Praying Together for Christian Unity Throughout a Century of Changes

Although prayer is certainly at the heart of Christian life, praying together is not an easy exercise for churches within worldwide Christendom. Even today, common prayers are exceptional events rather than part of the daily life of the churches. But at least once a year it has become "normal" for many churches and congregations to pray together during the annual celebration of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. In 2008, the 100th anniversary of this most meaningful ecumenical initiative is being celebrated around the globe.

The roots of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity can be traced back to the beginning of the 19th century. Initiatives involving praying for unity together with Christians from other denominations had been taking place here and there for over a century when, in 1908, a priest and a sister, both Episcopalians, publicly celebrated for the first time an Octave of Prayer for Church Unity from 18-25 January in Graymoor, Garrison, New York. The Rev. Paul Wattson and Mother Lurana White, co-founders of a small religious community in the Franciscan tradition known as the Society of the Atonement, chose for the octave the days spanning from what was at that time in the Roman Catholic calendar the "feast of the Chair of Peter", to the "feast of the conversion of Paul".

In celebrating its 100th anniversary, this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity points to that historical milestone as its foundational moment. But it is clear that a lot has changed in the ecumenical landscape over the last century.

The Octave of Prayer for Church Unity of those days was based on a concept of unity as re-union of Christendom under the Pope’s authority. For that reason, the octave was neither appealing nor theologically acceptable for Christians and churches outside the Roman Catholic Church, except for some Anglicans who were sympathetic to the idea of a reunion of Canterbury with Rome – like Wattson and White, who joined the Roman Catholic Church themselves. While it soon became widely observed in the Roman Catholic Church, the octave was by no means the only initiative of prayer for church unity at that time.

Well before 1908, the World Evangelical Alliance, the World Student Christian Federation, the Young Men’s Christian Association together with the Young Women’s Christian Association, had already all launched worldwide annual weeks or days of prayer in which the aspect of unity played an important role.

As early as 1907 the London-based Times published a letter signed by an impressive list of high-ranking church leaders from different denominations, who called on "all the Christian ministers of religion in England […] to prepare their congregations for a united effort of prayer on Whitsunday […] for the reunion of Christians". They underlined that those prayers should not compromise the beliefs of any confession but should focus on God’s will for the unity of all. The church leaders soberly declared that it was not yet the time for large schemes of corporate reunion but that churches should unite in penitence and prayer: penitence for their divisions and prayer for opening their minds to God’s will for unity.

"God’s will for the unity of all" became something like the leitmotif of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity through the years. Early writings of the Faith and Order movement on prayer and unity refer to that concept. Decades later, that formula made it possible to pray for unity within the Roman Catholic Church in a way that would not hurt denominational loyalties of other Christians. And even today it is a reminder to Christians and churches everywhere that the quest for the unity of all does not depend nor is it based on different doctrinal concepts of unity; it is rather God’s will for the entire creation.

Since the mid 1960’s, after the Second Vatican Council, the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches and the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity of the Roman Catholic Church [today’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity] have prepared the liturgical materials for the Week of Prayer together

Celebrating this year the 100th anniversary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity will be an occasion to give thanks for the unity, however provisional it may be, that churches already do have and live, and in which the Week of Prayer certainly has its share.

In Jerusalem – one of the places where the divisions within Christianity have often become visible in the most distressing ways – the impact of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity on the life of the churches is confirmed by the fact that opportunities for common prayer multiply almost spontaneously. This is especially true for ecumenical prayers for peace, as Christian unity and peace are inseparable concerns for the Christians in the Middle East.

It was the tradition of preparing together for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity which led churches in Slovakia to the idea of preparing a special ecumenical celebration when the country entered into the European Union in 2004. The Week of Prayer is observed nationwide in Slovakia, both at the top church level as well as at the grass-roots.

Examples from all over the world could be multiplied. This year’s theme – Pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17) – highlights the fact that Christians and churches cannot cease to pray for the unity of all. The divisions, which are still a reality between and within the churches, do not simply follow denominational lines. They are often – at least to some extent – rooted in ethnic or national identities, in issues of race, social status, gender or sexuality, exclusion of people with disabilities or of those living with HIV/AIDS.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity cannot provide a solution to all these problems. But its celebration every year is a victory over divisions because it expresses the unity which Christians do have in Christ.

(*) Written by Kersten Storch, a German Lutheran pastor who is executive staff of the World Council of Churches’ Faith and Order Commission and has been involved in the preparation of the Week of Prayer’s liturgical materials over the last six years.

More information on the Week of prayer for Christian unity

Society of Atonement’s website

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada is Canada’s largest Lutheran denomination with 174,555 baptized members in 620 congregations. It is a member of the Lutheran World Federation, the Canadian Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches.

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