Project Canterbury

Recollections of Malines
by Walter Frere, C.R.

[London: The Centenary Press, 1935 119pp]

transcribed by Mr. Allan R. Wylie
AD 2000

pp 82-99

I. From the Letter of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Archbishops and Metropolitans of the Anglican Communion, Christmas,


There remains the question—a question which has features of paramount importance—of the relation of the Church of England to the Church of Rome. You will agree with me in regarding that subject as separated from other reunion problems, not only by the history of centuries of English life but by present-day claims and utterances. And the plain fact confronts us, that in relation to that subject there exist, both at home and in the overseas Dominions, passions, dormant or awake, which are easily accounted for, but which, when once roused, are difficult to allay. I have myself been repeatedly warned that to touch that subject is unwise. Men urge that "even if the opportunity be given" it is easier and safer to let it severely alone. That may be true, but you and I are party to the "Appeal to all Christian People," and I, at least, find it difficult to reconcile that document with an attitude of apathy or sheer timidity as to our touching the Roman Catholic question. Not only are we pledged to the words and spirit of the "Appeal" itself, but we have before us what was said on the subject by the Committee of the same Lambeth Conference in 1920. We there express our readiness to welcome any friendly discussion between Roman Catholics and Anglicans for which opportunity may be given. I have no right to say that the utterances of the Lambeth Conference have influenced Roman Catholic opinion, but I am certain that they have increased our own responsibilities in the matter.

I was accordingly glad when I learned two years ago that a private conference or conversation was about to take place at Malines between Cardinal Mercier, the venerated Archbishop of Malines, and a few Anglicans, who were to meet under his roof, with a view to the discussion of outstanding and familiar barriers between the Church of England and the Church of Rome. Though I had no responsibility for this arrangement, nor even any official knowledge of it, I was courteously informed of the proposed visit and was furnished with the names of those who were to take part in the informal discussion. The substance of the conversation which took place was reported to me both by the Cardinal and by my Anglican friends. It necessarily turned in large part upon the position and claims of the Roman See, or in other words, the Primacy of the Pope. A Memorandum upon that and kindred subjects, which had been prepared on behalf of the Anglican group, was discussed, and the Lambeth Conference’s "Appeal to All Christian People" was, I understand, considered paragraph by paragraph.

It was suggested that, with a view to a second visit, the two English Archbishops might informally nominate delegates and might suggest the outline of discussion to be followed. I did not see my way to doing this; but in the correspondence which ensued I expressed my readiness to have official cognizance of the arrangements, provided that a corresponding cognizance were given by the Vatican. Satisfied, after correspondence, with regard to that point, I gave what was described as friendly cognizance to a second visit of the Anglican group to Malines in March, 1923. They again received the kindly hospitality which has been courteously given and gratefully welcomed. The conversation on that occasion turned in part on certain large administrative problems which might arise, if and when a measure of agreement had been reached on the great doctrinal and historical questions sundering the two Churches.

It was agreed that a third Conference should take place. A wish was expressed on both sides that the number of participants should be enlarged, and I took the responsibility of definitely inviting Dr. Charles Gore, late Bishop of Oxford, and Dr. Kidd, Warden of Keble College, Oxford (both of whom had given special attention to the Roman question), to join the Anglican group. This increased my responsibility in the matter, and I found myself in concurrence with His Eminence the Cardinal, as well as with the members of the original group, in pressing the point that prior to any discussion upon the possible administrative questions which might arise, attention should be concentrated upon the great doctrinal and historical issues at stake between the two Churches. Certain memoranda were prepared and circulated, and I had the advantage of personally conferring at Lambeth with the five Anglicans who were to take part in the third Conference, together with a few friends and counsellors of my own whom I had invited to meet them.

I have always considered it important that our representatives at Conferences which take place, whether with Free Churchmen, or Orthodox, or Roman Catholics, should remember that, while each individual remains free to express his own opinions, what is in question is not what any individual may think, but what the great Anglican body has in the past maintained or is likely to maintain in the future. I found, as I anticipated, that our visitors to Malines were not likely to forget what the historical Anglican position and claims have been in the past, as set forward for example by the great theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—a position which we have no thought of changing or weakening today. It seemed to me to be fair to the Roman Catholic members of the Malines Conference, now augmented by the addition of Monsignor Batiffol and the Abb? Hemmer, that the firmness and coherence, as we believe, of our Anglican doctrine and system should be unmistakably set forward.

Thus arranged, the third Conference was held at Malines a few weeks ago, under the same kindly hospitality as before. There has not yet been time to weigh adequately the record of the conversations which took place, still less the unsolved differences which they exhibit, but I may say at once that, as was inevitable, the discussions are still in a quite elementary stage, and that no estimate, so far as I judge, can yet be formed as to their ultimate value. Needless to say, there has been no attempt to initiate what may be called "negotiations" of any sort. The Anglicans who have, with my full encouragement, taken part, are in no sense delegates or representatives of the Church as a whole. I had neither the will nor the right to give them that character. This is well understood on both sides. They have sought merely to effect some restatement of controverted questions, and some elucidation of perplexities. And to me it seems indubitable that good must in the Providence of God ensue from the mere fact that men possessing such peculiar qualifications for the task should, in an atmosphere of goodwill on either side, have held quiet and unrestrained converse with a group of Roman Catholic theologians similarly equipped. No further plans are yet prepared, but it is impossible, I think, to doubt that further conversations must follow from the careful talks already held. At the least we have endeavoured in this direction, as in others, to give effect to the formal recommendation of the Lambeth Conference that we should "invite the authorities of other Churches to confer with [us] concerning the possibility of taking definite steps to co-operate in a common endeavour …to restore the unity of the Church of Christ.

I have stated all this somewhat fully, though there is, of course, a great deal more which might be said. Indeed, I hope myself before long to have an opportunity in Convocation or elsewhere of speaking further upon the subject. From the nature of the case the proceedings have of necessity been private. To attempt them publicly would have been obviously futile. For what has been done I am bound to accept full personal responsibility. I have not thought it right, or indeed, practicable, to involve others in that responsibility, though I have confidentially informed all our Diocesan Bishops, and especially the Archbishop of York, of every step that has been taken. The difficulties are immense. You know them as clearly as I do. They may prove to be, for some time to come, insuperable. Paul may plant and Apollos water, it is God who giveth the increase.


[1] To prevent misunderstanding I ought perhaps to explain that Lord Halifax’s second pamphlet entitled Further Considerations on Behalf of Reunion was published independently, to express his personal view on certain points relating to the origin and growth of the Papacy. That view, as their writings show, is not shared by his Anglican companions at Malines.

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