Project Canterbury

The Catholic Movement in the Church of England

By Wilfred L. Knox, M.A.
Priest of the Oratory of the Good Shepherd

London: Philip Allan, [1923]

Part V. The Reunion of Christendom


There is no problem so urgent at the present moment as the restoration of the outward unity of Christendom. Energy which should be devoted to the conversion of unbelievers is being diverted to controversy between various groups of Christians, while many who might otherwise believe are repelled by the constant quarrels of Christians on matters which appear at least to be of very small importance. In the case of the English Church the position is complicated by the fact that it is by no means an united body. It comprises a definitely Protestant element, a liberal element which practically rejects the elements of Christianity common to Catholics and Protestants alike, and a very large body of opinion which is neither Protestant, Catholic, nor liberal in any strict sense. In recent years a considerable section of this body has tended to crystallize into a party describing itself as "Liberal Evangelical." Its members are mainly of evangelical upbringing, and seek to retain the emphasis of the older evangelicals on the necessity of personal communion between the individual soul and Our Lord, while accepting a wide measure of modern criticism of the Scriptures and caring rather little for the dogmatic system of the older form of Protestantism. They are prepared in many cases to sympathize with Catholicism as a particular way of regarding the Christian religion, and are in fact far more deeply influenced than the majority of them realise by the Catholic conception of sacramentalism as a vital part of Christianity.

Before considering the attitude of English Catholics towards re-union with other Christian bodies it is necessary to consider their attitude to other elements within the English Church. At the present day there is a considerable tendency to favour what may be described as the comprehensive view of the Church of England. According to this it is desirable that room should be left for the expression within it of various aspects of the truth. Thus Catholicism should be regarded as one way of approaching to God, Evangelicalism as another. It is urged that the human mind cannot apprehend the full truth, and that therefore the Church should leave as much as possible of her teaching undefined, and allow a wide variety of liturgical forms which will enable each of the faithful to express his devotion in the form which is most suited to his temperament and his personal needs. Such a view would concede to Catholics a wide measure of liberty, while allowing an equal measure of liberty to other points of view.

It is quite impossible for Catholics to agree to such a conception of the functions of the Church. They believe that the Catholic religion is the only true interpretation of the revelation of God to man and the sacramental system of the Church the one appointed means by which man has access to the benefits of redemption won by the Precious Blood of Jesus. At the same time they realise that the inherited prejudices and misunderstandings of centuries cannot be swept away in a generation. Moreover, they realise that in the past the traditional system of Catholic doctrine has often been stated in a form which needs new interpretation to adapt it to the modern outlook upon life, and that it has been associated with beliefs that need a considerable measure of re-statement.

Thus although they cannot admit that comprehensiveness is a legitimate ideal, they are content for the present to accept it as a working basis, in the full confidence that the guidance of the Holy Ghost will vindicate the truth of their claims. They have no desire to exclude others from the English Church, but they are confident that in a few generations Catholicism will have permeated these elements which at present reject it. It is to be observed that this does not necessarily mean that the general system of external worship at present usually found among English Catholics will prevail universally. It must be remembered that in the Roman Communion, in spite of a great appearance of external uniformity, there is room for a variety of outlook and devotion almost as wide as that which at present prevails among Anglicans, apart from the more extreme section of Liberals and the small element which still clings to Protestantism as a dogmatic system. It is possible that the English Church will attain to internal unity of faith but retain a very considerable degree of diversity in regard to the external expression of religion. In any case, however, Catholics are confident that the general system of Catholic faith and practice, which has been very inadequately sketched in the earlier parts of this book, will finally prevail in virtue of its inherent truth. For the present they are content that the diversity of belief and practice should continue, provided that nothing is done which would destroy the claim of the English Church to be part of the one Church of Christ. Thus they are bound to oppose any modification of the formularies of the Church of England which would imply a formal denial of any article of the Catholic Creeds, or any administrative action which would treat as indifferent the claim of the Church of England to derive her authority to teach and administer the Sacraments from Our Lord Himself by transmission through His Apostles. (For this reason Catholics cannot agree to the admission of Nonconformist ministers, who possess no such authority, to administer the Sacraments or to preach as if they were Priests of the Holy Catholic Church). So long, however, as the formularies of the Church of England are not modified in a non-Catholic sense, they are prepared to wait until the time when the truth shall prevail.


In all questions of re-union there is nothing that lies so near to the heart of English Catholics as the hope of re-union with the rest of Western Catholicism. Since the time of Pusey the leaders of the Catholic movement have sought for some means of ending the disastrous breach between England and the chief Bishop of the Christian Church, the successor of the Prince of the Apostles. Unhappily there are many obstacles in the way. It is only possible here to consider these very briefly and to indicate the lines along which it may be hoped that they will eventually be surmounted.

Undoubtedly the chief obstacle to re-union is the predominance of the non-Catholic points of view in the highest quarters of the English Church. It has been this which has led many to leave the English Church in despair of recovering her for the Catholic faith. Yet in all cases the Catholic revival has survived such losses and prospered beyond all hope. In the rapid growth of Catholicism lies the main hope for the restoration of unity with the Holy See.

A second obstacle has been the fact that Roman Catholics in England have inevitably tended to emphasize the importance of those aspects of the Roman system which are most opposed to the traditional outlook of Anglicanism. Thus they tend to emphasize the importance of the Papacy and the extent of Papal authority just because Anglicans have tended to depreciate it. The controversy has been carried on in an atmosphere of exaggeration on both sides, often in an atmosphere of quite unpardonable ill-feeling. There are, however, signs that a friendlier feeling is growing up, in which matters of controversy may be discussed in a saner atmosphere.

From time to time attempts have been made to isolate particular elements of Roman teaching, and to claim that in respect of them the Church of Rome has definitely erred, and that there can be no hope of re-union until she has retracted her errors. The most notable instances of such points of doctrine are the dogmas of Transub-stantiation and the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady. But of these the former is an attempt to explain the mystery of the Eucharistic presence of Our Lord, which may in the past have led to superstition, but cannot be said to do so now. It simply attempts to explain what in fact all Catholics believe as to the nature of the change by which bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus. Although it is not accepted by the Eastern Church, it is very difficult to find that the Eastern conception of the Eucharistic presence differs seriously from the Western. Very few English Catholics would be prepared to make it a ground for the perpetuation of the divisions of Christendom. The same may be said of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. The belief that the Mother of Jesus was free from sin is common to East and West. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception explains how she obtained that freedom from original sin, which the Christian obtains at baptism, by holding that she was delivered from it by an act of divine grace at the first instant of her being. It is not likely that English Catholics will ever regard this as a final ground of separation.

Similar attempts have been made to justify separation from the Holy See on the ground of certain points of practice in which the English Church at the Reformation broke away from that of Rome. The most important of these are the Roman practices of using Latin as the official Liturgical language of the Church and the giving of Holy Communion to the faithful in one kind only (under the form of bread), and not administering the chalice to the communicants. On these two points, however, it is to be observed that it cannot be claimed with any show of reason that they are final grounds of division. It would only be possible to justify division on these grounds if it could be shown that they resulted in destroying the devotion of the faithful to the sacrament of the Altar. In particular it must be observed that if communion in one kind is entirely unjustifiable, it would be necessary to hold that it is an abuse of such gravity as to make the communions of the faithful invalid. In other words, if communion under both kinds is necessary, it seems to follow that communicants under the Roman system do not in fact receive communion at all. Thus it would follow that they do not receive the grace of this sacrament, except by a sort of overflowing of divine mercy which allows them to receive that to which they are not entitled by virtue of Our Lord's promise. In view of the abundant devotion of Roman Catholics to the Holy Sacrament and the indisputable effects of sacramental grace among them, this view is obviously ridiculous.

On the other hand it is not open to doubt that at the present time English Catholics would be unable to accept terms of re-union which demanded the surrender of the use of an English Liturgy and Communion in both kinds; they are far too intimately bound up with Anglican traditions. This state of affairs may not be permanent; but in any case it is hardly credible that, if all other differences were solved, the Roman Church would insist on compliance with Roman practice on these two points as a condition of reunion. To make any point of practice a condition of reunion, except where its acceptance or rejection implies the acceptance or rejection of some essential Catholic doctrine, would involve the party demanding conformity on that point in the guilt of perpetuating the division of Christendom. At present Anglicans could not agree to a surrender on these matters, since the vast bulk of Anglican laity would refuse to accept them, and thus render any scheme of reunion ineffective. On the other hand it is quite unjustifiable for Anglicans to emphasize these divergences of practice as a justification for perpetuating the existing division of Christendom.

A further point of practice on which difficulties might arise is the celibacy of the clergy. On this question, as we have seen, the Reformers abandoned the Roman rule with some show of justification. Since then, however, the restoration of the ideals of the priestly life at the Counter-Reformation has led to the universal observance of the rule among the Roman clergy. Scandals are at least as rare among them as among Anglicans. Thus in point of fact the ancient rule, which for a long time was not thoroughly enforced in practice, has now become effective. Among English Catholics the position is difficult. Many Priests have taken advantage of the permission to marry granted by the Church of England; while there are many more who married after their ordination but before they had fully grasped the Catholic faith. On the other hand there is a growing recognition that the celibate life is ideally better for the clergy, and there is in particular a growing demand among the laity that the clergy should not marry. It seems certain that the progress of Catholicism in the English Church will sooner or later involve an unmarried priesthood. Hence, although at the moment it would be difficult to reconcile the difference of practice, the point may be left until a general agreement on other matters is attainable.

A particular form of the attempt to justify the division of the English Church from the Holy See on the ground of matters of practice is the attempt to bring forward particular points in the general system of Roman devotion as still retaining an element of superstition. For instance certain somewhat exaggerated devotions to Our Lady or particular Saints are alleged to imply a false conception of their position, and to exalt them to an equality with Our Lord Himself. The drawback to this method of procedure is that it has never been found possible to prove that any such devotions, though tolerated locally, express the authoritative belief of the Roman Church; with its authoritative beliefs most English Catholics have no quarrel. And if it is merely a question of local corruptions the Church of Rome can show no such corruptions as, from a Catholic point of view, are only too common in the Church of England; for example the widespread toleration of the celebration of the Eucharist at a late hour in the evening, or parish Churches where the Holy Mysteries are not celebrated at all on Sundays.

An obstacle which seemed at one time to be very serious may now be regarded as set aside, namely, the condemnation by Pope Leo XIII. of the Orders of the Church of England. For although Anglicans are firmly convinced that they receive at Ordination the power which Our Lord gave to His Apostles to teach and to administer the Sacraments in His Name, yet the recent Lambeth Conference of 1920 formally declared the willingness of Anglicans to accept, if such acceptance were a condition of re-union, any such confirmation of their Orders as would satisfy the consciences of those with whom re-union was sought. It is not clear whether the decision of Leo XIII. would be regarded as still in force, if there were no other obstacle to re-union on the Roman side; but if it were insisted on, it seems that the Lambeth Conference would be prepared to recommend, if necessary, the acceptance of ordination by the clergy of the English Church in such a form as to set aside all doubts which Rome might feel. Such an acceptance would not imply an admission of the invalidity of the past ministrations of English Priests, but a willingness to remove all obstacles to unity with another Christian body. The utterances of the Lambeth Conference possess, indeed, no formal authority, but it is safe to assert that in this matter they would be accepted by all English Catholics.

The real difficulties (apart from the inadequate standard of Catholicism of the English Church) arise from the conception of authority generally prevalent in the Roman Church, more particularly among the Roman Catholics of England. It has been noted above that the tendency of Roman Catholics in England is to emphasize the importance of Papal authority. In so doing they are of course merely exalting their own private opinions into the position of formal teaching of the Roman Church. Actually it is doubtful whether Roman theologians would be unanimous in agreeing that any Papal pronouncement had ever been issued with the full weight of infallible authority except the promulgation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady by Pope Pius IX. Under the pressure of immediate controversy some would extend this to the condemnation of Anglican Orders by Leo XIII.: but it seems a little hard to suppose that this condemnation is a dogma which all Christians are bound to believe as a matter of faith.

On the other hand the attitude of English Catholics suffers from the opposite defect. It has been seen that it is idle to dismiss the growth of the Papacy as a mere accident of history. It is perfectly reasonable for Protestants who reject the whole system of Catholic teaching and worship to denounce the Papacy as the work of Anti-Christ: but it is quite impossible for those who accept the main stream of Catholic development in the West since the Reformation to ignore the part played in that development by the Roman See. Unfortunately at the present moment the majority of English Catholics are content to ignore the necessity of recognising the genuine element of truth contained in the Roman claims and to limit themselves to refuting the arguments of second-rate controversialists or criticising particular details of Roman doctrine or practice. It is certainly hopeless to look for re-union as long as the matter is discussed by means of exaggeration on one side and depreciation on the other. For this reason the question of authority has been dealt with at length in an earlier part of this book, since it seems that without a willingness to re-investigate the whole question on both sides no progress is possible. In present conditions it can hardly be expected that the Holy See will repudiate the loyal though sometimes exaggerated devotion of faithful Catholics of its allegiance, while the majority of English Catholics refuse to admit that there is any justification for Roman devotion to the Holy See as the centre of Catholic unity.

Thus at the present moment it cannot be said that the prospects of a reconciliation are very promising. The Holy See not nunaturally hesitates to consider proposals for reunion put forward by English Catholics, for the simple reason that they are known to be a minority in the English Church. Until the whole Anglican body is leavened with Catholicism to a far greater extent than is at present the case, it will probably continue to do so. But it must be remembered that the actual standard of Catholic practice which would justify hopes of reconciliation is far less than that which has been attained at the moment in many Anglican Churches. If the Catholic conception of religion outlined in the earlier chapters of this book were generally accepted, there would be considerable grounds for hope, provided that the English Church were ready to admit that the Bishop of Rome has a divine claim to be recognised as the chief Bishop of Christendom, that he is the normal central authority for regulating the extent to which matters affecting Christian faith and morals may be discussed in popular writings and sermons by faithful Christians, and that he is, in exceptional cases, the channel through which the infallible voice of the Holy Ghost speaks to the Church in the sense suggested in an earlier part of this book. (It must be remembered that on any showing such infallible utterances on the part of the Papacy are exceptional.) Such a reconciliation would, however, be impossible, unless the Roman Church consented to the continued existence of the English Church as a body possessing a wide measure of independence as regards its local practice in religious matters, as for example the retention of an English Liturgy, at least for the present, and a considerable freedom in matters of devotion. Incidentally it would involve the existence in England of two separate bodies, one representing the Church of England as it exists at the present, the other the present Roman Catholic body. It would involve the right of the English Church to appoint its own Archbishops and Bishops, (not of course the retention of the indefensible system of nomination by Prime Ministers). This independence in matters of liturgical practice, devotion, and local self-government is essential to any hope of re-union in the near future. It is, indeed, possible that some English Catholics would in such a reconciliation prefer to transfer their allegiance to the Roman body. On the other side it should be observed that in negotiations with a view to such a reconciliation, the English Church would have no right to demand that any explanation which it might be able to accept as to the exact scope and nature of Papal authority was the only true one, and that it must be accepted as the only one which Catholics might lawfully hold; it could at most ask that it should be recognised as one which loyal Catholics might hold without being suspected of heresy. The vague wording of the official Roman pronouncements is intended to allow a wide variety of interpretations: and Anglicans have no right to demand that for their benefit one particular interpretation should be recognised as the only true one.

It is, indeed, possible that re-union between English Catholics and the Holy See might come in another way. It is always conceivable that a Protestant episcopate might take some action, as for instance the establishment of general inter-communion with the Nonconformist bodies, which would forfeit the Catholic character of the English Church. In such a case English Catholics would almost inevitably be compelled to seek reconciliation with the Holy See: it is hard to suppose that they could exist permanently as an independent body. In such a case corporate re-union of English Catholics with the Holy See would be inevitable, or almost inevitable.

It may perhaps be objected that those who go so far in the acceptance of Roman teaching and practice as those who share the views put forward in the foregoing pages, would be more honest if they "went over to Rome." The objection shows a curious inability to understand the Catholic religion. English Catholics believe that they are already within the Catholic Church. The Church is at the moment externally divided through the faults of both sides; and that part of it which is known as the "Church of England "has largely forgotten its Catholicism. Since however God has set them in it, they can only suppose that it is their duty to remain where they are and to labour for the salvation of souls by recovering for the English Church her due proportion of Catholic doctrine and devotion, and by seeking to restore the external unity of Christendom. So long as they believe this, they cannot leave the English Church without being deliberately guilty of schism. The mere fact that they happen to prefer certain Roman forms of devotion is no more a valid reason for leaving the English Church than would be the fact that they happen to prefer the climate of Italy to the climate of England.


The past twenty years have for various reasons witnessed a growing friendship between the Holy Orthodox Church of the East, which separated from communion with the Holy See in the year 1054, and the Church of England. Formally, indeed, the bodies are divided by the fact that the English Church in the Nicene Creed professes its belief that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son, whereas it was the insertion of the words "and the Son" into that Creed which was the nominal cause of the schism between the East and the West, and the Eastern Church has never accepted them. In practice, however, this old controversy has ceased to have any serious meaning. In external forms of religion the two bodies are widely different, for the Liturgies of the Eastern Church are still of that ancient type which had disappeared in the West long before the Schism. This, not a reason for division; for the difference of rite was never a cause of separation between the East and the West.

At the present moment a number of the bodies which form the constituent parts of the Eastern Church extend a qualified recognition to the Orders and Sacraments of the English Church, and tolerate in certain circumstances the admission of Anglicans to communion at the altars of Eastern Churches. It seems probable that t with the development of the Catholicism of the English Church the way will be found to a complete restoration of communion between the two bodies. English Catholics can only welcome the prospect of complete re-union with a part of Christendom which has been found worthy to furnish recruits in recent years to the noble army of martyrs. None the less it is to be hoped that they will avoid the temptation to use re-union with the East as an excuse for ignoring the paramount necessity of labouring for re-union with the See of Peter, or as a means for depreciating the position and authority of the Holy Roman Church. There has in the past been a dangerous tendency to exploit the ancient quarrel between Rome and the East in this way. Such an exploitation of the divisions of Christendom is a manifest violation of all laws of Christian charity.


From what has been written it will be clear that English Catholics can at present see little prospect of restoring unity between the English Church and the various bodies which at the Reformation or at later times have broken away from the English Church. There are two reasons for which this re-union is difficult. The first is that these bodies separated themselves on account of their objections to these elements of Catholic teaching and practice which the English Reformers retained; they demanded a thorough Reformation. The second is that they did not retain the order of the episcopate, having indeed no bishops who were prepared to support them. Consequently their ministers are not validly ordained; they have no authority to preach the Gospel in the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Sacraments which they administer are no Sacraments at all. This does not mean that English Catholics deny that both the preaching and the Sacraments of these bodies have been means of grace for bringing many souls to Jesus Christ. But they have done so in virtue of a special grace vouchsafed to the members of these bodies, who were not responsible for their separation from the unity of the one Church; often indeed the original separation was due to faults on both sides. But they cannot be accepted as possessing the qualifications necessary for unity with the Catholic Church unless their ministers are ready, without necessarily repudiating their past actions, to submit to such a form of ordination as will place beyond doubt the validity of their future ministrations, and make it plain to all men that they possess the full authority which Our Lord conveyed to His disciples for the welfare of His Church. It may be added that in so far as they profess doctrines which are contrary to the received faith of the Church it would be necessary that they should be abandoned; but it is doubtful how far the doctrines which were the original cause of separation are now of any large importance in the religious life of these bodies.

It must, indeed, be noted that some of these societies claim that their ministry is valid on the ground that at their first separation the form of Catholic orders was transmitted through Priests ordained to the Catholic ministry; and there is a certain amount of evidence that at different periods in the history of Christendom orders now recognised as valid were transmitted through priests and not through Bishops. To this it must be replied that the evidence for this point is at the best highly doubtful; that the universal authority of Catholic Christendom has for centuries held the opposite view; and that it does not rest within the competence of the English Church to abandon the universal practice and belief of the Church; for the Church of England, being only a part, cannot speak in the name of the whole Church. The recognition of such orders would only be possible for an organ of authority which could definitely speak in the name of the whole of the Catholic Church. The Church of England has no authority of its own in the matter.

It can only be hoped that in the cause of Christian unity these bodies will show themselves ready to make the sacrifice of pride which, as has been seen, the English Church is prepared to make. At the same time it is hardly to be expected that they will do so until they are more permeated with the Catholic spirit than is at present the case. There has indeed been in recent years a growing tendency towards a Catholic conception of the Sacraments among certain elements of English Nonconformity; but there has also been a tendency to advance in other quarters towards an extreme liberalism, which destroys the fundamental teachings of the Christian faith. English Catholics can only pray that the Catholic element may conquer, and that the time will come when these bodies will return to unity with the Catholic Church.

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