The Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity is the fruit of seeds sown by two Anglican clergymen of similar persuasion at the beginning of the twentieth century: the one, an Anglo-Catholic rector in the Church of England; the other, an Episcopalian priest in the United States of America. The Rev’d Spencer Jones was incumbent of St David’s, the parish church of Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire; the Rev’d Lewis Wattson was co-founder of the Franciscan Order of the Atonement at Graymoor, in Garrison, Up State New York.
In 1900, Spencer Jones delivered a sermon at St Matthew’s Westminster, in favour of Anglican union with Rome. Subsequently, his address was published, under the title: England and the Holy See, and 1,000 copies printed. Across the Atlantic, the publication was welcomed enthusiastically by Lewis Wattson whose Franciscan Order had been established to work and pray for Christian Unity.
An exchange of letters ensued between the two clergymen. This led to a suggestion by Lewis Wattson that a Church Unity Week be inaugurated, beginning on the Feast of the Chair of St Peter, the Apostle ( then, on January 18th, rather than on February 22nd, as now ), and ending on the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul ( January 25th ). Spencer Jones was in full agreement. And so, the Church Unity Octave was born, commencing in January 1908. Not long afterwards, the Graymoor community was received into the Catholic Church, with Lewis Wattson taking the religious name, Paul. The co-founders of this annual service were eventually to meet in 1936, towards the end of their lives, the meeting taking place in Exeter Cathedral.
The seeds sown by them soon spread far and wide. Abbé Paul Couturier, founder of the French Unity Movement based in Lyon, adopted the January observance, and reinvigorated it by his perseverance. ʿ In Christ, let us pray, pray, pray for Unity,ʾ was his plea. It was during the 1959 Octave of Prayer when Pope Saint John XIII had the idea of calling together the Second Vatican Council. A significant outcome of the Council was the establishing of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Collaboration soon developed between the Pontifical Council and the Anglican World Council of Churches in choosing themes for what then became known as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
The initial fervour for this annual service has somewhat waned in recent years. The Octave is in need of reinvigoration by the ardent plea of Paul Couturier. For, as Spencer Jones once remarked, ʿ the real scandal is that we are divided, not that we try to meet.ʾ