Nothing, I believe, in the twentieth century, promoted Christian unity as widely as the annual observance of a week of prayers for Christian unity, given power and encouragement by the movement away from divisiveness growing out of the Second Vatican Council and the establishment of the World Council of Churches.
The annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity first began through the efforts of the cofounder of Graymoor Franciscan Friars, Paul Wattson, in 1908. During the same period Protestant leaders also proposed a festival of prayer for unity, and the two movements were combined into the present Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Joint activities between the Roman Catholics and the Faith and Order Conference of the World Council of Churches led to decisions to hold a week (8 days) of prayers for Christian unity beginning on the day of the Feast of the Confession of St Peter and ending on the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul. Resources have been produced for the octave since 1968. In 2019 the week is from Friday January 18 to Friday January 25.
My introduction to this week of prayers was in January 1966 when students from Chiang Mai University and their Jesuit mentors from Seven Fountains Student Center came to the Thailand Theological Seminary for a joint service. I understood it was the Catholics’ turn to conduct the service and for the Protestants to be hosts. For a few years the plan was to have the service alternate between these two institutions.
As the next year approached, the Second Vatican Council was beginning to make an impact and ecumenism was much in vogue. I proposed that we might take this observance up a notch in 1967 by conducting a co-celebration of Holy Eucharist, a liturgy for which there was no established format and barely any precedent. The Rev. Dr. Kosuke Koyama and I were appointed to represent our seminary in making the suggestion to Father Andre Gomaine, SJ, of Seven Fountains. He listened nervously as Ko made the proposal enthusiastically and then said he would discuss it with the bishop. A few days later Fr Gomaine reported that, much to his surprise, the bishop had approved the idea. “I told the bishop that the Protestants want to have con-celebration of Eucharast as part of the service of prayers for Christian unity. The bishop was taking a shower and I was talking to him over the wall of the shower stall. The bishop agreed. I asked him if he had understood, and he said he had understood just fine but there should be no publicity about the event. Just do it.” Father Gomaine apparently felt trapped, but he worked with us in mapping out the liturgy. We divided the liturgy so that the parts emphasized by Protestants were done by Protestants and the parts most sacred for Catholics would be done by Catholics. Simply, the preacher was Ajan Prakai Nontawasee, a teacher in our seminary and soon to be the first woman to head a theological seminary in Asia and the first female Vice Moderator of the Church of Christ in Thailand. The consecration prayers (which I found out were called anamnesis and epiclesis) were done by one of the Jesuit priests, Father Siegmund Laschenski (if I remember correctly). Holy Communion was celebrated at two tables side by side, symbolizing our lamentable separation, we said. We later found out this was a historic and not uncontroversial thing we had done. The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano had a front page note that asked simply, “What have the Jesuits in Chiang Mai done?” That, Fr. Gomaine told us, was a serious reprimand, but nothing came of it.
As 1968 approached it was the Protestants’ turn to host the event. This time we proposed to have the Roman Catholics insert a short original cantata into the liturgy which would be conducted in two locations. The first was to be in Sacred Heart Cathedral recently finished as a gift from the King of Belgium. Gerald Dyck of the Thailand Theological Seminary’s Department of Church Music wanted to compose a cantata in the style of JS Bach, with solos, arias and choruses. He asked me to write verses for the choruses. It was accompanied, as Gerry remembers it, by a string quartet. Singers and musicians from both the cathedral community and from First Thai Church practiced and performed. The cantata was suitably focused on Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Christ, and the response, “You are the rock on which I will build my church.” Gerry took the cantata to Bangkok where he put together a larger ensemble (at a rehearsal of which the photo above was taken, from Gerry’s memoirs).
From 1969 on, the joint services were organized by the two large Chiang Mai congregations rather than the student centers. Services are held in Bangkok to the present time.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.