Octave that began on a small scale

by
16 January 2008

At the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Leigh Hatts explains how the idea grew from seeds planted by a US Episcopalian and an Anglo-Catholic rector from Gloucestershire

In search of Catholic unity: the Revd Paul (Lewis) Wattson (left) and the Revd Spencer Jones, founders of the Church Unity Octave FRANCISCAN FRIARS OF THE ATONEMENT

In search of Catholic unity: the Revd Paul (Lewis) Wattson (left) and the Revd Spencer Jones, founders of the Church Unity Octave FRANCISCAN F...

TODAY, at Westminster Abbey, the Archbishop of Canterbury will preach at a service of celebration to mark the centenary of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. At the same time, the choir of St Paul’s Cathedral will be singing evensong in Westminster Cathedral.

A century ago, many regarded such occasions as unthinkable. An exception was the Revd Spencer Jones, Rector of Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire, who is credited with starting the Week of Prayer with the Revd Lewis T. Wattson, Rector of St John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, New York.

The seed was planted at St Matthew’s, near Westminster Abbey, by Fr Jones, as early as 1900, when he preached in favour of Anglican union with Rome. This was four years after Pope Leo XIII’s Apostolicae Curae declaring Anglican orders to be “absolutely null and void” was issued in 1896.

Present were the Revd Henry Fynes-Clinton, who, as Rector of St Magnus the Martyr, in the City, was a key supporter of unity, and Lord Halifax, who was to initiate the meetings of a group of Anglican and RC theologians at Malines under the presidency of Cardinal Mercier (the Malines Conversations).

Both men felt that Fr Jones’s address should be published. In September 1901, Longman agreed to print 1000 copies of England and the Holy See — after a fee of £20 had been paid by the author. Fr Jones also had to print his own flyers.

The book appeared on 24 January 1902. “It deals with questions which must be discussed,” reported the Church Times. “It frankly deals with difficulties that cannot be ignored.” The Tablet described the book as “by far the most advanced and in its way the most startling expression of Anglicanism”.

More significant was a letter received from Fr Wattson, who had read the book with mounting enthusiasm. He was a co-founder of the Franciscan Order of the Atonement at Graymoor, in Garrison, New York, along with Lurana White, a novice from an Episcopalian group of sisters. Their objective was to pray and work for Christian unity.

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In 1907, Fr Jones addressed a meeting of the Roman Catholic Guild of Our Lady of Ransom at Caxton Hall in Westminster. Responding afterwards to a critic, he declared: “The real scandal is that we are divided, not that we try to meet.”

Within days, Fr Jones wrote to Fr Wattson in New York, suggesting that St Peter’s Day, 29 June, should be observed as a Unity Day, when the same sermon, written by a different person each year, could be read from “a hundred various pulpits”.

In New York, Mother Lurana noted in her diary: “Father had a very long and interesting letter from Revd Spencer Jones.” On 30 November, St Andrew’s Day, Fr Wattson replied, asking: “What do you think of inaugurating a Church Unity Week beginning with St Peter’s Chair at Rome, Jan 18th, and ending with St Paul’s Day?”

Before Christmas, Fr Jones’s agreement was in the post, and triggered frantic activity at Graymoor. Letters were sent out inviting Anglican and Roman Catholic clerics to observe the “Church Unity Octave”. Fr Wattson estimated that “several thousand” clerics, religious, and lay people responded.

Before Christmas, Fr Jones’s agreement was in the post, and triggered frantic activity at Graymoor. Letters were sent out inviting Anglican and Roman Catholic clerics to observe the “Church Unity Octave”. Fr Wattson estimated that “several thousand” clerics, religious, and lay people responded.

Soon afterwards, the Graymoor community was received into the Roman Catholic Church, and Fr Wattson took the religious name Paul. The community insisted on continuing its less than popular campaign to reunite with Anglicans.

In 1931, at Mother Lurana’s suggestion, the Church Unity Octave became the Chair of Unity Octave, extending from the Feast of the Chair of St Peter at Rome (18 January) until the feast of the conversion of St Paul (25 January).

THE Friars of the Atonement have a community of three at Westminster, including Fr Michael Seed, who has been Ecumenical Secretary to the Archbishop of Westminster for 20 years.

Fr Seed believes that the special annual services are now in danger of becoming slightly stale. He feels that it may be time for the Churches to attend each other’s services.

“One year we could all go to a Quaker silent meeting, which would be 100 per cent Quaker. Another year it could be a normal Anglican service. We need the integrity of worship of each tradition.”

Fr Seed is even prepared to suggest that the Week might be moved to a warmer time of the year in England. “Pentecost might be better, and Pentecost is the birthday of the Church,” he says. Pentecost was when the Abbé Paul Couturier, the founder of the French unity movement based in Lyon, prayed for unity, while still adopting, and reinvigorating, the January observance.

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The Abbé Couturier was an important influence on the Sisters of Bethany, who had already played a part in the birth of Graymoor. In 1898, Mother Lurana encountered this Anglican order’s main aim of offering “regular prayer for the visible reunion of the Church” when she was trained at its House of Retreat at Clerkenwell in London. She was clothed in the chapel, and a fellow guest directed her to Graymoor as the site for the community she was to co-found with Fr Wattson.

Now in Southsea, the Sisters of Bethany continue to pray daily for the unity of Christians, and every Thursday the intention of the eucharist is for unity, followed by an office for unity.

Four years ago, they joined in celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of the Abbé Couturier’s death. He had visited them at Clerkenwell in 1937 and 1938, and prayed with them in the chapel known to Mother Lurana. These years marked an important change in the focus of unity objectives, as the Abbé Couturier was instrumental in shifting the emphasis from Anglican submission to Rome to the idea of seeking “the unity that Christ wills”.

The Sisters took the Abbé Couturier’s universal prayer for unity, embracing Orthodox and Protestant, to be an affirmation of their work and hidden life of prayer.

“We are encouraged to persevere by some words of the Abbé Couturier with which he concluded one of his letters to the Community: ‘In Christ let us pray, pray, pray for Unity’,” says Sr Rita-Elizabeth, novice-guardian, who has undertaken a pilgrimage to Lyon in the footsteps of the Abbé Couturier.

“In our contacts with other Christians, we discover unity with each other through becoming closer to Christ through our respective spiritual traditions. We learn so much more about growing in holiness through sharing with other Christians in the simplicity of friendship.

“We maintain friendship with many ecumenical contacts, both locally and overseas, through correspondence and the exchange of visits. In the words of Cardinal Mercier, ‘In order to be united it is necessary to love one another: in order to love one another it is necessary to know one another: in order to know one another it is necessary to meet one another.’ ”

Fr Jones met the Abbé Couturier at Fr Fynes-Clinton’s flat, within walking distance of Westminster Abbey. Remarkably, the French priest’s wider vision was not rejected, and within a few years Archbishop William Temple introduced the phrase “ecumenical movement”.

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THE COUTURIER view was to be the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, the idea of calling the Council had come to Pope John XXIII during the 1959 Week of Prayer, and the outcome was collaboration between the new Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the World Council of Churches in choosing themes for the octave. The now-familiar name, Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, was adopted. Last year, the joint body met at Graymoor to agree the centenary theme, “Pray without ceasing”.

THE COUTURIER view was to be the spirit of the Second Vatican Council. Indeed, the idea of calling the Council had come to Pope John XXIII during the 1959 Week of Prayer, and the outcome was collaboration between the new Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the World Council of Churches in choosing themes for the octave. The now-familiar name, Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, was adopted. Last year, the joint body met at Graymoor to agree the centenary theme, “Pray without ceasing”.

The Week of Prayer founders eventually met in 1936 towards the end of their lives when Fr Wattson visited Exeter Cathedral. He wrote to Fr Jones: “Your suggestion about the sermon on St Peter’s Day . . . has developed into the mightiest prayer agency in regard to Church unity in the whole world.”

In 2008, we may not observe the Week of Prayer as envisaged by Fr Jones and Fr Wattson, but it now embraces far more. “The roots we have put down in recent years are far too deep to unroot,” says the present Archbishop of Canterbury.

At the beginning of this millennium, Pope John Paul II gave the Ecumenical Patriarchate use of the church of St Theodore on the Palatine Hill, enabling the Orthodox to have a significant presence close to the tomb of Peter. Pope Benedict XVI, in his first sermon, pledged to do all in his power “to promote the fundamental cause of ecumenism”, and an early decision was to designate St Paul-Outside-the-Walls as a centre for Christian unity gatherings.

It is at St Paul’s that the Pope is marking the centenary with Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Orthodox, and others involved in dialogues with Rome and with each other. A century on, in Moreton-in- Marsh, Congregationalists now offer their church to Roman Catholics as a mass centre.

Leigh Hatts is a former editor of the London diocesan newspaper.

 

 

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