The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: Some History
Pray without ceasing
Paul Wattson and the Church Unity Octave
The Week of Prayer as we know it today was first celebrated January 18-25 1908 as the Church Unity Octave. It was observed simultaneously in St David’s Church, Moreton-in-Marsh, by the Revd Spencer Jones and in Graymoor, New York State, by the Society of the Atonement, a community of Anglican friars led by Fr Paul Wattson.
The idea had deep historical roots but some immediate contemporary factors were
- the adverse judgment by Leo XIII on Anglican Orders and the consequent disappointment to a generation's hopes for Anglican-Catholic reunion, suggesting that efforts towards Catholic unity among episcopally ordered churches should not be abandoned but redoubled
- The Church of England’s growing links with and support for the Eastern Churches, which took a different view from the Vatican and so suggested an alternate model for Catholic unity distinct from Roman Catholicism
- Anglicanism’s growing consciousness of its role around the world and its need to work for the sake of the Gospel alongside Protestant, Reformed and Evangelical Churches in the mission field, rather than as rivals. The Edinburgh Missionary Conference was, after all, only 2 years away
- In wider society there was arguably a sense of rapid change in science, technology, politics, ideology and culture in the new century – to face these new challenges, there were those who saw that the Church needed to be at one
The Church Unity Octave’s founders saw unity clearly in terms of Anglicans not avoiding a reality that the reunion of Christendom should necessarily take full account of reconciliation with the Roman Catholic Church. So the Octave chose as its start date an ancient feast commemorating the first service at which St Peter the Apostle presided and preached on his arrival in Rome (in an oratory at the catacombs of Priscilla on the Via Salaria) and the Feast of St Paul’s Conversion at Damascus as its end. These dates are, of course, central to the life of the Church in
Paul Couturier, Spiritual Ecumenism and the Week of Universal Prayer
The whole thrust of the Octave changed, however, in 1933 when Paul Couturier, a priest in
Couturier personally organised this celebration every year until he died in 1953. More recently the work has been taken on jointly by the WCC and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Although full, visible, organic communion has not yet been achieved, there are growing signs and foretastes of it and the ecumenical movement shows no sign of turning back, despite the setbacks and disappointments along the way. Indeed, the steady advance of dialogue, friendship, prayer and witness together, demonstrates how generously the intercessions of the annual Week of Prayer have been answered.
Two good accounts of the Week of Prayer's origins and history have been written from the perspective of the Society of the Atonement, the Franciscan community founded by Paul Wattson. Follow these links to read them:
- How Christians Came to Pray Together, Charles Angell SA & Robert Mercer SA
- A History of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Timothy MacDonald SA
For information on the contribution of Paul Couturier to the Week of Prayer's development. visit the Paul Couturier website. For more about Paul Wattson and his community's on going work, visit the Friars of the Atonement website.