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Reunion Revisited: 1930s ecumenism exposed by Mark Vickers

03 November 2017

Martin Warner on the story of inter-Church talks in a cold climate

REUNION REVISITED by Fr Mark Vickers is an affectionate account of an episode of English church history between the two world wars.

There is a whiff of Agatha Christie in the detection that uncovers covert talks and confidential documentation. We are reintroduced to the age of social class and privilege, to the expert amateur, and to courtesy as a vehicle for cool animosity.

But the story that Vickers lays before us also demands that we revisit the hurts of Reformation division. The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 might have permitted Roman Catholics to be elected to Westminster, but suspicion of Papalism lived on in the Established Church.

Tractarians in the Church of England were branded as Papalists. By the end of the 19th century, the law could still be used to imprison some of their leaders and even to arraign the Bishop of Lincoln for liturgical practices thought to be illegal and Papist.

Well-intentioned conversations between Lord Halifax, the leading layman of Anglo-Catholicism, and the French Abbé Portal in the early 1890s may have contributed to a worsening of attitudes. The 1898 definition of Anglican Orders by Pope Leo XIII as defective in form and content did little to encourage a spirit of openness.

It is against this backdrop that Vickers introduces us to the hitherto little-known initiatives that sought to establish dialogue and unity between the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church.

Ecumenical layman: the 2nd Viscount Halifax in a late photo, taken in 1932A student of our 20th-century church history will be familiar with the Malines Conversations that took place in the 1920s. The bruising results of earlier work by Lord Halifax and the Abbé Portal did not inhibit them from returning to the subject of Anglican and Roman Catholic unity, once the encouragement of Cardinal Mercier, of Malines, had been identified.

Adrian Hastings gave a succinct account of this in A History of English Christianity 1920-1985. Mark Vickers now provides a more detailed account of the personalities who created the atmosphere of hope and frustration which marked the reception of the Malines Conversations and its aftermath.

Hastings observes that the participants in these talks were unrepresentative and lacking in theological weight. Vickers helps us to put that assessment into a different perspective, taking us on beyond the Malines talks.

This was the point at which the engagement became covert. Meetings in the Thackeray Hotel, St Mary’s Church, in Cadogan Gardens, and St Ermin’s Hotel were sensitive and confidential; recovering the details is where detective work has been needed.

Vickers shows that the Roman Catholic hierarchy, especially Cardinal Bourne of Westminster, gave more support to the exploration of reunion than has generally been thought. There is also evidence of interesting divergence in the genuinely scholarly attitude of Roman Catholic participants.

The Anglican Papalists emerge as fractious and eccentric. Though well-read, principled and committed, they are endearingly unrealistic. Nor do they include any member of the hierarchy. Even among fellow Anglo-Catholics they stand apart as a discrete grouping, conscious of the Church of England’s infection by a spirit of Modernism (e.g. the Lambeth Conference decision in 1930 to allow methods of birth control “where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence”).

Fr Étienne Fernand Portal: his death, as well as that of Cardinal Mercier, in 1926 dealt a blow to the Malines ConversationsWhat do we learn from this engaging exploration?

Vickers patiently reminds us that a desire for unity was seriously considered within the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England well before the Second Vatican Council. Those who nurtured this hope did so with creditable boldness and spiritual imagination. This book applauds that.

Vickers inclines towards recognition of the Ordinariate, established by Pope Benedict XVI for “Anglicans wishing to be received into full communion with Rome”, as the reward of those early labours. He notes that by 2015 it had received 89 priests “but no widespread influx from the Anglican laity”.

We are also all aware, however, that unity is the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a gift given as God wills, not as we determine.

The final chapter identifies the things that have made reception of this gift less easy to understand. But I feel that Vickers has overlooked a more compelling voice in which the hopes detected in Reunion Revisited are to be heard.

In the 1995 encyclical Ut unum sint, Pope St John Paul II speaks of the ministry of the Bishop of Rome as being to “accomplish a service of love recognised by all”. He asks: “Could not the real but imperfect communion existing between us persuade Church leaders and their theologians to engage with me in a fraternal dialogue on this subject, a dialogue in which, leaving useless controversies behind, we could listen to one another, keeping before us only the will of Christ for his Church?”

One of the great ecclesiastical architects of the period that Vickers has described was Sir Ninian Comper. His theory of “unity by inclusion” (contrasting with the limitations of his youthful “unity by exclusion”) is perhaps a good note on which to conclude. It invites an imaginative vision that overcomes juridical regulation, as with wisdom and prudence it dares to innovate in the way in which John Paul proposes.


Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester.


Reunion Revisited: 1930s ecumenism exposed

Mark Vickers

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