The idea of a designated period of prayer for Christian unity was developed by two American Episcopalian converts to Catholicism, Father Paul James Wattson and Sister Lurana White, co-founders of the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement. This Catholic order was totally committed to the reunion of the Anglican Communion with the Roman Catholic Church. It was Wattson and White who initially led a prayer movement that explicitly prayed for the return of non-Catholic Christians to the Holy See. Needless to say, such an observance attracted very few non-Catholics. In 1907 Rev. Spencer Jones suggested to Wattson that a special day be set aside for prayer for Christian unity. Fr. Paul Wattson agreed with the concept but offered the idea of an octave of prayer between the Feast of St. Peter’s Chair on January 18 and the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on January 25. This decision eventuated in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
When Fr. Paul and Sr. Lurana became Roman Catholics, Pope Pius X gave his blessing to the Church Unity Octave. In 1916, Pope Benedict XV extended its observance to the universal church. This recognition by papal authority gave the Octave its impetus throughout the Roman Catholic Church. Until his death in 1940 Fr. Wattson promoted the Church Unity Octave, later known as the Chair of Unity Octave to emphasize its Petrine focus, through his magazine, The Lamp.
There are a number of important historical antecedents to this week of prayer. In the 19th century, the desire Christians had to pray together was a result of post-awakening movements among those alarmed by the divisions which had weakened the power of Christian witness. It can be all too easily missed that in 1846 the Evangelical Alliance (EA) was established in London and through it both international and inter-church connections began to grow. Ruth Rouse has noted that it was “the one and only definitely ecumenical organization . . . [and it] arose out of the evangelical awakening in the 19th century” (A History of the Ecumenical Movement: 1517-1948). I urge my evangelical Protestant friends to read Rouse’s statement again and pay careful attention to how the evangelical awakening led directly to ecumenism. (This is a point I tirelessly make in my efforts to get Christians involved in missional-ecumenism.) The concept of unity espoused in the original constitution of the EA was union among Christian individuals of different churches for renewal in the Spirit; they would not deal with the question of the reunion of churches. The EA set aside one week beginning on the first Sunday of the year, for united prayer by members of different churches to pray for renewal in the Spirit. This historical fact alone puts to rest the idea that evangelical Protestants have never promoted wide-scale Christian unity.
Before the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was ever a twentieth century reality the Association for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians was founded in 1857. This association included Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox participation. Its purpose was “for united prayer that visible unity may be restored to Christendom.” Sadly Rome was not ready for this movement quite yet thus the Catholic Church withdrew its initial support for the association. The problem was not the act of prayer, per se, but the traditional questions concerning the nature of the church and the unity that was being sought through this prayer. This difficulty would not begin to be resolved until the middle of the 20th century, at the well-known Vatican Council II.
It is noteworthy that several popes had urged Roman Catholics to pray for Christian unity before Vatican II but from the particular stance of always urging return to the Roman Catholic Church as the only solution to schism. In 1894 Leo XIII encouraged Catholics to recite the rosary for the intention of Christian unity. Again, in 1897, he decreed in Provida matris that the days between Ascension and Pentecost should be dedicated to prayer for reconciliation with our separated brethren. In his encyclical Divinum Illud Munus, Leo sought to establish this particular practice of prayer for unity as a permanent feature of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Lambeth Conferences (Anglican), during this same period, also promoted prayer for Christian unity. Rouse has noted that the second conference of 1878 was typical of the concern of Anglicans for reunion. At that conference, the bishops spoke of their desire that the conference support the observance of a season of prayer for the unity of Christendom.
In 1913 the Faith and Order Commission of the Protestant Episcopal Church published a leaflet promoting prayer for unity on Whitsunday and in 1915 this commission, which was a forerunner of the World Council of Churches, published a Manual of Prayer for Unity. The preparatory Conference on Faith and Order at Geneva in 1920 appealed for a special week of prayer for Christian unity ending with Whitsunday. Faith and Order continued to issue “Suggestions for an Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity” until 1941 when it changed the dates for its week to that of the January Octave begun by Paul Wattson and Lurana White. In this way, Christians, who for reasons of conscience, could not join with others in prayer services could share in united prayer at the same time. These efforts, while not attaining wide observance among all the churches, paved the way for the global impact of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a week which came to be observed widely throughout Christendom over time.