Mark Vickers introduces his work on inter-war ecumenism


A standard historical view is that there was no friendly contact between Roman Catholics and Anglicans from the Reformation in the sixteenth century until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s – except for the Malines Conversations hosted by Cardinal Mercier in the 1920s. The whole point, it is argued, is that those Conversations took place in Belgium because English RCs were so unhelpful and hostile. Imagine my excitement, therefore, as I unearthed a whole series of Conversations which took place between Catholics and Anglicans in London in the early 1930s; and my delight when various archives disgorged most of the papers delivered at those conferences, and the correspondence surrounding them. Those Conversations were approved by the English Catholic hierarchy, and brought to the attention of Pope Pius XI.

The RC team was hugely impressive; and I have formed a great respect for the Anglicans, too. They were not ‘representative’ in any ordinary sense of the word; but scholarly, colourful, and wholly committed to the ideal and the reality of the Reunion of Christendom. Someone who deserves a far more recognition than he has received to date is Spencer Jones, co-founder of the Octave of Prayer for Church Unity. I think we might be surprised how seriously the participants took these Conversations. Indeed, I wonder whether they might find modern ecumenical endeavours just a little superficial. Certainly, these conversationalists aimed at unity at the deepest possible level, full unity of doctrine and practice – and they did not shy away from the difficult issues that that threw up.

We must learn from history in order not to suffer from ecclesiastical amnesia; and both Roman Catholics and Anglicans can take a great deal from these 1930s Conversations. Both sides maintained an absolute determination that unity must be substantive – full unity of faith and practice – and not some vague sentiment of goodwill. The ability to engage – on the whole with considerable charity – on matters of doctrine, sacramental theology, and Church history is hugely impressive.

Roman Catholics in particular might usefully re-visit many of the issues thrown up by these Conversations to avoid similar mistakes today: to ask what fidelity to Christ and His Church, and to Scripture and Tradition involves in practice; and what is meant by the Petrine ministry and authority. The scenario and so many of the quotes from the 1930s have direct application today. Take the words of Archbishop Alban Goodier SJ: “The faith or the morals of one generation cannot contradict the faith or morals of another […] The Church that teaches morals which have never been the morals of Jesus Christ declares herself formally heretical.” Perhaps Jesuits back then were different, too.

These Conversations do not fit the Establishment narrative of ecumenism. Perhaps that is no bad thing at a time when the endeavour seems to have stalled and no longer captures the imagination of many. The record of these 1930s Conversations could serve no better purpose than if it enables people to approach the matter with a fresh perspective and renewed vigour, realising the imperative of the responsibility of Christian unity in a world that continues to live further and further away from God.


The Revd Mark Vickers is a priest of the Archdiocese of Westminster. Reunion Revisited: 1930s Ecumenism Exposed is published by Gracewing. Review to follow.