In 1740 a Pentecostal movement, that predates modern American Pentecostalism, arose in Scotland. There were several clear links to America. This message of revival, however, was unique from other Protestant movements of the Holy Spirit. In this season of spiritual renewal prayers were raised for, and with, the various churches for Christian unity. I am not entirely sure about this but this element was not common in previous movements within Protestantism. Similar stirrings had happened before but no discernible connection between revival and Christian unity seems to have developed until the 1820s. In the year 1820 James Haldane Stewart published a work titled: Hints for the General Union of Christians for the Outpouring of the Spirit. Now revival was clearly being associated with “the general union” of all Christians. This was still, however, a Protestant phenomenon. In 1840 God moved Rev. Ignatius Spencer, a Catholic convert, to suggest a “Union of Prayer for Unity.” In 1867 the First Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops emphasized prayer for unity in the Preamble to its Resolutions.
The first major Catholic initiative for unity among all Christians came in 1894 when Pope Leo XIII encouraged the practice of a Prayer Octave for Unity in the context of the liturgical season of Pentecost. The Church Unity Octave, a forerunner of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, was finally developed by Father Paul Wattson, SA, at Graymoor in Garrison, New York. This unity octave was first observed at Graymoor from January 18-25, 1908. Today, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity invites the whole Christian community throughout the world to pray in communion with the prayer of Jesus “that they all may be one” (John 17:21).
Abbé Paul Couturier of Lyons, France, who has been called “the father of spiritual ecumenism,” had a slightly different approach than that of Father Wattson, who as I noted above was an Anglican convert to Roman Catholicism. Couturier advocated prayer “for the unity of the Church as Christ wills it, and in accordance with the means he wills,” thereby enabling other Christians with differing views of the Petrine ministry to join in the week of prayer. In 1935, Couturier further proposed the naming of this observance as the “Universal Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.” This proposal was accepted by the Catholic Church in 1966. Father Couturier’s message directly influenced a Sardinian nun, Sister Maria Gabrielle of Unity, whose deep, prayerful, sacrificial devotion to the cause of unity is quite rightly held up by Rome as an example to be followed.
In 1941, the Faith and Order Conference changed the date for observing the week of unity prayer to that observed by Roman Catholics. In 1948, with the founding of the World Council of Churches, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity became increasingly recognized by different churches throughout the world. Today it is celebrated in almost every country and Christian context.
In 1958, the French Catholic group Unité Chrétienne and the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Church (a body which includes, among others, most of the world’s Orthodox churches as well as many Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Reformed, United and Independent churches) began to co-operatively prepare of materials for the Week of Prayer. The year 1968 saw the first official use of these cooperative materials that were prepared jointly by the Faith and Order Commission and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, representing the entire Catholic Church. Collaboration and cooperation between these two organizations has increased steadily since, resulting more recently in joint publications in the same format.
In March of 2011 I visited with two leaders inside the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) in the Vatican. I had an amazing morning of fellowship, personal conversation, deep learning and warm Christian prayer. Our hosts were two leaders, one who came from Latin America and the other from Africa. The Latin American priest had been the first official representative of the Vatican to attend a global (evangelical) Lausanne conference at Cape Town in October 2010. We talked openly about the growing role and significance of evangelical Protestants working with Catholics as partners in many new global contexts where our common faith was promoting new ecumenism among us. I also visited the Center for Unity that same week and saw the largest collection of resources on Christian unity in all of Europe. I have since been invited to return, and to lecture on unity in a Vatican university, but so far there has not been a right time and context for that to happen. God will lead as He wills.
All of this experience brought me directly into the context of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Last Saturday evening I was the homilist for the 2013 Focolare Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in Chicago. (I have referred to my growing friendship with the Focolare in previous blogs.) I shared this unique evening with Christians from many backgrounds and preached from the text chosen for the global Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Micah 6:6-8. (In tomorrow’s blog I will share the content of that sermon.) It was a magnificent evening and many of my evangelical friends joined me. They encouraged me profoundly by their attendance. One-by-one, after the meeting ended, they commented on how they had not experienced this kind of love in an ecumenical Christian context where Christ and unity were so beautifully lifted up for us all to see and savor. I share that response. As I prayed, and shared in the love of many different varieties of Protestants and Catholics in the prayer service, and over dinner, it soon became obvious to me (once again) that I had been divinely called to embrace this movement of the Spirit with all my heart and soul. The vision of ACT3 Network is clearer and stronger than ever. We long to “empower leaders and churches for unity in Christ’s mission” and this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is a major gift of God within that calling.