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The Malines Conversations: The beginnings of Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue by Rowan Williams

14 January 2022

Christopher Hill reviews a current perspective on a seminal dialogue

LAST year brought the centenary of the first of the unofficial Malines Conversations between English Anglicans and French and Belgian Roman Catholics. They were led by the veteran Anglo-Catholic Lord Halifax and by the heroic Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier, Archbishop of Malines-Brussels during and after the First World War.

Lord Williams has given us a splendid monograph, which focuses on the central theological issues of the Conversations while also emphasising the background tensions in both Churches in the early twenties of the last century. The booklet has been published with the help of the Malines Conversations Group, which, like the Conversations themselves, is informal but informed.

Williams first offers pen portraits of the key personalities, reminding us that for Halifax and the Lazarist priest Fernand Portal this was their second “great adventure”. Halifax and Portal had pioneered modern discussion of Anglican Orders in 1895, which was then closed down in 1896 by Pope Leo XIII in Apostolicae Curae. But Halifax and Portal, even after this disastrous “prequel”, maintained their friendship, and the Lambeth Conference Appeal to All Christian People of 1920 gave them the opportunity to return to the task of seeking the visible unity of the Church (News, 10 December 2021).

Williams does not give a detailed history of the annual conversations, but points to the excellent work by the Servite priest Bernard Barlow and the extensive work on the Conversations by the Belgian scholar John Dick. Rather, Williams reminds us of the context of the Conversations.

Charles Wood, the 2nd Viscount Halifax

On the Roman Catholic side, there was the fervent anti-Modernist campaign. Mercier was himself suspected of some scholarly sympathy with those accused of Modernism. In England, there remained strong anti-Catholic (including anti-Anglo-Catholic) prejudice, which culminated in the failure of the revised Prayer Book (1927-28) to gain Parliamentary approval.

Both Mercier and Archbishop Davidson had to defend diplomatically the unofficial but acknowledged Malines Conversationalists. Williams rightly emphasises the unfavourable historical context. This is not the only time when internal divisions within the two Communions have resulted in difficult terrain for the Anglican-Roman Catholic search for unity. Williams does not go into the complex reasons for the lack of English RC participation.

His personal contribution to reflection on Malines comes when he opens up two particular issues: the Petrine ministry and the limits of doctrinal affirmation. Here, he takes us beyond Malines itself after examining the arguments of the papers presented by scholars from both sides. On the Petrine texts in the New Testament, we can step straight from Malines to the first and second statements on authority of the First Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). On doctrinal development, Williams introduces us to his own debate with Newman, already in part prefigured at Malines. Specifically, how far should doctrines established by “inference” from other doctrines be made binding for communion rather than accepted as possible rather than mandatory interpretations of faith?

Fr Fernand Portal

Here the fundamental question of the pluriformity of the expression of doctrine arises; a question flagged by Pope John XXIII at the opening of the Second Vatican Council. During the ARCIC discussions, the late Dominican theologian Jean-Marie Tillard alluded to this question by referring to the Marian definitions — the Immaculate Conception and Assumption — as “devotional” doctrines.

Williams concludes by nevertheless recognising the need for a living, authoritative voice — Newman’s argument — but only where there is a serious crisis of Christian identity. He cites the Barmen Declaration against the Nazi-supported “German Christian” movement as precisely such a heresy.

Cardinal Mercier

In his discussion on doctrinal definition, Williams adds to both Malines and ARCIC wisdom by pointing to the occasions when continuing Christian identity requires an authoritative teaching ministry in the face of a parody or denial of salvific truth; and to discerning when on other occasions cultural pluriformity is not only legitimate, but required.

The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is a former Bishop of Guildford.


The Malines Conversations: The beginnings of Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue
Rowan Williams
Paulist Press £11.99
Church Times Bookshop £10.79

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