The Malines Conversations 100 Years On

Friday, 11 June 2021


Opening words: Cardinal Kurt Koch
President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity



Your Excellencies,
Brothers and sisters in Christ,

I would like, first of all, to thank their Excellencies Patrick Renault and Sally Axworthy for organising this symposium, and to thank the Belgian Embassy for hosting us. The symposium provides us with an opportunity to celebrate, not an event that happened a hundred years ago, but a journey begun, and a road travelled together throughout those hundred years.

The journey really began with a chance meeting on the island of Madeira between Charles Lindsay Wood, the second Viscount of Halifax, and Abbé Fernand Portal, a French Lazarist Catholic priest. A chance encounter quickly became a friendship and a recognition of shared Christian faith.

Their friendship gave Portal and Halifax a missionary zeal to bring their two communions together in unity. Although their first enthusiastic efforts met with the disappointment of the negative judgement regarding Anglican Orders of Apostociae Curae in 1896, their passion for the unity of God’s Church remained undimmed.

The Appeal for Unity made by the 1920 Lambeth Conference provided an opportunity to begin afresh. Halifax, with the blessing of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, approached Cardinal Désiré Joseph Mercier, who was, himself, already looking for ways to heal the divisions in Christianity. The Anglican and Catholic theologians who met in Malines  between the 6th and 8th December, 1921, with the approval respectively of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Holy See, were conducting one of the first bi-lateral dialogues of modern times, predated only by the Congresses of Velehrad between Catholics and Orthodox theologians. This form of dialogue between theological experts of two worldwide communions has, particularly overt the last fifty years, become of vital importance in our efforts to overcome the divisions between Christians, and constitutes much of the current work of our Pontifical Council.

Not only the method of engagement, but also the topics discussed at Malines, prefigured those themes which would be taken up later by the official dialogues: ministry, the sacraments, the ministry of the bishop of Rome, and Marian dogma. The participants also considered how authority might be exercised if the two communions were to be reconciled. Dom Lambert Beauduin’s famous contribution, “L’Eglise Anglicane unie non absorbée” remains one of the most enduring legacies of the conversations.

Even though the conversations came to an end in 1926 after the death of Cardinal Mercier, the friendship of Abbe Portal and Lord Halifax, had now been enlarged, and included a handful of expert theologians who also recognised in one another a shared Christian faith. Nor did conversations stop. Recent research has revealed that meetings between Catholic and Anglican theologians took place in England in the 1930s with the support of the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Bourne. And again, throughout the 1950s, conversations took place between English Anglican and mostly French Catholic theologians initiated by the Oxford Patristic scholar Canon Leonard Prestige.

With the advent of the second Vatican Council, relations between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion grew more established and official. But throughout the 1960s there were also sensibilities and historic tensions that demanded attention. In particular, the Catholic bishops of England and Wales sometimes felt excluded from discussions between Canterbury and Rome, as they had from some of the earlier attempts at theological dialogue. This tension came to a head around the time of Archbishop Michael Ramsey’s visit to Saint Paul VI in 1966 and resulted in the appointment of an English official, Canon William Purdy, to the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity.

The Common Declaration of Saint Paul VI and Archbishop Ramsey expressed their intention “to inaugurate between the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion a serious dialogue which, founded on the Gospels and the ancient common traditions, may lead to that unity in truth, for which Christ prayed.” Official dialogue began with the Anglican-Catholic Joint Preparatory Commission which met three times in 1967 to produce its Malta Report. Archbishop Henry McAdoo, the first Anglican co-chair of ARCIC, observed that the report reprised the themes discussed in the fourth of the Malines Conversations in 1925.

When the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission first met in January 1970 it is significant that its two Catholic bishops were both drawn from the English hierarchy: Bishop Alan Clark, who had already participated in a one-off meeting of Catholic and Anglican theologians in England, was named co-chair; and Bishop Christopher Butler OSB, the most able theologian of England’s Catholic bishops.

As the commission began its work it quickly realised that its agreements would have to be broad enough to include the evangelical wing of the Anglican Communion. Earlier conversations had been almost exclusively with Anglo-Catholic members of the Church of England, and had led Catholics to speculate that a union between Catholics and Anglicans would inevitably involve a split among Anglicans. But Christian unity cannot be achieved by creating further divisions, and so ARCIC proceeded with careful attention to the theological commitments of evangelical Anglicans, the Reverend Julian Charley becoming a key arbiter of how far its agreed statements could go.

It was also quickly realised that the Commission needed to better represent the reality and diversity of the worldwide Anglican and Catholic communions. All of the members of the original commission, with one exception, were ordained men, and although bishops from places such as South Africa and Australia were included in the first commission, many were in fact born in England. When the time came to renew the Commission in 1983 care was taken to ensure that women were among the experts appointed, and that there was a greater and more genuine representation of the geographical spread of the communions.

In 1996 during a colloquium to mark the 75th anniversary of the Malines Conversations Archbishop George Carey and the late Cardinal Edward Idris Cassidy discussed whether an initiative should be undertaken to review what our ecumenical relationship of recent decades had accomplished. This conversation led to a meeting in Mississauga of pairs of Anglican and Catholic bishops from 13 Provinces and Episcopal Conference around the world, places where Catholics and Anglicans live side by side in significant numbers. This meeting led directly to the creation of the International Anglican Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM) which exists to promote joint witness and action in the world on the basis of our theological agreements. This commission recognises the need for Catholics and Anglicans to work and pray together in parishes, dioceses and national or regional structures, if we are to continue to make progress in our journey towards unity.

The friendship of Lord Halifax and Abbé Portal, and their recognition of shared Christian faith, brought a small handful of experts together around a table in Malines. Through the hundred years that followed we have continued to realise that we need to extend the table, to include more constituencies from each of our communions, encouraging them to be a part of the dialogue and to recognise the communion that already exists between us. Around the table of dialogue common Christian faith is recognised and relationships are deepened. The table of dialogue prefigures the table of the Eucharist, the goal of our dialogue. Through the first table we hope to reach the second, where we will be able to recognise one another fully and to share full communion in the Eucharist. May our discussions today have this goal in mind.