A Century of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Home Some History 1744 - 1908 1908 - today Why Pray? Why January? Paul Wattson Paul Couturier Resources Centenary Links Gallery

Pray without ceasing


Spencer Jones and Paul Wattson, an Anglican Franciscan in New York State, correspond on the need to pray for reunion


Spencer Jones proposes the Feast of St Peter the Apostle on June 29th as an annual day of prayer for unity. Wattson welcomes the idea, but proposes a ‘Church Unity Week’ beginning on the old Feast of St Peter’s Chair (i.e. commemorating his assumption of the leadership of the Church in Rome) on January 18 and ending on the Feast of St Paul’s Conversion on January 25.


The Church Unity Octave is first observed between 18 January and 25 January, simultaneously in St David’s Church, Moreton in Marsh, Gloucestershire (Spencer Jones’s parish) and in the chapel of Our Lady of the Angels, Graymoor NY, home to Paul Wattson’s community

In the October, the friars become Roman Catholics corporately, and become the Society of the Atonement, with the mission ever since to pray and work for unity


Pius X approves the observance of the Octave (alongside the Ascensiontide Novena)


The Edinburgh Missionary Conference addresses the scandal of disunity among Anglican, Protestant and Reformed mission work around the world, calling for common witness, collaboration and spiritual harmony among 121 member churches


Benedict XV extends the observance of the Octave to the whole Catholic Church at the height of the First World War, as a means to peace and reconciliation among all people


The Malines Conversations between Cardinal Mercier of Malines-Bruxelles, Dom Lambert Beauduin, the Abbé Fernand Portal and Viscount Halifax attempt to move Anglican-Catholic unity moves beyond the impasse of the commission in the 1890s


Both the Lambeth Conference and the Ecumenical Patriarchate issue encyclical letters calling for the union of the Christian churches in a spirit of prayer and mutual recognition of worship. The preparatory conference for the Faith and Order conference proposes a week of prayer ending at Pentecost


The Faith and Order Conference includes Orthodox participants


The Ecumenical Patriarch affirms Anglican orders, spiritual and sacramental life and calls for prayer for the union of the Anglican and Orthodox Churches


Dom Lambert Beauduin founds the Monks of Unity at Amay-sur-Meuse (now at Chevetogne) as a permanent work of prayer for unity and reconciliation, especially between Roman Catholics and the Christian Churches of the East – but also with a special regard for England.

The Faith and Order movement begins to publish its "Suggestions for an Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity"


Paul Wattson renames his Church Unity Octave on the advice of Cardinal Bourne, Archbishop of Westminster. It becomes the Chair of Unity Octave, with an even stronger Roman focus


Paul Couturier, a school master priest from Lyon, returns from retreat at Amay, deeply impressed by the spiritual riches of the life of the Eastern Christians. He takes to heart Cardinal Mercier’s Testament:

In order to unite with one another, we must love one another;
in order to love one another, we must know one another;
in order to know one another, we must go and meet one another

The Belgian links with England make him aware of the existence of the Anglican Church. Seeing that the Church Unity Octave is not achieving its aim to promote unity, instead of prayer for others to become Roman Catholics, he proposes that all Christians could unite in prayer to grow in holiness and union with Christ, 'according to his will, according to his means'> Unity according to the mind of Christ was possible for nearly all Christians without compromising conscience or integrity. A triduum on these lines is held during the Octave in the Cathedral of St John at Lyon.


The first full Week of Universal Prayer for the Unity of Christians is observed during the old Octave week at Lyon. From 1936 onwards, a day of prayer is set aside for each of the great traditions within the Christian Church. And from 1946, an alternative schema provides for prayer for the sanctification of Jewish and Muslim believers, as well as the sanctification of all Christians, in the hope of the ‘unity of all humanity in the charity and peace of Christ’.


Couturier founds a regular spiritual meeting among Reformed, Lutheran and Catholic clergy in Switzerland (it later becomes famous as the Groupe des Dombes)


The Faith and Order Conference in Edinburgh and the Life and Work Conference in Oxford decide to establish a World Council of Churches in 1938, although this is deferred for 10 years by the Second World War

1937 & 8

Couturier visits England twice. He attends offices and prays at Anglican convents and monasteries


Couturier encourages Roger Schutz to found a monastery (Taizé) in the Reformed Church in France to pray and live for unity


Faith and Order moves its observance of its Week of Prayer to coincide with that developed by Wattson, Jones and Couturier


Archbishop Lang and Cardinal Hinsley pray the Lord’s Prayer together at a meeting of the peace movement. Sword of the Spirit in the Albert Hall for the first time, at the height of the Blitz


Focolare is founded in Trento by Chiara Lubich as a spiritual movement towards unity and universal fraternity, striving for the fulfilment of Christ’s prayer ‘that they all may be one’.

In the year before his death, Paul Wattson recognises the need for for the Church Unity Octave to be modified when it was observed by Christians who were not Roman Catholics, suggesting that Anlgicans, Orthodox and Protestant could pray 'in a general way that unity be brought about'


Pope Pius XII insists the Church Unity Octave requires prayer for the return of all Christians to the Roman Church


Couturier encourages Willem Visser t’Hooft, first General Secretary of the World Council of Churches founded that year, in promoting the common recitation of the Lord’s Prayer by all Christians


Couturier dies as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is offered among the Muslims of Morocco for the first time. He prays all Christians will be allowed to pray the Lord’s Prayer together


The World Council of Churches Faith and Order movement informally co-operates with Couturier’s followers in Lyon to prepare annual themes and resources for the Week of Prayer


Pope John XXIII adopts Couturier’s Week of Prayer, effectively in place of the Church Unity Octave


Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher visits John XXIII who has just founded the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity: the Pope abandons the idea of the ecumenism of ‘return’


Unitatis Redintegratio, issued during the Second Vatican Council, calls for spiritual ecumenism and desires prayer among Christians for unity. Catholics at last formally encouraged to pray the Lord’s Prayer with other Christians


The Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity (now the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) and the World Council of Churches Faith and Order Commission establish a joint working group to establish the conditions for promoting prayer for the unity of Christians Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras lift the historic mutual anathemas and pray together – they almost concelebrate the Liturgy in St Peter’s At the close of the Second Vatican Council an ecumenical monastic community for men and women is founded by Enzo Bianchi at Bose near Turin in Italy.


Fifteen Roman Catholic ecumenical experts and fifteen expert representatives of the WCC meet in Geneva 16-20 October to discuss ‘The Future of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Their proposal for representatives of the Faith & Order Commission and of the Catholic ecumenical centre at Lyon (Centre Unité Chrétienne) and of the Society of the Atonement (Graymoor and Rome) to prepare on an annual basis the booklet for the Week of Prayer is accepted. Paul Wattson’s Chair of Unity Octave is formally united with Couturier’s Week of Prayer


Archbishop Michael Ramsey visits Pope Paul VI. They pray together and plan not just for dialogue but growing together spiritually in life and common action


In February the preparation together of the international materials for the Week of Prayer booklet for 1968 from now on formally becomes the work of a joint committee of representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and of the World Council of Churches through the Faith and Order Movement. The Churches in each country co-operating ecumenically are encouraged to adapt the text of the booklet and other materials to local needs. The Week of Prayer is encouraged to be celebrated 18-25 January or between Ascension Day and Pentecost (especially in the Southern Hemisphere) suitable to countries’ local needs and according to ecumenical agreement An Ecumenical Directory establishes the norms by which spiritual ecumenism is integral in the life of the Catholic Church. A revised edition is issued in 1993


The Orthodox Churches become full members of the World Council of Churches. The Roman Catholic Church becomes a full member of the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC The lay community of Sant’Egidio is founded in Rome with a vocation to live ecumenically and to promote peace and reconciliation


The SPCU and the WCC jointly evaluate the progress of the Week of Prayer throughout the world. The joint working party is reduced in size to make it more manageable and more responsive. From now on, it is planned that a draft of plans for the booklet’s contents are is prepared by an ecumenical panel in a designated country from around the world. The final form is jointly approved by the WCC, consulting its member churches, and the Catholic Church, consulting its episcopal conferences and the synods of Eastern Catholic Churches. The Week of Prayer begins to receive a much wider dissemination than ever before.


The Chemin Neuf Community is founded in Lyon by Laurent Fabré to realise the spiritual ecumenism of Paul Couturier in life, marriage, family and discipleship with a special care to pray for unity on a daily and weekly basis


The resources are devised for the first time by an ecumenical panel in a ‘local’ country: Australia chooses the theme, ‘God’s purpose: all things in Christ’


Pope John Paul II visits Archbishop Robert Runcie at Canterbury Cathedral, where they pray together at the site of St Thomas Becket’s martyrdom and together give a blessing at end of service


The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity issues the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms of Ecumenism, explicitly encouraging Catholic participation in ecumenical prayer and especially the Week of Prayer


Ut Unum Sint, Pope John Paul I’s encyclical letter on ecumenism,  reaffirms spiritual ecumenism and an intensified prayer for unity. This prompts a re-evaluation of spiritual ecumenism as a ‘spirituality of unity’, or ‘ecumenical spirituality’ as a movement within churches, towards a spirituality of communion and the ecumenism of life orienting the whole Church and embracing the whole Christian people


Celebrations in Lyon, London and Bruges to mark the 50th Anniversary of the death of Paul Couturier and the 70th Anniversary of the rebirth of the Church Unity Octave as the Week of Prayer for the Unity of Christians Archbishop Rowan Williams and Cardinal Walter Kasper at St Albans issue a new call to spiritual ecumenism. Hopes for a new lease of life for the Week of Prayer and the recovery of its spiritual basis in prayer for full unity


Ecumenical Liturgy at Charterhouse in London to celebrate the Carthusian martyrs as part of the whole story of Catholic-Protestant-Anglican relations and hopes for unity


Ecumenical Liturgy at Tyburn to celebrate the martyrs of all Christian traditions in London, towards the ‘purification of memory’ called for in Ut Unum Sint, that their suffering and death in union with Christ will be fruitful for the unity of Christians


Cardinal Kasper issues A Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism


One hundred years since Wattson and Spencer’s first Church Unity Octave there is a Service of Celebration and Commitment at Westminster Abbey, the United Kingdom's Royal Church, involving all the Churches Together in England. Similar events are held around the country and around the world, especially at Watton's Graymoor and Paul Couturier's Lyon. It is 113 years since Leo XIII and Archbishop Benson both set aside the days around Pentecost as a season of prayer for unity, and 75 years since Couturier re-founded the Octave as the Week of Universal Prayer of Christians for the Unity of Christians.



© 2007