Project Canterbury

 The Conversations at Malines

 Les Conversations de Malines


London/Londres: Humphrey Milford, 1927.


Presented for the Roman Catholics at the meeting held at Malines on the 10th and 11th of October, 1926


THE purpose of our meeting now in 1926 is to go over the matters which were touched upon and discussed by Roman Catholics and Anglicans under the presidency of His Eminence Cardinal Mercier between the years 1921 and 1925, and to draw up, for communication to the public, a document stating what was said at those Conferences.

The Anglicans undertook to draw up a general Report of the proceedings, which would put the leaders and members of their Church in possession of what had passed between the Roman Catholics and themselves; and at the same time give a summary account of the subjects discussed and more especially of the observations and explanations which one or other side had contributed.

The Roman Catholics decided that there was no need for them to draw up a similar Report, as it would inevitably go over much of the same ground.

By so deciding, no doubt, they surrendered the opportunity of setting out clearly the ideas and doctrines which they themselves had defended, and the precise meaning of which they had endeavoured to make clear, with all the delicacy or expression that is needed. It seemed to them more useful, in a document intended for publication, to give a summary embodying those points of doctrine wherein the Anglicans had agreed with them upon certain common statements.

In so doing they are following out the line taken by Cardinal Mercier in the admirable letter addressed by him to the Archbishop of Canterbury in October 1925. Seeing that their object is to finish off what was done under Cardinal Mercier's guidance, what could they do better than carry out, to the best of their power, the Cardinal's last wishes in this respect?

In his letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Cardinal had dismissed the idea of publishing the actual Minutes of the Conferences. He thought it better that two Reports should be drawn up.; that one of them, stating the points on which Roman Catholics and Anglicans were found in agreement, should be made public, while the other, stating the points on which agreement had not been reached, or the discussion of which had been adjourned, should be withheld from publication.

'Negative conclusions,' he said, 'could only excite controversy in the press, revive old animosities, and create divisions, to the detriment of the cause to which we are all pledged.'

Our duty, he thought, was to bring increasingly to light all that may promote the cause of union, but to set aside or postpone all that would put difficulties in the way.

We then, taking our cue from the first part of this scheme, have drawn up the following summary of the points stated and discussed at the Malines Conferences upon which there was evident agreement.


The Roman Catholics who took part in the Conferences at Malines under the presidency of Cardinal Mercier are unanimous in saying that their dealings with their Anglican friends have charmed and edified them, because of the sincerity and freedom of spirit, the openness of mind, and the cordiality which have prevailed throughout. Farther, without ignoring the seriousness of the obstacles which still stand in the way of union, they are sanguine as to the results which may surely emerge from inquiries pursued together in an atmosphere of mutual sympathy and confidence. Their hopes are based upon the results already attained in the Conversations which took place during the lifetime of Cardinal Mercier and under his direction.

First, then, Roman Catholics and Anglicans alike recognize as truths of primary importance that Jesus Christ founded one single true Church; and that it is His Will that all the faithful should be united with one another in a Society the unity and continuity of which must be visible and unmistakable; and that it is incumbent on all to labour for the maintenance of that unity.

Further, they believe that the unity of the Church is not merely external, but involves also something of a deeper and more intimate character--that is to say, a Faith held by all, and contained in certain articles which are of general obligation.

Despite the existence in the Anglican Communion of authoritative formularies and the liturgical texts embodied in the Book of Common Prayer, it is a point of some difficulty to determine what are the doctrinal points common to both sides.

There is, however, undoubted agreement in the doctrine-defined by the first cumenical Councils. Anglicans and Roman Catholics alike have always recognized these assemblies as the authoritative organs of the teaching Church. Their dogmatic decisions contain an authorized statement of the tradition and the faith of the Church. Indeed the Anglicans at the present time have proposed to the Orthodox Churches of the East to take these decisions as a basis for mutual understanding. Moreover, in accepting the teaching of the first cumenical Councils, Anglicans and Roman Catholics find themselves already in agreement, without needing to go over the matter in detail, upon such primary truths as the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the existence, equality, and consubstantiality of the three Persons in the Unity of the Godhead, on the principal points of traditional Christology--Jesus Christ truly is perfect God and perfect Man, possessing two natures, divine and human, without confusion or change in the unity of His Person which is the Person of God the Son.

This agreement extends equally to the Articles of the three Creeds, the Apostles' Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the so-called Creed of St. Athanasius.

Among the means of determining religious truth in the Church of Jesus Christ, Anglicans and Roman Catholics alike give a prominent place to Holy Scripture. If, in the Roman Catholic Church, the argument from tradition plays a greater part than is the case with the Anglicans, tradition is, nevertheless, not ignored by the Anglicans. They agree that Holy Scripture needs to be interpreted, and that it belongs to the Church alone to give an authoritative interpretation of it in matters affecting faith and morals. For guidance in this task the Church has recourse to the works of the Fathers of the Church.

The object of a Definition of Faith, however it may be reached, is not to formulate a newly invented dogma, unknown to Holy Scripture or the tradition of the Church, but only to declare explicitly and with authority, in regard to some given point, what is the faith entrusted by Jesus Christ to the keeping of His Church.

From explanations given to us, it is clear that the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion are not the insurmountable obstacle in the way of an understanding between the two Churches which the Roman Catholics had feared might be the case. In fact some Anglican theologians believe that those Articles are susceptible of an interpretation which would reconcile them with the teaching of the Council of Trent. Dr. Pusey, for example, was of this opinion, and Dr. Forbes, late Bishop of Brechin. Furthermore, the Anglican clergy in assenting to these Articles are no longer considered bound, as formerly, to accept all and each of the propositions which they contain. In fact, many Anglicans, and more particularly the members of the Episcopal Church of America, consider the Articles as practically obsolete.


Passing on from these more general observations to the detailed consideration of the sacraments, and of their efficacy as a means for the sanctification of souls, an agreement is reached without much difficulty on the following points:

1. Baptism constitutes the means of entry into the Church, and the initiation which baptism inaugurates ought to develop within an organized social life.

2. The social life of Christians is organized round an episcopal hierarchy.

3. This social and organized life finds expression within the Church in the existence and the use of the sacraments.

4. In the Eucharist the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ are verily given, taken, and received by the faithful. By consecration the Bread and Wine become the Body and Blood of Christ.

5. The Sacrifice of the Eucharist is the same sacrifice as that of the cross, but offered in a mystical and sacramental manner.

On the subject of eucharistic doctrine the Anglicans made particular reference to the letter published by the English Archbishops in reply to the Encyclical Letter of Leo XIII on Anglican Orders; we give belowl the passage which they state to be a specially authoritative expression of their real belief.

6. Communion in both kinds was once the practice of the whole Church, but in the West communion came to be limited to one kind for practical reasons dependent upon circumstances. Consequently, in our view, communion in both kinds is not a matter of doctrine, but one of ecclesiastical discipline.

7. In both Churches provision exists for a ministry and a discipline of penitence, whereby the sinner is reconciled to God through the sacramental absolution which the priest pronounces upon the sinner.

[Further we truly teach the doctrine of Eucharistic sacrifice, and do not believe it to be a 'nude commemoration of the Sacrifice of the Cross', an opinion which seems to be attributed to us by the quotation made from that Council. But we think it sufficient in the Liturgy which we use in celebrating the holy Eucharist--while lifting up our hearts to the Lord, and when now consecrating the gifts already offered that they may become to us the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ--to signify the sacrifice which is offered at that point of the service in such terms as these. We continue a perpetual memory of the precious death of Christ, who is our Advocate with the Father and the propitiation for our sins, according to His precept, until His coming again.

[For first we offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; then next we plead and represent before the Father the sacrifice of the cross, and by it we confidently entreat remission of sins and all other benefits of the Lord's Passion for all the whole Church; and lastly we offer the sacrifice of ourselves to the Creator of nil things which we have already signified by the oblations of His creatures. This whole action, in which the people has necessarily to take its part with the Priest, we are accustomed to call the Eucharistie sacrifice.

[The original text is as follows:

[Eucharistiae etiam sacrificium vere docemus, nee sacrificii crucis nudam eue rommenwrationem credimus, ut Concilie illo citato nobis videtur imputari. Satis tamen credimus in liturgia nostra qua in S. Eucharistia celebranda utimur--corda habentes nd Dominum et munera, quae antea oblata sunt, iam consecrantes ut nobis corpus et sanguis fiant Domini nostri Jesu Christi--sacrificium quod ibidem fit ita significare. Mcmoriam scilicet pcrpetuam pretiosae mortis Christi qui ipse est Advocatns noster apud Patrem et propitiatio pro peccatis nostris, usque ad Adventum Eius secundum praecepttim Eius observamus.

[Primo enim sacrificium laudis et gratiarum offerimus; tum vero sacrificium Crucis Patri proponimus et repraesentamus, et per illud remissionem peccatorum et omnia alia Dominicae passionis beneficia pro tota et universa Ecclesia impetramus; sacrificium denique nostrum ipsorum Creatori omnium offerimus, quod per oblationes creaturarum Ipsius iam significavimus. Quam actionem totam, in qua plebs cum sacerdote partem suam necessario sumit, sacrificium Eucharisticum solemïis nominate.

[(Responsio archiepiscoporum Angliae ad litteras apostolicas Leonis Papae XIII de ordinationibus anglicanis, p. 16.)]

Although the use of the Sacrament of penance and of sacramental absolution is much more widespread in the Roman Catholic Church, yet the formulae given in the Prayer Book for the Order of Communion and for the Visitation of the Sick leave no doubt as to the belief of the Anglican Church in this respect, or as to the opportunity given to its members of having recourse to sacramental absolution for the purpose of their reconciliation with God, if they have fallen into any grave sin. 8. In regard to the anointing of the sick, it is true that there is less agreement; but it is to be noticed that there is a tendency among Anglicans to revive the ancient custom of anointing the sick.

Further meetings between Anglicans and Roman Catholics are much to be desired in order to elucidate further these general statements, and to secure that there should be no ambiguity or misunderstanding with regard to their deepest significance. In any case the result of this interchange of explanations is a very hopeful impression that a satisfactory accommodation may be reached with regard to the doctrine of the sacraments regarded as means of grace and of spiritual life.


If no mention has been made of the Sacrament of Holy Order in this general review of sacramental rites, it is not because the two Churches fail to recognize its existence or to insist on the Imposition of Hands as a rite essential to the conferring of Holy Orders; but because it has seemed better for the present to concentrate upon the important step taken by the Anglican bishops in the Lambeth Appeal of 1920. They then declared themselves ready, in view of reunion, to accept from the authorities of other Churches what those authorities might consider necessary in order that the Anglican ministry might be recognized by them.

An official explanation has made it clear that the primary intention of the Anglican bishops was to make their position clear with regard to those Churches which arc without an episcopal hierarchy, such as the Presbyterians in Scotland, the Wesleyans, the Methodists, and others. In their case the Anglicans would confer upon them episcopal ordination; and would accept in return such form of recognition as seems necessary to establish intercommunion between these Churches for the benefit of their members. The offer of the Anglican bishops did not, however, exclude the idea of an understanding also with the Churches which are organized round an episcopal hierarchy. On the contrary, it seemed to lead up to such an understanding. Supposing always that all matters relating to doctrine had been already settled, and an agreement had been reached upon a system of discipline, no difficulty would be made by the Anglican bishops about consenting to such an adjustment in regard to Ordination as might seem necessary to the Roman Church in order to place beyond doubt in the eyes of all the validity of their ministry.

The Catholic Church always takes the line of greatest security in regard to the sacraments. It reordains any priests or bishops of its own the moment there is any serious doubt raised as to the exact observance of the rites traditional in its Ordinations. Such prudent precautions do not imply any mistrust of the persons concerned, but are simply a measure of security adopted for the sake of the laity.

The Anglican bishops have opened a way for the practical solution of a very thorny question, and the Roman Catholics recognize the lofty spirit which has inspired the Anglican Episcopate in this matter, and their readiness to make sacrifices on behalf of reunion.


Anglicans and Roman Catholics, unlike the Nonconformist Churches, have this common characteristic, that they are governed by an episcopate. The hierarchy is for them an essential characteristic of the Church.

In accordance with the teaching common to both Churches the hierarchy must derive in the direct line of the Apostles, by an uninterrupted succession of bishops, their heirs and successors. The institution of bishops is of divine right. Even in the view of Roman Catholics, whatever right the Pope may possess to limit, in certain cases and for the general good, the powers of the bishops, it does not belong to him to suppress the episcopate; and it would be an attack on the divine constitution of the Church for him to take any steps which, even short of suppressing the episcopate, would nullify it in practice.

The bishops have an immediate jurisdiction of their own, and they are, by the will of Christ, as being the successors of the Apostles, the ordinary pastors of the people within their areas. They take part by right in General Councils; and in them are witnesses and organs of tradition, and judges of the faith.


With regard to the special position of the Pope in the Church, the divergences in belief and opinion are more serious and more difficult to reconcile. The Conversations at Malines, however, have given to the Roman Catholics an opportunity of explaining the precise meaning of their doctrinal statements in regard to the powers of the Papacy, and to the conditions under which these powers are exercised. The Anglicans, on their side, have expressed themselves in terms which, while not endorsing all that Roman Catholics believe and think, yet seem to us to justify a great deal of hope for the future.

His Eminence Cardinal Mercier himself introduced the subject in some degree, and he emphasized the impossibility that any society should exist without a head (caput).

'Even if we were to set on one side the proof which is drawn from Holy Scripture and tradition in order to show that Christ definitely made the unity of His Church to rest upon the head of Peter and his successors, yet we could a priori maintain that Providence in its wisdom was bound to make apparent in one head the unity of authority in the Church. No doubt the episcopate might be a means of unification: but surely the bishops themselves, whose numbers in the course of several centuries must have risen to a thousand and more, are exposed to the danger of disagreement, just as priests are in a diocese, or parishioners in a parish. What then would be the factor of unity? Surely the one who in a family is called the father, and in a state the sovereign.'

In the course of an entirely frank conversation on this subject Anglicans and Roman Catholics expressed in common certain views, which we quote, either from propositions formulated by

one or the other party, or else from explanations made by way of commentary. These, without in any way forcing their meaning, may be summarized as follows:

St. Peter was accepted as chief or 'leader' because he was treated as such by our Lord.

The see of Rome is the only apostolic see known in the West. No Patriarchate has ever been established there side by side with Rome; and the Pope, according to Saint Augustine's phrase in regard to Innocent I, 'presides over the Western Church.' The Church of England, in particular, owes its Christianity to the Roman see, which, through the agency of Saint Gregory, 'sent it Baptism.'

Further, the Pope possesses a primacy among all the bishops of Christendom; so much so that, apart from communion with him, there is no hope or prospect of ever seeing a reunited Christendom. He occupies, in regard to all bishops, a position such as no other bishop can claim in regard to him.

From the first beginning of Church History there has been recognized to belong to the Bishop of Rome amongst all bishops a primacy and a power of general leadership.

Thus the primacy of the Pope is not merely a primacy of honour, but it implies a duty of solicitude and of activity within the universal Church for the general good, in such wise that the Pope should in fact be a centre of unity, and a Head which exercises an authority over the whole. It was, in fact, on many occasions due to the action of the papacy that the medieval bishops were able to defend themselves against the encroachments of the Civil Power. The papacy has been a guarantee of the spiritual independence of the Church.

As to the manner in which the Pope has used his powers in the past, the Anglicans expressed various reservations. But they recognize that among their people there is needed much revision of opinion in regard to the Roman Church; in particular, as all agree, a recognition of the fact that the Roman Church reformed itself at the Council of Trent.

If an attempt is made to go further, as, for example, to sketch in definite outline the duties of the Pope in acting for the well-being of the Church Universal, and to undertake an enumeration of the corresponding rights, our Anglican friends show some unwillingness to go into detail.

It may, however, be useful to reproduce here some examples of the language they use. These are of great interest since they indicate an identical tendency of thought and a similar line of research, and thus they encourage the hope of a much greater measure of agreement in the future.

The exact phraseology is here of importance on account of the idea which underlies it. When they speak of 'spiritual responsibility', 'spiritual leadership', 'general superintendence', 'care for the well-being of the Church as a whole ', their mind seems throughout all such language to fasten upon a very positive conception of a certain power, rich in its capacity but ill-defined in its extent. Memories of ancient times have left some bitterness of heart. It is better not to go back upon the past, but to try to forecast the forms which papal activity might take in the future. But what emerges from these expressions is the sense of a lofty mission attaching to the Pope, with the implication that to a 'primacy of honour' there must be added a 'primacy of responsibility'.

Without endeavouring for the moment to bring such language into line with the theological terminology of Roman Catholic doctrine, surely it is not impossible to hope that, by going deeper into these ideas and by bringing out what is contained in them, a notable approach may be made towards many points of the doctrine of the papacy as held by Roman Catholics, A line of study which is now being pursued in the Anglican Church seems to tend in that direction. [See two articles in Theology by Dr. Turner on 'St. Peter mid St. Paul in the New Testament and in the Early Church' (August and October 1926.)]

Some divergence of view concerning the doctrine of the papacy was inevitable amongst those who took part in the Malines Conferences. But it is not of so radical a nature as to prevent the question being taken up again on a future occasion, and discussed afresh, with a great prospect of further advance in agreement of heart and spirit.


Dogmatic truths, for the most part, occupied the attention of both Roman Catholics and Anglicans at Malines. Questions of discipline, however, were also handled. It is not unnatural that the Anglican Church, after four centuries of separate life and of the enjoyment of its own customs and traditions, should be anxious as to the conditions under which it might have to live in the event of reunion.

On the other hand, the Roman Catholics who took part in the discussions at Malines, being without any official sanction, were not in a position to make any promises which might in the future cause grave disappointment.

It was, however, possible for them to point out how wide are the differences of discipline which have prevailed without impairing the Church's unity and what a great variety of practice still actually exists within the unity of the Roman Catholic Church, in spite of the advance in uniformity which characterizes its legislation, especially since Protestantism has compelled it increasingly to centralize its administrative action. The respect which Rome shows for the Uniat Eastern Churches; the scrupulous care with which it preserves their rites, their liturgical language, the privileges of the Patriarchates, their own particular customs and laws; the relative autonomy which they enjoy, notably in the election of their bishops and patriarchs, in the administration of their funds, in their holding of the synods-- all this shows with what width of mind disciplinary regulations in case of union between Rome and England might be treated.

The Anglicans laid stress upon the fact that the Anglican Communion consists of many provinces and dioceses outside England, and that in 1920, at the time of the Lambeth Appeal, the bishops in communion with the see of Canterbury amounted to three hundred and sixty-eight. Important differences, in fact, exist in the Anglican Communion itself, notably in regard to election of bishops. There is more freedom in the Colonies, in missionary dioceses, and in the Episcopal Church of America with regard to this matter than in England, where the Crown possesses a right of nomination. But the unity of the Church is compatible with a great variety of practice and external organization.

The Conversations at Malines have impressed upon all who took part in them the conviction that, in proportion as mutual understanding and doctrinal agreement advance, it will become possible to arrange a satisfactory adjustment of disciplinary rules, however delicate a matter that may seem at present. The Anglicans are ready to make sacrifices for the cause of union. The Roman Catholics desire to deal considerately with any who approach them in regard to the methods of government to which they have been accustomed in all matters which do not endanger unity--that unity the full value of which they have learned in accordance with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and by a long and painful separation of four centuries' duration.

Project Canterbury