Ecumenical prayer was anticipated by Jesus in the Our Father, focused upon his followers in the great prayer for unity* in John 17 and then widened out again to embrace all human beings in the spread of the gospel since Pentecost.* It is prayer offered for the unity of Christ’s universal church* and the well-being of the world he came to save. Although this vision has never been wholly lost sight of in divided Christendom, it was, however, left mainly to a few discerning souls in every tradition to recognize their unity of spirit with those otherwise separated from them, and to travelling Christians of one kind or another to promote a cross-fertilization of prayer and devotion across confessional and national boundaries. It was not until the turn of the 19th century and through an awakened concern for mission* and unity and a growing experience of the interdependence of the whole human family that the deeper implications of such prayer began to be more widely known and available.
The first modern movement to be inspired by our Lord’s high priestly prayer that they may all be one arose from two quite separate sources and resulted eventually in what is now well known as the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.* Today this week is observed either in January or at Pentecost, according to local preference, and has continued to give many local Christians an experience of ecumenical prayer. As an extension of the week of prayer, many religious communities follow the practice of lighting a candle week by week the Thursday candle accompanied by the prayer: Grant that in you, who are perfect love, we may find the way that leads to unity, in obedience to your love and your truth.
Described in the Orthodox Easter prayer as the myrrh-bearing women, the ministering-praying women of the New Testament have been followed and identified with the countless Christian women who, as part of families, congregations, religious orders and positions of leadership, have played a vital part in healing the bruised and broken Body of Christ. Over the last 100 years two women’s organizations have made a second, particularly important contribution to ecumenical prayer. The World Day of Prayer,* founded in the USA in 1887 in response to needs following the civil war and for prayer for missions overseas, has developed over the years into a worldwide movement, composed mainly of women, who engage in informed prayer and prayerful action on behalf of the needs of the whole world. The second such movement, conceived in 1956, was the brainchild of the Asian Christian Women’s Conference. Focusing on the smallest coin of each country’s currency, offered with prayer for peace, the Fellowship of the Least Coin continues to draw a response from women all over the world.
More recent participation of women in ecumenical prayer and decision making has led to a demand that the language of prayer itself should be revised to do justice to the place and activity of women within the church and to acknowledge the feminine attributes of God. Ecumenical prayer is currently being greatly enriched along these lines: O God whose word is life and whose delight is to answer our cry, give us faith like the Syro-Phoenician woman, who refused to remain an outsider; that we too may have the wit to argue and demand that our daughters be made whole, through Jesus Christ, Amen (Morley).
A third and arguably the most significant contribution to the growth of ecumenical prayer has been the quickening of concern for the renewal and mission of the church, which led to the inception of the modern missionary movement and to its fruit in the suffering, praying, growing churches around the world today.
Originating in a series of humble concerts of prayer for the renewal of the church in Scotland in the late 18th century, the movement eventually spread to other countries and played an important part in the programme of the newly formed mission agencies and subsequently in their great conferences. Attributing much of the success of the 1910 world missionary conference in Edinburgh to the fact that it had been the focus of wide intercession,* John R. Mott wrote: The heart of Edinburgh was not in its speeches but in its periods of prayer. Ninety years later, the same has been said of a series of important and increasingly representative gatherings of Christians, in the shape of the successive assemblies of the WCC (the eighth of which was held in Harare in 1998), that at the heart of each were acts of corporate worship which, to those privi- leged to share in them, offered an unparalleled opportunity to experience the riches of truly ecumenical prayer.
In the early years of the modern missionary movement, first by necessity and later by desire, cooperation developed between the different missionary groups, accompanied by prayer and consultation and later common action, and eventually, in some places, by plans for church union. Thus it was that united prayer among missionaries of different denominations grew, much of it directed towards the renewal and evangelistic outreach of the newly established churches. Such prayer, however, was not without its critics among local Christians, many of whom were excluded from early missionary assemblies and who came to feel that prayer itself only too easily became an instrument of paternalism. Moreover, many local Christians resented imported denominationalism* and imposed forms of worship and sought freedom to address God in their own way and in the mode of their own culture. A prayer used at a later Asia youth assembly expressed what many were feeling at a much earlier time: O Lord, lead us not into imitation. It was a prayer which was already being answered as early dependency and denominationalism gave way to autonomous churches and eventually, in some areas, to the formation of united churches, whose liturgies have contributed in a special way to ecumenical prayer.
The fourth and central strand in the development of ecumenical prayer emerges from the well-known early student gatherings in Europe and North America, where young men and women met together for prayer, to read the Bible and to face the challenge of service overseas. In such prayer and meeting, impatience with denominational differences was generated; to meet the needs of these young people, organizations like the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Christian Associations and the Student Christian Movement came into being. Between them they produced the earliest books of ecumenical prayer and worship. Now somewhat dated and limited in the range of their material, they were nevertheless pioneers in their field and gave many of the future leaders of the missionary and ecumenical movement their first taste of ecumenical prayer. The presence of such
student groups at Edinburgh 1910 and subsequent ecumenical gatherings, and the concerns they voiced, along with those of representatives of an ever-widening circle of churches, were to form the milieu of the WCC. Many of those present at the WCC’s first assembly ( Amsterdam 1948) spoke of the moving moment when, after hundreds of years of confessionalism and division, representatives of many different churches and nationalities were for the first time able to say the Lord’s prayer together, each in his or her own tongue.
The worship of the early assemblies, however, remained fairly traditional as the various church leaders shared their own denominational treasures. Those earlier years were marked by an over-optimistic internationalism, which regarded the kingdom of God* as attainable in a relatively short period of time. This assumption was to be severely challenged, along with the patterns of prayer which went with it. The reality of the ever-changing world situation demanded a realignment of prayer and theology, which provided the theme for a particularly formative WCC assembly at Uppsala in 1968.
Work camps and student conferences and the changing needs of young people produced more informal acts of worship and new approaches to intercession. A growing number of churches from a wide spectrum of traditions, including members of the Orthodox family, African Independent, Pentecostal and black American churches, and with an ever-increasing representation from third-world countries, officially entered the ecumenical movement, bringing with them both ancient liturgies and new insights into prayer and worship. Many of these challenged what was held to be an overly cerebral approach to worship and pointed to new dimensions of prayer in the form of symbols, music and movement more meaningful to the vast majority of the world’s Christians.
In addition, the wide-reaching changes initiated at Vatican II* have allowed greater participation of Roman Catholics in ecumenical prayer, and the revitalization of many traditional Christian practices and acts of devotion has been reflected in a renewed interest in a specifically Christian life-style, the use of silence, pilgrimages and the observance of vigils and fasts. Similarly, the hurt and pain experienced by Christians in many places and situations has forced ecumenical prayer back to its biblical roots and to the crying and questioning of the people of God in the Old Testament, producing many contemporary lamentations. A more sympathetic approach to those of other faiths has brought with it an awareness that they too are people of prayer and have much to offer on this subject and others.
Meanwhile in response to various WCC assembly themes from Uppsala onwards, the Council’s mandate and ecumenical vision have been widening considerably, and this has been mirrored in the content of its prayer. The programmes of development* and those to combat racism, to promote peace and health and the good of the environment; the ever-growing recognition of social justice as a spiritual commitment; and the decade of churches in solidarity with women have all had their implications for ecumenical spirituality. While in an increasingly one-world culture there are still significant differences of need between different peoples, there are also an increasing number of concerns held in common across the world. But unity continues unchanged as a central theme of all ecumenical prayer, although perhaps nowadays directed less towards organized schemes of union and more towards the ending of the shame and scandal of divisions at the local level, in addition to that between peoples and races divided from one another. To respond to all such needs the concept of solidarity has been fostered in recent years to express a relationship which is to be deepened between different churches and peoples of the world, and in which prayer and the sharing of spiritual resources is held to play a very important part. To this end an ecumenical cycle of prayer has been produced.
If the widening out of its concerns over the years has led some to refer, disparagingly, to the WCC as the United Nations at prayer, it is a title which is nevertheless welcomed by some, especially when it comes to finding ways of identifying with those many people around the world who, often in situations of desperation, relate their prayers to the realities of their lives as they use one of the most ecumenical of all prayers: Maranatha: come, Lord Jesus, come, soon.
n A.J. van der Bent, The Concern for Spirituality: An Analytical and Bibliographical Survey of the Discussion within the WCC Constituency, ER , 38, 1, 1986 n J. Carden comp., With All God’s People: The New Ecumenical Prayer Cycle , 2 vols, WCC, 1989 n J. Carden ed., Stations of Salvation: A Procession of Prayers from around the World , London, Cassell, 1997 n E. Castro, When We Pray Together , WCC, 1989 n Ecumenical Decade Churches in Solidarity with Women: Prayers and Poems, Songs and Stories , WCC, 1991 n T. Jasper & P. Webb, Worship in Every Event: Worship Resources for Every Day , Oxford, Oxford UP, 1998 n G. Lemopoulos ed., Let Us Pray to the Lord: A Collection of Prayers from the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Traditions , WCC, 1996 n J. Morley, All Desires Known , London, SPCK, 1992 n G. Mursell, Out of the Deep: Prayer as Protest , London, DLT, 1989.
The text above is extracted from Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement 2 nd Edition , published by World Council of Churches (courtesy of World Council of Churches)