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
Fr Paul Wattson SA and the Revd Spencer Jones
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 Rome itself, its consciousness of itself as the resting place of the Apostles Peter and Paul and the focus for the continuation of their apostolic ministry. Jones and Wattson promoted the idea of corporate reunion with this apostolicity, but opted for what has come to be known as the theology of the return (to “the rock from whence you were hewn”), rather than for the mutual reconciliation we would aspire to nowadays. Although this logic was hardly likely to commend itself to the Anglican Church of the time, the principle that true ecumenism had to take account of the unity of the whole Church, not just parts of it, became embedded spiritually and theologically in a number of Christian traditions.

Paul Couturier, Spiritual Ecumenism and the Week of Universal Prayer

Fr Paul Couturier
The whole thrust of the Octave changed, however, in 1933 when Paul Couturier, a priest in Lyon, understood that unity would never be achieved by different traditions and groups of Christians expecting and praying for others to convert to their way of thinking, or of being the Church. The key would have to be spiritual, a path of prayer for sanctification, of ever greater convergence in and on Christ, a mutual exchange of spiritual gifts, a desire to grow through each other’s life in Christ and make it our own. So he re-cast the old Octave as ‘The Week of Universal Prayer for the Unity of Christians’ – not a Roman or an Anglican Octave, not a prayer for the return of separated brethren, not prayer for one Church to prevail over another, but a Week of Universal Prayer for the Unity of Christians. He believed passionately that the Church is already objectively one, and not divided; that “the walls of separation do not rise as far as heaven” (a famous saying by Metropolitan Platon Gorodetsky of Kiev), and that in prayer we could all rise above our divisions and be united in the “Invisible Monastery”, with Christ before the Father in heaven. This was the idea behind the famous Thursday Candle for Unity, re-invoking the high priestly prayer of Christ on the night before he died: “Father may they be one as the Father and the Son are one, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me”.
Couturier probably invented the term "spiritual ecumenism’ and this phrase became the foundation of the thinking behind Unitatis Redintegratio, the Second Vatican Council’s decree on ecumenism, which quotes it. 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.


Further Reading

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, who have generously made them available for this site. Follow these links to read them:
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.

Catherine E. Clifford's excellent biography of the Week of Prayer can be purchased here: A Century of Prayer for Christian Unity.