal as the Association for Promotion of the Unity of Christians had done seventy-eight years earlier in England. Couturier promoted prayer for Christian unity on the inclusive basis that “our Lord would grant to his Church on earth that peace and unity which were in his mind and purpose, when, on the eve of His Passion, He prayed that all might be one.” This prayer would unite Christians in prayer for that perfect unity that God wills and by the means that he wills. Like Fr. Paul Wattson, Abbé Couturier exhibited a powerful passion for unity and had sent out “calls to prayer” annually until his death in 1953.
While not all Catholics had accepted Couturier's solution and some continued to emphasize the centrality of the Petrine office in unity efforts and prayer, all difficulties were resolved in 1964 with the promulgation of the Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council. The Decree told Roman Catholics in clear and unambiguous terms: “In certain special circumstances, such as in prayer services for unity and during ecumenical gatherings, it is allowable, indeed desirable, that Catholics should join in prayer with their separated brethren. Such prayers in common are certainly a very effective means of petitioning for the grace of unity, and they are a genuine expression of the ties which even now bind Catholics to their separated brethren.”
In 1993 the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity issued the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms of Ecumenism and explicitly encouraged participation in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. So today the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity belongs to all Christians who are sincerely interested in the fulfillment of Christ's prayer “that all may be one.” When he discusses prayer in common in his A Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism, Cardinal Walter Kasper specifically mentions that “the celebration of the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity world-wide is an initiative of singular importance to be encouraged and further developed.”
It is sponsored by the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity. On a national basis, materials for the celebration of the Week of Prayer are the work of Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute in collaboration with the Commission on Faith and Order of the National Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Bishops' Commission for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
The theme for 2015 is taken from John 4:7 in which Jesus asked the Samaritan woman: “Give me a drink.” The materials for our celebrations this year were prepared by the churches of Brazil, specifically the National Council of Churches of Brazil in association with the Brazilian Regional Office of the Latin American Council of Churches and the Ecumenical Centre for Bible Study. The study materials teach us the importance of knowing our own self-identity so that the identity of the other does not threaten us. Through the experience of this self-knowledge, we will be able to experience the complementarity of the other. In the text Jesus is seen as a foreigner, tired and thirsty. The woman is in her own land where the well belongs to her people but she is also thirsty. They each have their own needs. The complementarity takes place when Jesus does not cease to be Jewish because he drank from the water offered by the Samaritan woman and the Samaritan woman does not reject who she is in following Jesus. So in drinking from the well of another we are taking the first step in experiencing the way of life of the other. This leads to an exchange of gifts that enriches everyone. Through this experience we come to recognize that persons, communities, cultures, religions and ethnicities need each other, are a gift for one another.