The Soul of the Ecumenical Movement: The History and Significance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

By Heller, Dagmar | The Ecumenical Review, July 1998 | Go to article overview
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The Soul of the Ecumenical Movement: The History and Significance of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity


Heller, Dagmar, The Ecumenical Review


In January of this year, besides the usual anniversaries, another ecumenical jubilee took place almost unnoticed. From 18 to 25 January the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was celebrated for the 90th time and for the 30th time it used liturgical material jointly prepared by the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Over these years the Week of Prayer has proved its worth, providing important support for the ecumenical movement as well as being a significant element within it.

The history of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

The antecedents of the Week of Prayer go back to the 19th century. As far as we know, the first proposal for common prayer for Christian unity was made in 1840 by Ignatius Spencer, an Anglican priest subsequently convened to Roman Catholicism.(1) With John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman and Edward Pusey of the Oxford Movement in the Anglican church he drew up a plan for a form of united prayer. The proposal received little support from the Anglican bishops, although it was used by some clergy and congregations. The founding of the Evangelical Alliance (1846), which introduced a worldwide week of prayer to be observed in the week following the first Sunday in January, is another important landmark in the history of the Week of Prayer for unity, because one day in the Alliance's week of prayer is devoted to prayer for "the one Church of Jesus Christ, to help Christians realize their given unity in the one Lord".(2)

In 1857 the Association for the Promotion of the Unity of Christendom was founded by the Anglican Frederick George Lee and two Roman Catholics, Ambrose Phillips de Lisle and A.W. Pugin. Its intention was to promote "united prayer that visible unity may be restored to Christendom" and to unite Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians "in a bond of intercessory prayer". Membership in this association and participation in such prayer were however forbidden by Rome in 1864.

The situation did not change until 1897, when Pope Leo XIII decreed that the days between Ascension and Pentecost should be devoted to prayer "for reconciliation with our separated brethren" -- a directive that was not widely followed.

The real beginnings of the Week of Prayer for unity as we know it today came with an Episcopalian clergyman strongly inspired by the idea of church unity, Paul Wattson (1863-1940), who, with Lurana White, an Episcopalian nun, founded the Society of the Atonement as a branch of the Franciscan order. In 1907 his friend Spencer Jones had urged that 29 June each year (the feast of the Apostle Peter) should be the occasion for preaching sermons on the prerogatives of St Peter and on the holy see as the centre of unity. Wattson thereupon suggested an Octave of Prayer from 18 January (then the feast of St Peter's Chair) to 25 January (the feast of the Conversion of St Paul), concentrating on the return of the different Christian churches to the fold of Rome -- unity for Wattson meaning reunion with Rome. A week of prayer in this form was first held in 1908, a year before Paul Wattson and his community entered into communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Pope Pius X gave the Octave for unity his official blessing and Benedict XV extended its observance to the whole Roman Catholic Church in 1916.

In the 1930s and 1940s the Octave of Prayer evolved along different lines. In 1924, Pope Pius XI had urged that the Benedictines should make prayer for Christian unity a special task. Dom Lambert Beauduin therefore founded a monastery, which eventually moved to Chevetogne in Belgium in 1939, and set itself the task of establishing closer relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the other churches. This inspired Abbe Paul Couturier (1881-1953) who introduced the Octave of Prayer for unity in his diocese in Lyons. He very quickly realized that such prayer only made sense if it included non-Catholic Christians.

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