Notes on the Conversations at Malines: 1921-1925. Points of Agreement
Author(s): Viscount Halifax
Dated: 1928
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Viscount Halifax. "Notes on the Conversations at Malines: 1921-1925. Points of Agreement" (1928).


Notes on the Conversations at Malines

Points of Agreement

By Viscount Halifax

London and Oxford: Mowbray & Co, Ltd., 1928


The Report of the Conversations held at Malines under the presidency of Cardinal Mercier in the years 1921 to 1925 ought, as promised, to have been in the hands of the public some time ago. The death of Cardinal Mercier and that of the Abbe Portal, in January and June respectively in the year 1926, and the consequent consecration of Monsignor Van Roey to the See of Malines, involved a delay in the preparation of the Report until the autumn of that year, when the details of the publication were decided upon. There were again delays, owing to some misunderstandings in the spring of the following year 1927, largely due to the difficulties of combined meetings of the French and English members. Owing to rumours of hostility in various quarters during the summer and autumn, and the attitude of the English [Roman] Catholic press, which seemed to be jealous of the interest Cardinal Mercier had taken in English affairs regarding Reunion, I decided to go to Rome to ascertain the facts. Through the kind offices of Cardinal Cerretti, the late Nuncio in Paris, I prepared a paper at the request of the Holy See, which I handed to the Cardinal when I arrived in Rome, and the Pope did me the honour of receiving me a day or two later. The Pope, after graciously expressing his appreciation of my undertaking a journey to Rome at my age, gave me his personal blessing, extending it to my life’s work for Reunion, and it was with the greatest satisfaction that I returned homeward with the knowledge that the attitude of the Holy See had not changed from that which had always existed during the life of Cardinal Mercier.

Before returning to England I paid a visit to Cardinal Van Roey at Malines who expressed his willingness at a suitable date to preside at such future Conversations as might be arranged on similar lines to those held under the presidency of Cardinal Mercier. On my return to England both the English and French Reports, which had been for some time in the printer’s hands, would have been published had not the Archbishop of Canterbury wished the publication postponed till the Revised Prayer Book had been submitted to Parliament. Another postponement of uncertain length has been occasioned by the rejection of the Prayer Book Measure. Considerable inconvenience will be caused, not only in England, by that delay, which to some extent may be obviated if I publish some brief Notes which I wrote shortly after Cardinal Mercier’s death in 1926, in regard to the Conversations. They are Notes which I had always intended to publish, but which I should probably have kept back till the complete documents had appeared. These Notes may perhaps mitigate some disappointment at those documents being withheld.

In any case, it is, I think, fitting that I should publish these brief Notes on the Conversations which took place at Malines between members of the Roman and Anglican Communions, as I was, to a large extent, instrumental in bringing them about, and during the whole period remained in the closest touch with my fellow members, as well as with the responsible leaders of the Church at home. I can, therefore, speak with some degree of authority regarding the Meetings themselves, the subjects which were discussed, and the results which have, thus far, been achieved.

Whatever the ultimate issue may be, no one who took part in, or was in any degree associated with, these Conferences, can have failed to realize how deeply they have affected the relations hitherto existing between members of the Church of England and the Holy See. Never again can representatives on either side approach the subject of Reunion in the spirit of cold and critical detachment which prevailed before the Malines Conversations took place.

If nothing else had been achieved by these Meetings and the frank discussions which marked their course throughout, this venture of faith (as I am bold to call it) would, on that account alone, have been amply justified.

But, for my own part, I have a profound conviction that these Conversations—informal and unofficial though they were—have been blessed and guided throughout by the Holy Spirit, Who has used these occasions, in ways we know not, to lead us one step nearer to the goal of Catholic Unity, which we so ardently long to reach.

HICKLETON, The Feast of the Epiphany, 1928.

Notes on the Conversations at Malines

1. Object of the Conversations.

THE series of Conversations which were held at Malines, at intervals during the years 1921 to 1925, under the presidency of His Eminence the late Cardinal Mercier, had a two-fold object. One was to draw attention to the Lambeth Conference, which, by the action of the Bishops of the Anglican Communion, had brought the subject of Reunion before the notice of the Christian world. The other, to ascertain by a mutual exchange of ideas, whether there was a sufficient measure of agreement between what was held as de fide in the Roman Communion, and the formularies and teaching of the Church of England, to justify the attempt to reunite the latter with the Holy See.

It may therefore be useful to recapitulate some of the conclusions arrived at in the course of these Conversations, which were not, however, in any case, exhaustive or final, nor such as to preclude further discussion at future Conferences. The subjects dealt with included, among other questions, the Sacraments of the Church, Holy Scripture, the Episcopate, and, above all, the difficult questions involved in the claims of the Holy See and the position of the Pope in relation to the rest of Christendom.

The discussions revealed a considerable measure of agreement with regard to the following subjects:

1. That Holy Baptism constitutes the means of entry to the Church of Christ, and that all validly baptized persons belong, in virtue of their baptism, to the Body of the Church. That the initiation thus effected must develop into an organized life.

2. That the Sacrifice of the death of Christ upon the Cross is the one all-sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world; and that that Sacrifice is sacramentally offered by the showing forth—to use S. Paul’s words—of that death, mystically represented by the separate Consecration of the bread and wine; and that, as the Formularies of the Church of England teach, ‘the Body and Blood of Christ are verily and indeed given, taken, and received by the faithful in the Lord’s Supper.’

3. That Communion in both kinds was once the custom of the Universal Church, and had only been discontinued in the West for reasons of a practical nature. The question was not, therefore, so much one of doctrine as of discipline.

4. That Holy Scripture requires the interpretation of the Church before it can be accepted as the ultimate standard of faith and doctrine.

The theological position of Anglicans that no doctrine may be considered to be de fide, and therefore binding upon the conscience of Christians, which cannot be derived from Holy Scripture, was not thought to be incompatible with that which is held by Roman Catholics.

5. That with regard to the position of the Holy See and the question of Papal Supremacy, the Anglicans, although, in common with the Orthodox Eastern Churches, they disowned the monarchy of the Bishop of Rome, and maintained that his doctrinal authority is not separate from that of the Episcopate, and can only be exercised in conformity with the traditions and teachings of the whole Church of Christ, conceded that a visible headship of the Church might be implied in the commission bestowed by our Lord upon S. Peter, and might even be found to be essential for the accomplishment of a reunited Christendom.

6. That the Bishops derived their succession direct from the Apostles, and their authority and position in the Church are therefore jure divino.

2. Claims of the Holy See.

Considerable discussion took place during the Conversations as-to the claims to pre-eminence of the Holy See, and the Roman Catholics dwelt upon the necessity of a visible Head of the Church in order to preserve Catholic Unity. It was urged that, apart from the proofs to be derived from Holy Scripture and from tradition, it was reasonable to suppose that our Lord did in fact make some provision for such a visible Head of His Church in the persons of S. Peter and his successors, to act as a perpetual safeguard and centre of unity for the whole Episcopate scattered throughout the world. The unity of the family, it was argued, was preserved by the Father, as also the unity of the State found expression in the person of the Sovereign or President.

3. The Pope’s Prerogative.

Arising out of a discussion of the Vatican Decrees, it should be noted that the prerogative of Infallibility does not separate the Pope from the Church, nor may he act apart from the Church, of which he is the visible Head and mouthpiece. His power consists, not in proclaiming or imposing new dogmas, but, as the chief bishop and pastor of the flock, in declaring explicitly and authoritatively what is the faith which our Lord Jesus Christ has committed to the keeping of His Church. It was further added that the definition of a dogma is not an expression of a new truth, but the authentic formulation of a truth which, from the beginning, was enshrined in the deposit of revealed doctrine —the bringing to light of that which had, in germ form, been contained in the teaching of Christ to His Apostles. Before quitting the subject of dogma it was recognized by all that there are beliefs which must be imposed as Articles of Faith, and that, as to the greater number of such beliefs, and the necessity of holding them, there was a general consensus of agreement between the Churches.

4. The Need for Reunion.

As regards the need for Reunion amongst Christians it was acknowledged throughout the Conversations that the circumstances of the time revealed the necessity for its realization in the interests both of religion and morality, in a way that had perhaps never been so evident before.

The imperative desire for united action for the good of humanity, as witnessed by the formation of a League of Nations, was becoming more and more apparent in civil and political affairs. The same urgent call for unity is no less necessary in the sphere of religion.

5. The Lambeth Appeal.

In this connection two features in the Lambeth Appeal should be noted, one general, and one special. The first pointed to an external unity which was not to be a mere federation, but a re-incorporation of the severed parts into one united body. The second suggested a policy, not of surrender, but of revision and reunion founded on the acceptance of what was held to be de fide by the Universal Church from the beginning. Further, that all controversies of the past should be reconsidered in this spirit, as was exemplified by the fact that the Anglican Bishops assembled at Lambeth had stated for themselves and their clergy that they were ready to accept from the authorities of other Churches whatever form might be considered necessary in order that the Anglican ministry could be fully recognized by them, providing an agreement had already been reached upon all the points which had hitherto divided them. This statement of the Anglican Episcopate, it was explained, had primarily in view, not so much the Episcopally-governed Churches, but such, for example, as the Scottish Established Presbyterian Church, which claims to possess a valid ministry derived from the Apostles, or the Wesleyan Methodists, who, to a large extent, use the Prayer Book of the Church of England. The Bishops, in their Appeal, invited these bodies to regularize their ministry by accepting Episcopal Ordination, and offered on their part to consider whatever form of authorization would commend their own ministry to the Congregations in question. The offer, thus stated in general terms, involved their readiness to accept regularization of their own position, if it should be judged necessary, by the Authorities of the Roman or Orthodox Communions. By making this offer it was recognized that the Anglican Bishops were setting a conspicuous example of humility, and making a great sacrifice for the sake of unity.

6. The Thirty-Nine Articles.

In the course of the Conversations allusion was made to the Thirty-nine Articles in relation to the Decrees of the Council of Trent, and it was stated by the Anglican members present that theologians like Dr. Pusey and Bishop Forbes of Brechin had held that the definitions of doctrine they contained admitted of an interpretation which would reconcile them with the Tridentine Decrees. It was suggested that a further study of those Decrees and of the history of the Council which formulated them was greatly to be desired.

The change in the terms of subscription to the Articles which was effected by a modification of the Civil Law more than fifty years ago should also be noted, whereby the clergy by their signature give now only a general consent to the doctrine of the Church of England therein contained, without thereby accepting every proposition and phrase which may be found in them.

7. The Church of England and the Civil Power.

In view of prevailing misconception as to the relations of the Church of England to the Civil Power, it may be useful to note, as was explained, in the course of the Conversations at Malines, that, in England, ecclesiastical offences are tried in the Episcopal Court of the Diocese, with an appeal to the Archiepiscopal Court of the Province.

In recent times an appeal has been asserted from the Archbishop’s Court to the Crown in Council, not altogether unlike the appel comme d’abus in France—an appeal the legitimacy of which has been the occasion of determined controversy.

The question, however, has ceased to have much importance, as it is generally recognized that the Synods of the Province—the Convocations of Canterbury and York —are the final ecclesiastical authority, and that the action, whether of the Crown, or of Parliament, or of the Civil Courts, is merely to give or refuse legal assent to the determinations of the Ecclesiastical Courts.

It may also be useful to add that, up to 1851, the Ecclesiastical Courts alone had cognizance of matrimonial causes—and that, as long as this was the case, a divorce a vinculo could only be obtained by a private Act of Parliament over-riding, in that particular instance, the general law of England.

8. Conclusion.

The foregoing Notes, brief though they are, will, it is hoped, make it abundantly clear to all who truly desire the Unity of Christendom how much is to be gained by the continuation and expansion of such Conversations as those which have owed their happy beginnings to the initiative and encouragement of the late Cardinal Mercier, whose death in the spring of 1926 has filled so many hearts with a deep and abiding sorrow.

The whole subject of our relations with the See of Rome is of so vast and complicated a character, and the questions of doctrine and interpretation that will need to be explored are so numerous, that many similar Conferences will have to be held—possibly of a more authoritative nature—before we can hope to make any real progress towards a mutual understanding. When, by the inspiration of God, and under the guidance of His Providence a real desire for Reunion and the fulfilment of our Lord’s words, ut unum sint, is entertained by all, then questions touching Holy Orders and the marriage of the clergy will settle themselves.

It is my earnest hope and prayer that the torch which has been lit at Malines may in God’s good time pass to other and more vigorous hands, in order that the sacred fire may spread far and wide, kindling in the hearts of true believers a burning zeal for the restoration of Catholic and Apostolic Unity.

9. Cardinal Mercier’s Last Letter to the Archbishop.

I cannot more fittingly conclude these Notes than by appending a translation of the last letter which the late Cardinal Mercier addressed to the Archbishop of Canterbury, before his final illness, which His Grace has most kindly permitted me to publish.

When I saw the Cardinal on his death-bed he gave me leave to use the letter as I might think best, with the Archbishop’s approval.

MALINES, Oct. 25, 1925


As soon as I received your letter of August 1st, I made a point of acknowledging it at once, but I found myself compelled to ask for some delay in order to examine its contents. This delay has been prolonged far beyond my expectations. Being accustomed, as you are, to the difficulties of a large administration, I trust you will excuse me and forgive this apparent carelessness.

When I first read it, your letter caused me a certain uneasiness. I was not sure that I had grasped its inner meaning. The document was inspired by an unaltered goodwill, all appreciations on the past were encouraging, but reflections on the present situation and on future developments seemed to betray a shaken confidence.

This was not surprising since, in such a long, protracted effort as our own, if the goal remains the same, the means to reach it vary according to circumstances and raise new problems at every step.

As our exchange of views are pursued within our meetings, the line of demarcation between the articles on which agreement existed or has been achieved, and the articles about which certain divergencies still exist becomes more and more distinct, the difficulties in the way of final success loom larger on the horizon and the reasons for hoping seem less convincing.

When, on the other hand, we listen to the voice of our followers outside our meetings, we notice a restlessness which it is not within our power to appease, and it may be that we, I mean Your Grace and myself, feel some anxiety and weariness which are not always easy to dispel.

Among our Roman Catholics, this restlessness assumes two different aspects.

Some of them, full of enthusiasm and sympathy for our cause, complain of our apparent dilatoriness and of a silence which seems to them unduly prolonged. They are inclined to imagine that the problem of reunion being stated, like a theorem of geometry, its affirmative or negative solution ought to be reached immediately. If the worst came to the worst, they say a majority vote would put an end to all hesitations. They would like to see the Malines Conversations proceed more quickly and thus satisfy, without further delay, the curiosity of public opinion. Reunion would be such a beautiful and edifying spectacle that one could not provide too early for the religious-minded the comfort which they would derive from it.

Others, on the contrary, haunted by the policy of ‘all or nothing,’ consider only the final result, exaggerate purposely the difficulties which must be conquered before reaching it, and undervalue the supreme part played by grace in the evolution of spiritual life.

Relying only upon themselves and upon the knowledge of their own weakness, they would readily abandon an attempt in which, it is true, they have never placed any confidence, which, at the bottom of their hearts, they perhaps never favoured and for the success of which they perhaps never prayed.

Your Grace must, no doubt, meet with the same restlessness on the part of inveterate optimists and obstinate pessimists among your own flock; they wish to obtain from us a sudden solution, and, if they could, they would urge us to end the matter promptly.

Do you not think it would be weakness on our part if we gave way to these solicitations? We have responsibilities which our followers do not share and do not always understand Our situation imposes upon us the duty to consider the general situation from a higher standpoint, according to deeper supernatural standards. The direction of consciences entrusted to us allows us to act with authority.

Your Grace’s letter mentions certain declarations which ought to be made, certain statements in which the points agreed upon by the two sides should be definitely outlined and in which the points still under discussion should be recalled.

I eagerly accept this proposal and am ready to place it on the agenda of our next meeting, which might take place, according to the wish expressed by Lord Halifax, during the first fortnight of January, 1926.

I understand that two statements ought to be prepared, the first on the conclusions already reached, the second on disputable points which have been partially considered, or on new subjects which, according to the wish of one or both sides, ought still to be placed on the agenda.

This comparative survey would show, I believe, that not only have our meetings brought hearts together, which is already a very appreciable result, but that they have also, on important points, harmonized our thoughts and achieved progress in agreement.

The first statement on common conclusions might be developed in more explicit form or be published in a reduced form. It would be a happy means of maintaining the religious interest of our respective flocks.

According to my humble opinion, however, it would be inopportune to publish the statement on disputable points.

Negative conclusions, whatever they may be, would provoke polemics in the press, re-awake secular animosities and accentuate divisions, thus harming the cause to which we have resolved to devote ourselves.

Faithful to our original purpose, we must bring to light progressively whatever favours reunion, and set aside or defer whatever stands in the way. Our original intention was not to examine, within a set time, a few questions of theology, exegesis, or history, with the hope of adding a chapter of apologetics or controversies to the scientific or religious works of our predecessors. On the contrary, we met face to face like men of goodwill and sincere believers, alarmed by the confusion of opinions and the divisions of thought prevailing in modern society, and saddened by the progress of religious indifference and of the materialistic conception of life which follows it. We had in mind the supreme wish for reunion, for unity expressed by our divine Saviour: Ut unum sint: Oh! If they could only be but one! We set to work without knowing either when or how this union hoped for by Christ could be realized, but convinced that it could be realized since Christ willed it, and that we had, therefore, each one of us, to bring our contribution to its realization. Reunion is not our work, and we may be unable to achieve it, but it is within our power, and consequently within our duty, to prepare it, and pave the way for it.

Was it not for this high purpose that the Lambeth Conference was called together in a spirit of trust in the wisdom and goodness of divine providence?

Is this not the unique object pursued for more than fifty years by our dear and revered colleague, who devotes with such admirable zeal his time, his strength, and his heart to the cause of reunion?

I seem to hear the revered Dean of Wells addressing us in such moving words, at the close of our first meeting: ‘For four centuries, Anglicans and Roman Catholics were only aware of their antagonisms and divisions; they have met for the first time in order better to understand each other, to remove the misunderstandings which estrange them, to draw nearer to the goal so wished for by every one; reunion.’

When the revered Dean uttered these moving words, he did not merely address our small, exclusive group but the mass of believers which we knew were behind us and whose perseverent faith in Christ and in the Church is the object of our constant care and anxiety.

As far as I am concerned, it is in this light of apostleship that I have looked upon my contribution to these conversations from the first day when the revered Lord Halifax and the Abbe Portal expressed the wish that I should join them. When, in January, 1924, I explained to my clergy and to my diocese the part which I had played in our Conversations, I dwelt on the same point. I reminded them of the words of Leo XIII: ‘The great events of history cannot be gauged by human calculations.’ Foreseeing and fearing their impatience, I recalled to them the teaching of S. Paul on the unique source of the fruitfulness of apostleship: ‘So then, neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase.’ ‘Neque qui plantat est aliquid neque qui rigat sed qui incrementum dat, Deus‘ (1 Cor. iii. 7). And I added these words which I beg leave to repeat here: ‘You are getting impatient, success is slow to come, your trouble appears wasted. Be on your guard; nature and her eagerness mislead you; an effort of charity is never lost.’

Reapers of souls, we must sow in the sweat of our brow, mostly in tears, before the hour of reaping strikes. When this blessed hour does strike, another very likely will have filled our place: ‘Alius est qui seminat, alius est qui metit’ (S. John iv. 37).

It is in this spirit of Christian patience and supernatural confidence that we shall meet again in January next, content to labour and to sow, leaving to the Holy Spirit and to the working of His grace the choice of the day and the hour for reaping the crop which our humble works and our prayers endeavour to prepare.

For this also and above all we must declare: We associated ourselves as students, it is true, but our association is chiefly spiritual and joins in common prayer. The knowledge of our mere existence and of our periodical meetings is, for the general public, a constant exhortation to religious thought and collective prayer for reunion.

I am,
Your Grace,
Your obedient servant,

(Signed) D. J. CARD. MERCIER,
Arch. of Malines.

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