Archbishop Longley reminds us of our commitment to ecumenism. But ecumenism today has to be very different from that of the post-Conciliar years

Archbishop Bernard Longley with Bishop Campbell and Bishop Conry in Rome (Photo: Mazur/

In an interesting talk on the new evangelisation, delivered a week ago, Archbishop Bernard Longley draws attention to article 125 of the recent document Instrumentum laboris which speaks, he says, of a “renewed commitment to ecumenism” as a fruit of the Church’s own transformation, and goes on to remind us that “one of the insights of the Second Vatican Council was the fresh ability of the Church to recognise the work of the Holy Spirit, not only in individual Christians but also acting in and through the churches and ecclesial communities to which they belong”.

The kind of ecumenism to which Instrumentum laboris refers, though, is surely a very different thing from much of the reductionist ecumenism of the immediate post-conciliar years, which in its committed indifferentism hugely weakened the commitment to their faith of millions of Catholics, by strongly implying that Christians all believed much the same thing, and that the Catholic Church had no business insisting that only it possessed the fullness of faith. Article 125 repeats the conciliar teaching that “the divisions among Christians are a counter-witness” and that “overcoming these divisions is undeniably a part of a fully credible following of Christ”.

But of course, the Council itself said more than that. Lumen Gentium asserts that “the one Church of Christ which in the Creed is professed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic… constituted and organised in the world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him, although many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of its visible structure”. The necessary gloss on Archbishop Longley’s reflections on article 125 of instrumentum laboris must surely be article 126: “Many responses expect that the new evangelisation will also be directed towards people’s attitude towards the truth. Various areas of contemporary culture display a certain intolerance towards anything claimed to be the truth. Today, the modern idea is that freedom means absolute autonomy from truth, which finds relativism to be the only way of thinking suitable for living in cultural and religious diversity”.

From this it follows that much of the ecumenism of the post-conciliar years, utterly relativist if anything ever was, was precisely what Catholics should never have become so deeply involved in, and — it should be added — would never have been involved in if they had been guided by Lumen Gentium.

This kind of indifferentist ecumenism, it has to be said, was precisely what characterised much of the work of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, a body which still supposedly exists, but only in the same sense as the stuffed dodo in the Oxford Natural History Museum exists.

This leads me to my second suggestion for a necessary gloss on Archbishop Longley’s interesting talk, if we are to get the most from it. Speaking as Archbishop of Birmingham so soon after the feast of Blessed John Henry Newman, it must have seemed natural to press his local Beato into service in support of his remarks on ecumenism. The difficulty is that, counter to what many think, especially in England — where most Catholic ecumenical activity has been centred on ARCIC — Catholic ecumenism as practised in recent years is simply blasted out of the water by any appeal to Newman, who more and more, after he had become a Catholic, insisted that though the Church of England was a great national institution, it was simply not a Church at all in the same sense the Catholic Church was.

Archbishop Longley refers to Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua, which many today think of as a bland and reflective spiritual work: he has, I fear, forgotten that it also contains passages of swingeing controversy (Newman himself insisted that he was a controversialist, not a theologian) which after the first edition were transferred into an appendix. They are still, there, all the same, and notably for our purpose this one:

“… I have been bringing out my mind in this Volume on every subject which has come before me; and therefore I am bound to state plainly what I feel and have felt, since I was a Catholic, about the Anglican Church. I said, in a former page, that, on my conversion, I was not conscious of any change in me of thought or feeling, as regards matters of doctrine; this, however, was not the case as regards some matters of fact, and, unwilling as I am to give offence to religious Anglicans, I am bound to confess that I felt a great change in my view of the Church of England. I cannot tell how soon there came on me — but very soon — an extreme astonishment that I had ever imagined it to be a portion of the Catholic Church. For the first time, I looked at it from without, and (as I should myself say) saw it as it was.

“Forthwith I could not get myself to see in it any thing else, than what I had so long fearfully suspected, from as far back as 1836 — a mere national institution. As if my eyes were suddenly opened, so I saw it — spontaneously, apart from any definite act of reason or any argument; and so I have seen it ever since. I suppose, the main cause of this lay in the contrast which was presented to me by the Catholic Church. Then I recognised at once a reality which was quite a new thing with me. Then I was sensible that I was not making for myself a Church by an effort of thought; I needed not to make an act of faith in her; I had not painfully to force myself into a position, but my mind fell back upon itself in relaxation and in peace, and I gazed at her almost passively as a great objective fact. I looked at her;—at her rites, her ceremonial, and her precepts; and I said, ‘This is a religion’; and then, when I looked back upon the poor Anglican Church, for which I had laboured so hard, and upon all that appertained to it, and thought of our various attempts to dress it up doctrinally and esthetically, it seemed to me to be the veriest of non-entities.

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity! How can I make a record of what passed within me, without seeming to be satirical? But I speak plain, serious words. As people call me credulous for acknowledging Catholic claims, so they call me satirical for disowning Anglican pretensions; to them it is credulity, to them it is satire; but it is not so in me. What they think exaggeration, I think truth. I am not speaking of the Anglican Church with any disdain, though to them I seem contemptuous. To them of course it is ‘Aut Cæsar aut nullus,’ but not to me. It may be a great creation, though it be not divine, and this is how I judge of it. Men, who abjure the divine right of kings, would be very indignant, if on that account they were considered disloyal. And so I recognise in the Anglican Church a time-honoured institution, of noble historical memories, a monument of ancient wisdom, a momentous arm of political strength, a great national organ, a source of vast popular advantage, and, to a certain point, a witness and teacher of religious truth. I do not think that if what I have written about it since I have been a Catholic, be equitably considered as a whole, I shall be found to have taken any other view than this; but that it is something sacred, that it is an oracle of revealed doctrine, that it can claim a share in St Ignatius or St Cyprian, that it can take the rank, contest the teaching, and stop the path of the Church of St Peter, that it can call itself ‘the Bride of the Lamb’, this is the view of it which simply disappeared from my mind on my conversion, and which it would be almost a miracle to reproduce. ‘I went by, and lo! it was gone; I sought it, but its place could no where be found;’ and nothing can bring it back to me.”

This is powerful and deeply spiritual writing: but it is only ecumenical in the sense that it implicitly calls for a Christian unity founded on communion with the One Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church. It may be the case that we do today have a vocation to an ecumenism based on the search for and proclamation of revealed truth; but I doubt whether an appeal to the ecclesiology of the Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman will help us very much to get into the mood for it.