The Bishop of Norwich on some historic aspects of Anglican Papalism


During the Papal visit to the United Kingdom in 1981 St John Paul II and Archbishop Robert Runcie issued a common declaration thanking God for “the progress that has been made in the work of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Church of England”. At the time I was a parish priest in Welwyn Garden City, and I remember the thrilling expectation of what I hoped would be further growth towards union between our two communions. We seemed on the brink of a great breakthrough; but in retrospect it seems like a high-water mark. Deep friendship continues, but corporate reunion seems further away now than in 1982.

I begin with these reflections since in the early years of the twentieth century it would have been unthinkable that a reigning pope would come to the United Kingdom and gain the sort of welcome that St John Paul received. It would have been equally unthinkable that the Archbishop of Canterbury might suggest, as Robert Runcie did a few years later, that the Papacy was the only office which had the potential for universal primacy in a united Christian Church. What had happened to make such things possible?

The customary explanations include the claim that ecumenism was fostered by the social decline of all the churches in Europe, and the advance of secularisation. It is argued that the churches clung increasingly to each other in a world that was at first indifferent and then became gradually more hostile. A more positive spin, perhaps, is that the social outreach of the churches through various agencies began to be one which did not recognise denominational difference: Christian engagement in serving wider society brought Christians of different traditions together.  What is undeniable is that the Second Vatican Council re-shaped the relationship of the Catholic Church with the wider world, and with other Christian traditions. But if these were the prime movers of a growing ecumenism – and especially between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England – why have things stalled so much in an even more hostile and secular age? It must surely mean that doctrinal differences still matter.

Perhaps a little more attention should be given to the tradition in the Church of England which emerged in the early years of the twentieth century, and which has been largely ignored. It was called, at first with derision, the Anglican Papalist movement. It was never very large – though bigger than many Anglicans recognised at the time – and it had an influence beyond its numbers, because some of its leading figures were genuinely international in outlook.

Anglican Papalists believed that the Catholic Church in England bifurcated at the Reformation. The true Church of England, it was argued, was not merely the Church of England by law established, but the Catholic Church in the land as whole: outwardly divided at present in the sense that the Roman Catholic Church in England is not an intruded schismatic body, but the other section of the pre-Reformation English church. This had the support of various theologians and scholars, who gave academic credibility to such an understanding.

Was all this simply a theological theory? It certainly had some amusing out-workings in Norfolk. When Alfred Hope Patten was instituted in the parish church at Walsingham in 1921 he rang the Angelus on the bell: it has been rung every day since. Hope Patten sought to convert his village people to the Catholic faith, and did so with conspicuous success. He came to Walsingham knowing it had been a pilgrimage centre until the Reformation. How he would revive the pilgrimages he didn’t know; but gradually, during the 1920s, people started to visit – and especially after a renewed image of Our Lady of Walsingham was set up in the parish church.

This also prompted an early morning visit one weekday from my predecessor Bertram Pollock, Bishop of Norwich from 1910 to 1942. The story of Bishop Pollock’s visit to Walsingham in 1928 is well told in Colin Stephenson’s Walsingham Way. He said that all the new things which had been placed in the church should be cleared away; and this gave Fr Patten the chance to say that he would build a chapel to house the image on private property. “That would be very kind,” replied the Bishop – a statement of approval which he later regretted. When the foundation stone was laid for the Holy House of the new shrine it was furnished with a Latin inscription stating that the shrine had been restored in the pontificate of Pius XI, Bertram being Bishop of Norwich and Hope Patten Parish Priest of Walsingham. The wording reached the press. Bishop Pollock heard about it, and objected to the mention of the Pope. The removal of the Pope’s name was refused, so the bishop asked to have his own name removed instead. The foundation stone had already been carved, so Bishop Pollock’s name was filled in with plaster – and this was later removed, so he’s mentioned after all. Bishop Pollock never set foot in the Shrine Church. He did once go to an upstairs room in the house opposite with some binoculars, however. He came away saying “deplorable, deplorable. It is just as bad as I thought.”

The image of Our Lady of Walsingham was indeed removed from the parish church on 15 October 1931. Since there were around three thousand people in the streets to see the image on her way, it wasn’t the quiet removal my predecessor may have had in mind. Bishop Mowbray O’Rorke, the former Bishop of Accra who had retired to Blakeney, presided over the ceremony alongside the Abbot of Nashdom.  

   Seventy-five years later to the day – ten years ago this month – there was a service in the parish church in Walsingham commemorating this event, and the image was brought back from the shrine for the occasion. The then-RC Bishop of East Anglia and I both gave addresses at a service of Vespers of Our Lady. What Bishop Pollock would say about that, or the fact that his successor-but-four is now an Honorary Guardian of the Shrine I can just about imagine. “Deplorable, deplorable”.


To be continued.


This is an edited version of a lecture delivered by the Rt Revd Graham James at the University of East Anglia on 11 April 2016. We are grateful for permission to produce it here.