Above: Paul Couturier
Image in the Public Domain
PAUL IRENEE COUTURIER (JULY 29, 1881-MARCH 24, 1953)
Apostle of Christian Unity
Paul Couturier is one of three saints assigned to March 24 in Common Worship: Daily Prayer (2005; Fourth Impression, 2010). In my copy of Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England (2000), however, his feast is absent.
Couturier, born in Lyon, France, on July 29, 1881, grew up as one of the pieds-noirs in Algeria. In 1906 he became a Roman Catholic priest as a member of the Society of St. Irenaeus. Next our saint studied physical science for several years before beginning to teach at the Institut des Chartreux, a parochial school in Lyon. For most of the rest of his life Couturier taught at that school; he retired in 1951. Couturier, as a teacher, influenced the lives of many students directly and therefore the lives of many other people indirectly.
His other work–that of ecumenism–has brought him to my Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days, however. That ecumenical work had its roots in the early 1920s, when Couturier worked with Russian refugees. They broadened his horizons by introducing him to Russian Orthodoxy. By the early 1930s our saint had become a committed ecumenist. In 1933 he founded the Triduum for Christian Unity. The following year he renamed it the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25), an extension of the Octave for Church Unity, dating to 1908 and with Anglican origins. In 1939 Couturier’s Octave became the Universal Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Couturier developed a network of international contacts as he pursued ecumenical efforts. In 1936 he organized the first Reformed-Roman Catholic dialogue at Erlenbach, Switzerland. The following to years he spent time in England as he studied Anglicanism. His international contacts alarmed the Gestapo, which incarcerated our saint during World War II. The prison experience damaged Couturier’s health; it was his cross to bear, he concluded. Couturier witnessed the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948 and stayed in contact with that organization’s leaders for the rest of his life. In 1952 Maximus IV, the Melkite Greek Patriarch of Antioch, declared Couturier an honorary archimandrite, or monastic priest.
Couturier died at Lyon on March 24, 1953. He was 71 years old.
predictably Couturier’s legacy has received mixed reviews. Both traditional Catholic groups (who oppose dialogue with other Christians) and non-Roman Catholic groups who oppose dialogue with Holy Mother Church have not embraced ecumenism. After all, if one thinks that Catholicism is the repository of truth, why should one affirm dialogue with heretics? Likewise, if one thinks that the Roman Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon, why should one support dialogue with it? Couturier, however, presaged the declaration of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) that non-Roman Catholic Christians are “separated brethren.”
Denominational identities and structures are frequently stubborn; inertia does much to maintain them, even long after the reason or reasons for the founding have become obsolete. I wonder when the changing demographics of organized religion in the United States (where the fastest grown religious label is “none”) will begin to lead to the consolidation of denominations. After all, what proportion of the devout Christian population in the United States really cares about minor theological differences? One might point to the mergers that created the United Church of Canada (1925), the Church of South India (1947), the Church of North India (1970), the Church of Pakistan (1970), and the Uniting Church of Australia (1977). Why not, for example, consolidate certain Reformed denominations in the United States? [The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) + the United Church of Christ = a feasible denomination, does it not? Portions of the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church of North America might even what to participate in a merger also. (Parts of the CRCNA are to the left of parts of the RCA. I wonder if segments of the RCA and the CRCNA would be comfortable merging with some conservative Reformed bodies.)] Why not lay aside minor theological differences and merge certain Anglican and Lutheran bodies in North America? [The Episcopal Church + the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America = The Anglican Lutheran Church; the Anglican Church of Canada + the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada = the Anglican Lutheran Church in Canada.] The Lutheran and Anglican traditions have cross-fertilized each other since the 1500s, after all. I could continue to offer examples of possible merger partners, but I think I have made my point sufficiently. The churches, consolidated more and working together more closely when not merged, would have a more effective witness this way.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
JANUARY 31, 2017 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF CHARLES FREDERICK MACKENZIE, ANGLICAN BISHOP OF CENTRAL AFRICA
THE FEAST OF HENRY TWELLS, ANGLICAN PRIEST AND HYMN WRITER
THE FEAST OF MARY LUNDIE DUNCAN, SCOTTISH PRESBYTERIAN HYMN WRITER
THE FEAST OF MENNO SIMONS, MENNONITE LEADER
Heavenly Father, whose Son our Lord Jesus Christ said to his apostles,
Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you:
regard not our sins but the faith of your Church,
and grant it that peace and unity which is agreeable to your will;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Psalm 133 or 122
—The Alternative Service Book 1980, pages 904 and 905