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Malines Conversations important still, says Lord Williams at centenary service

10 December 2021

YouTube/York Minster

Lord Williams speaks at a service in York Minster, on Monday, to mark the centenary of the Malines Conversations

Lord Williams speaks at a service in York Minster, on Monday, to mark the centenary of the Malines Conversations

THE legacy of the Malines Conversations — a series of private conversations on the unity of the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, held in Belgium from 1921 to 1927 — is “alive and important” today, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams told an audience in York Minster this week.

The dialogue was the initiative of two friends, Charles Lindley Wood, the 2nd Viscount Halifax, the leading Anglo-Catholic layman of his day, and the Abbé Fernand Portal, and took place at the invitation of the Archbishop of Malines, Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier.

At a service on Monday to mark the centenary, Lord Williams noted their dismissal by some, including Hensley Henson, Bishop of Durham, who had described it as “predictably futile: a few unrepresentative Anglicans meet a few unrepresentative Roman Catholics. The Vatican, always courtly and polite, makes friendly noises and does absolutely nothing and the C of E likewise.”

In fact, Lord Williams said, the conversations had “kept open two very important windows. Within the Roman Catholic Church, it had allowed some vastly distinguished historical theologians . . . to pursue, without instantly being condemned for modernism, some urgent questions about the nature of the history of Christian thinking.” This had gone on to shape the Second Vatican Council.

On the Anglican side, the conversations had “kept again on the radar of some influential and sophisticated minds in the Church of England the question what kind of unity, what kind of global unity, the Church of England was prepared to think about and countenance”. They had shaped the “reach and intellectual quality” of the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church, and the “flowering” of its theological scholarship.

“‘What is Catholic unity?’ remains the question that badly needs considering,” he concluded. The Malines participants had “manifestly allowed the theology of their interlocutors to shape what they were saying. They came away changed, and perhaps, at the end of the day, that is what we may expect when theologians from different confessions come together, not simply in each other’s presence, but in the presence of Christ.

Responding to the talk, the Auxiliary Bishop of Malines-Brussels, Mgr Jean Kockerols, said that it was good to be reminded of “the audacity, the courage, the enthusiasm” of those involved — qualities needed today. “It is very sad, in my opinion, that our Churches remain separated, but, in so many realities, the faithful who constitute them are united,” he said.

“And they bear together witness to the extent to which baptism, through the paschal mystery of Christ, gives flesh to the gospel today in our troubled world. It is perhaps a more humble witness than a century ago, but also perhaps a truer and more significant one. I do believe that the credibility of the gospel, the Christian message, is at stake, and that we are all responsible for it.”

The Archbishop of York urged those gathered to “commit ourselves to finding new approaches and new opportunities to pray with and alongside each other. To visit each other’s churches and shrines. To honour one another.”

The Malines Conversations: The beginning of Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue
by Rowan Williams is published by the Paulist Press at £11.99 (Church Times Bookshop £10.79) 978-0-80915-587-3

Watch the video “Malines Conversations Centenary Celebration: Lecture and choral evensong” here 


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