The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

a brief history

The Week of Prayer has its roots in the desire of some Anglican clerics to address the scandal of the disunity between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. In 1896 Pope Pius XIII had declared that Anglican orders were "absolutely null and void", which spurred the Revd. Spencer Jones, in a sermon some time later at St Matthew's Westminster, near the Abbey, to advocate Anglican union with Rome. The sermon was eventually published in 1902 under the title "England and the Holy See".

A response came from Fr. Paul Wattson, a Catholic priest and former American Episcopalian priest and co-founder of the Franciscan Order of the Atonement in New York, who wanted the Catholic Church to return to its former pre-Reformation unity. After some correspondence, it was decided to set apart as a Church Unity Octave the period between January 18th (an ancient festival of the Chair of St Peter) and January 25th (the Conversion of St Paul). The first such octave took place in 1908. In 1931, Mother Lurana, the other co-founder of the Order, suggested that the Octave be renamed Chair of Unity Octave during the same week.

A strong influence from another quarter came from Abbé Paul Couturier. His interest in the unity movement led to his setting up a Triduum for Christian Unity in Lyon, where he taught in the Institution des Chartreux, a private Roman Catholic establishment. Couturier's Triduum became, in 1939, a Week of Universal Prayer for Christian Unity, with the aim of encouraging the unity of baptized members of all Christian traditions, and seeking that unity which "Christ wills by the means he wills." Thus the original vision of Jones and Wattson, which focused on Anglican submission to Rome, became more inclusive of other branches of the Christian faith, and reflected Couturier's "spiritual monastery" in which Christians of all traditions who are open to the Spirit's leading and who feel the pain of disunity may live in hope and prayer. It was Archbishop William Temple who later coined the phrase "ecumenical movement."

The current designation "Week of Prayer for Christian Unity" was adopted by the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. The Pontifical Council was set up in 1960 by Pope John XXIII, to whom the idea of convening a Second Vatican Council came during the unity octave in 1959. Vatican II passed the Decree on Ecumenism Unitatis Redintegratio (Restoration of Unity) in 1964.

What of The Week now?

Nowadays the Week of Prayer is a regular event in British churches. However, at the local level, the sense of excitement and even urgency that characterised the Week during the latter half of last century seems to have somewhat evaporated, as local churches struggle with increasing costs and reducing resources. I remember the British Council of Churches promoting Areas of Ecumenical Experiment, which seem to spring up all across the country. Many developed into the Local Ecumenical Partnerships of today. But like many other aspects of church life, ecumenism has become something of an optional extra. Despite the words spoken in all sincerity by church leaders, and the significantly warmer relationships between the churches at all levels (except for the moment between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches regarding women in the priesthood and the episcopate), the energy at the grass roots is all too often deployed elsewhere. It is a constant source of amazement how easily distracted our Churches (that is, we) can become.

Church Twinning has grown out of and contributed towards our present ecumenical climate. Twinning and Partnership are practical ways in which Christians of different traditions can learn about each other and discover that reality of unity which goes deeper than the legislative agreements that already exist, important thought they certainly are. There's much more about church twinning here.

There are also some notes for Anglicans about what can and cannot be done ecumenically in parishes. Much can be done together, given the spirit of adventure! Back in 1952, the Third World Conference on Faith and Order promulgated the assertion that (Churches should) "act together in all matters except those in which deep differences of conviction compel them to act separately". This Lund Principle (as it is called) should encourage us to continue the work begun a hundred years ago, for the sake of God's world which is so fragmented and divided.