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Ecumenical History in the Diocese of Westminster - Twentieth Century
posted on 01 January 1900
Catholic Diocese of Westminster
Diocese of Westminster

1908 - 1926: Unity Octave: Malines - Monks of Unity

In 1908 Father Paul Wattson SA, the founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement (while still an Anglican) with his friend the Reverend Spencer Jones (an Anglican priest, vicar of Moreton in Marsh in Gloucestershire) began the Church Unity Octave. Their intention was the reunion of Christendom around the See of Peter - in other words, not a partial ecumenism of one or two denominations, but an ecumenism of the whole of the Church. This devotion received the approval of Pope Pius X the following year, shortly after Fr Wattson and his community had become Roman Catholics. It was extended to the whole Roman Catholic Church by Pope Benedict XV in 1916, very much as part of his vision of human unity and peace at the height of the First World War. The Octave ran from January 18th (the old Feast of the Chair of St Peter, marking the moment he first arrived in Rome and assumed responsibility for the Church there) to January 25th (the feast of the Conversion of St Paul) and focussed on reconciliation with the See of Peter. It was the direct forerunner of the modern Week of Universal Prayer.

With a different kind of vision, the Edinburgh Mission Conference in 1910 saw Anglicans and Protestants addressing a very practical concern to prevent various Christian Communities from fighting over the “churched” in the African and Asian regions. Out of this would one day arise the World Council of Churches itself, and the Faith & Order Commission (of which the WCC and the Catholic Church are members together). Then, from 1921-26 Cardinal Mercier of Malines-Brussels, at the Pope’s request, convened the famous Malines Conversations. These attempted a fresh rapprochement between Anglicans and Catholics. At the same time Dom Lambert Beauduin founded the Monks of Unity (now at Chevetogne in French-speaking Belgium) to work and pray for unity between Catholics of the West with the Christians of the Eastern Churches. A similar community was founded in Flemish-speaking Belgium by Dom Constantine Bosschaert with the same aim of promoting unity and understanding between Christians. Nowadays this work has extended to mutual encounter between different faiths and their monastic traditions. It is well known to us as the Benedictine Vita and Pax movement, represented in our diocese to this day in the Community at Cockfosters.

1933 - 1952: Paul Couturier and the Week of Prayer: Heythrop & Nashdom

In 1933, following a retreat with the Monks of Unity, Fr Paul Couturier (a priest of the archdiocese of Lyon in France1) changed the emphasis of the old Church Unity Octave. He proposed that all Christians could unite in prayer to grow in holiness and union with Christ in the spirit of John 17 - “may they all be one. That the world might believe”. As all could thus converge on Christ, they could achieve unity through the richness of prayer and belief expressed in different parts of Christianity, for the moment divided, yet already truly one through Baptism: “the walls of separation do not rise as far as heaven”. This ground-breaking approach encouraged Christians throughout the world to join together each January for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and each Thursday evening in a common “Invisible Monastery” where all could be at one in prayer and praise with Jesus, as on the night before he died, to ask for unity “according to his will, according to his means”. This spiritual ecumenism was in due course written into the Decree on Ecumenism.

Significant to his insights were two visits, sanctioned by Cardinal Hinsley, to London and the Anglican religious communities just before World War II. About the same time, in 1938, a group of five Jesuits from Heythrop and five Anglican theologians, led by Fr Laurence Bévenot SJ from France and Dom Gregory Dix OSB, the distinguished Anglican monk and liturgist, held a conference at Nashdom Abbey to discuss Fr Yves Congar’s book, Divided Christendom. Congar’s thinking was to influence Vatican II profoundly and this small conference played its part in preparing the way for the Council in England. (At the time the Jesuit community were based at Heythrop in Oxfordshire, but today Heythrop College in our diocese is London’s specialist university for philosophy and theology working in close collaboration with our seminary, Allen Hall.)

Couturier won many friends from all churches and indeed from other religions for his ecumenism of prayer, spiritual friendship and humility. Named by Cardinal Gerlier of Lyons as the “Apostle of Christian Unity” his influence was keenly felt when after World War II his friend Dr Willem Visser t’Hooft convened the first assembly of the World Council of Churches at Amsterdam in 1948.

1940-42: Cardinal Hinsley and the Sword of the Spirit

At the beginning of the Second World War, Cardinal Hinsley impressed Britain in advocating Pope Pius XII’s proposals for a just and principled peace. His famous radio broadcast, The Sword of the Spirit, led to a lay ecumenical organisation of the same name working for peace. On May 10-11 1942 The Sword held a congress at the Royal Albert Hall. Overnight the blitz was unleashed and people climbed through the devastation to get back to hear Cardinal Hinsley’s final speech the next day. At the end, he was moved by the Anglican Bishop George Bell to lead everyone in saying the Lord’s Prayer together, an early fruit of spiritual ecumenism. Although this was widely criticised at the time, its memory lived on until at last in 1964 Pope John XXIII encouraged Catholics at last to pray with their fellow Christians.

1948-1968: Vatican II: Faith & Order – World Council of Churches

The next phase of the ecumenical movement starts with the long planned foundation of the World Council of Churches in 1948, which had been delayed by the Second World War. Shortly afterwards followed the worldwide embrace of Couturier’s modified Week of Prayer. This was adopted by the Catholic Church in 1959 under Pope John XXIII. The new spirit of confidence that unity could be achieved and translated into worship, mission and service together featured strongly, both in the WCC’s fourth general assembly at Uppsala in 1968 and the immense renewal which transformed the life, direction and mission of the Catholic Church (and pervaded all churches as a result) through the Second Vatican Council.

In the early 1960s the Orthodox Churches, which had not previously taken part, joined the WCC. Pope John XXIII convened Vatican II, emphatically placing the Roman Catholic Church at the heart of the ecumenical movement’s progress. And, in the work encouraged under his successor Pope Paul VI, the drive to ecumenism was enshrined ecumenism in the Church’s very constitution, especially with the Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio and Lumen Gentium.

Although the Roman Catholic Church continues not to belong to the World Council of Churches itself, it is actively engaged in extensive discussion and collaboration with other churches and communities. Indeed it is a full member with the WCC of the Faith and Order Commission.

Some find it difficult to understand why the Catholic Church is not a full member of the WCC itself, given its leading role in encouraging the path to unity. But for the Catholic Church, the implications of believing in the already God-given unity of Ch

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