Friendship and Unity

Review by Richard Mammana Jr.

Malines is the French name for a Flemish city near Antwerp called Mechelen today and usually known in English as Mechlin. It was the site of informal but important conversations about unity by Roman Catholics and members of the Church of England between 1921 and 1927 — the “Malines Conversations” that are reckoned as the precursors of all subsequent Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue.

Anglicans and Roman Catholics have remained in constant conversation since the 1534 and 1558 acts that made the monarch head of the Church in England, and even after the 1570 papal bull excommunicating Queen Elizabeth I. This interaction was necessarily almost always antagonistic and controversial rather than irenic, but it continued up until and after the 1896 bull Apostolicae curae declared Anglican ordinations “absolutely null and utterly void.”

A small group of individuals — organized on the Roman Catholic side by the Vincentian priest Étienne Fernand Portal (1855-1926) and by the English layman Charles Lindley Wood, Viscount Halifax (1839-1934) — conceived of the need for a change in the mode of conversation from antagonism to direct encounter. Désiré-Joseph Cardinal Mercier (1851-1926) invited them to Belgium to begin this process.

The major interlocutors were Halifax and English Anglo-Catholics Charles Gore, Walter Howard Frere, and J. Armitage Robinson, joined by French and Belgian Catholics Hippolyte Hemmer (1864-1945), Pierre Battifol (1861-1929) and Jozef-Ernest Van Roey (1874-1961). Van Roey was later a hero of the Belgian resistance to Nazism.

They met in different configurations beginning in December 1921 at the episcopal palace in Malines. Archbishop Rowan Williams carries the story forward in this new, short book.

Williams guides the reader through the personalities (most now forgotten except by specialists) and their problems and contexts, looking especially at the Petrine ministry but also at the nature and limits of doctrinal acceptance within the Church. In other words, “Does the definition of doctrine happen simply as an organic outgrowth of the Church’s self-understanding or as a response to the sort of crisis that endangers the fundamental integrity of faith?” — and must all parts of the Church accept all parts of defined doctrine?

The Malines Conversations ended after six years, diminished by the deaths of Cardinal Mercier and Étienne Portal and by the absence of English Roman Catholics as dialogue partners. The conversations resulted in a striking proposal by Dom Lambert Beauduin (1873-1960, himself not an official member of the conversations) for l’Église Anglicane unie non absorbée (“the Anglican Church United, But Not Absorbed”).

They blazed a path picked up later by the Anglican-Roman Catholic Consultation in the United States (since 1967), the Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission in 1969, the International Anglican–Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (since 2001), by numerous local and national relationships, and indeed by a new informal and international Malines Conversations Group since the beginning of its regular meetings in 2013.

This essay is unlike the usual ecumenical fare with its rosters of meetings and their minutes and resolves, perhaps few of which have direct effect on the lived experience of the churches they involve. Because Williams is a theologian and poet, a multilingual explorer of the Christian imagination and experience, his surprisingly brief introduction to Malines is a happy reflection on the growing awareness among Anglicans and Roman Catholics of the imperative to ecclesial unity. It is also a wonderful exposition of the fact that lasting ecumenical work grows out of committed friendships among persons who make it their work to speak and write on behalf of their traditions in the best voices they have.

Williams himself and Pope Benedict XVI renewed the historic commitment to the goal of “full visible communion in the truth of Jesus Christ” in 2006 — a goal never since repudiated on either side despite acknowledged obstacles. The conversations begun in Malines proceed in the common life of our churches today. To paraphrase the late American Orthodox theologian Matthew Baker: the fathers of Malines are ahead of us, with Christ; we are running to catch up with them.

Richard J. Mammana Jr. is the Episcopal Church’s associate for ecumenical and interreligious relations.

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