The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
The institution of the Week of Prayer derives from a recommendation from the Lambeth Conference in 1878 for “the observance of a special season for [prayer for reunion] round about Ascension Day.” A particular date was chosen for this observance by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1894 and it was observed by the Church of England on Whitsunday – Pentecost – in both 1894 and 1895.
In 1895, the Roman Catholic Church in England joined their Anglican neighbours in this observance in obedience to the request of Pope Leo XIII, who had already “enjoined upon Catholics throughout the world the first octave or novena of prayer for Christian Unity to be observed from the feast of the Ascension to Pentecost.”
It was not until 1908 that the octave was observed on the January dates with which it is commonly associated. Spencer Jones, a Church of England clergyman, and Lewis Thomas Wattson, Episcopal clergyman (and founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement), jointly initiated the observance as January 18 to 25, the feasts of the Confession (or Chair) of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul. In 1909, Pope Pius X approved the observance of the new octave, and extended its observance to the whole Roman Catholic Church the following year.
Though the modern dates of the Week of Prayer were established in the U.S.A. in 1908, it was Paul Couturier (right) in France who popularized its observance. In 1935, Couturier appealed for a universal week of prayer “for the unity Christ wills by the means He wills.” It is for this that he is known as the father of the Week of Prayer.
One of the major steps in the Ecumenical Movement came from the House of Bishops in the Episcopal Church in the year 1886, when they adopted the following resolution:
We, Bishops of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, in Council assembled as Bishops in the Church of God, do hereby solemnly declare to all whom it may concern, and especially to our fellow-Christians of the different Communions in this land, who, in their several spheres, have contended for the religion of Christ:
1. Our earnest desire that the Saviour’s prayer, “That we all may be one,” may, in its deepest and truest sense, be speedily fulfilled;
2. That we believe that all who have been duly baptized with water, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, are members of the Holy Catholic Church;
3. That in all things of human ordering or human choice, relating to modes of worship and discipline, or to traditional customs, this Church is ready in the spirit of love and humility to forego all preferences of her own;
4. That this Church does not seek to absorb other Communions, but rather, co-operating with them on the basis of a common Faith and Order, to discountenance schism, to heal the wounds of the Body of Christ, and to promote the charity which is the chief of Christian graces and the visible manifestation of Christ to the world;
But furthermore, we do hereby affirm that the Christian unity… can be restored only by the return of all Christian communions to the principles of unity exemplified by the undivided Catholic Church during the first ages of its existence, which principles we believe to be the substantial deposit of Christian Faith and Order committed by Christ and his Apostles to the Church unto the end of the world, and therefore incapable of compromise or surrender by those who have been ordained to be its stewards and trustees for the common and equal benefit of all men.
Two years later in 1888, the Lambeth Conference (above) of all Anglicans bishops adopted the following, known as the “Lambeth Quadrilateral,” as “a basis on which approach may be by God’s blessing made towards Home Reunion,” visible unity between Christians:
(a) The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as “containing all things necessary to salvation,” and as being the rule and ultimate standard of faith.
(b) The Apostles’ Creed, as the Baptismal Symbol; and the Nicene Creed, as the sufficient statement of the Christian faith.
(c) The two Sacraments ordained by Christ Himself—Baptism and the Supper of the Lord—ministered with unfailing use of Christ’s words of Institution, and of the elements ordained by Him.
(d) The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.