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Notes on the Conversations at Malines

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Author(s): Viscount Halifax
Dated: 1928

Fonds: Conversations at Malines (Minutes & Reports)
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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.