Fr Mark Vickers, our parish priest at the Holy Ghost and St Stephen in west London, is also an author and has recently published a fascinating new book, Reunion Revisited: 1930s Ecumenism Exposed.
Hitherto, it had been assumed that there was no discussion about the reunion of the Catholic and Anglican communions between the Malines Conversations – sponsored by Cardinal Mercier in Belgium in the 1920s – and the work of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) following Vatican II. Fr Mark’s diligent research has discovered that further discussions did in fact take place in London between “papalist” Anglicans and eminent Catholic priests such as the Jesuit Fr Martin d’Arcy and the Dominican Fr Bede Jarrett.
As Fr John Saward says in his introduction to Reunion Revisited, “One of Fr Vickers’s most significant achievements in this book is to show that the Anglo-Papalist critique of official Anglicanism was directed as much to its aberrations in morals as to its deficiencies in dogma.”
This aberration in morals was the ruling of the 1930 Lambeth Conference that the use of artificial contraception was not sinful. This break from “what up to that moment had been the universal teaching of all Christians, Protestants as well as Catholics”, provoked Henry Fynes-Clinton, the Anglo-Papalist rector of St Magnus-the-Martyr in the City of London, to publicly express his “abhorrence and entire repudiation and disassociation from the lamentable sanction given … to the deadly sin of contraception”. It also led, at the end of the same year, to Pope Pius XI’s encyclical on Christian marriage, Casti Connubii, in which the sinfulness of artificial means of contraception was confirmed.
One of the pleasures of Fr Mark’s book are the portraits of the somewhat eccentric Anglican Papalists who sought reunion with Rome: the above-mentioned Henry Fynes-Clinton, “Don Quixote in a biretta”; Sidney Scott, who in the photograph printed in the book looks like a prizefighter; Spencer Jones; Robert Corbould; Leslie Simonds and William Monahan. The conversations, though secret, were approved by both the archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, the archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Bourne (of whom Fr Mark has written the definitive biography), and also in Rome – though there was an obvious question to be put to the Anglo-Papalists: why, if they accepted the teaching of the Catholic Church and the authority of the pope, did they not become Catholics, like Newman and Manning?
The conundrum was that the Anglo-Papalists, like many Anglo-Catholics, believed that the Church of England was merely schismatic, not heretical; that their orders were valid; and there was a strong attachment to the Book of Common Prayer. An ordinariate was an idea whose time had yet to come.
Moreover, the Papalists were few in number and at the extreme wing of their Church. It was fanciful to imagine that the majority of church-going Anglicans would follow their lead. And even as they were examining ways and means of reunion with Rome, other Anglicans were forming bonds with Lutherans and Evangelical Christians.
As Fr Mark points out, the meaning of ecumenism was changed by Vatican II: “It provided a vocabulary and concepts which were both more accurate and more charitable, an ecclesiology of degrees of communion.” Ut unum sint – Jesus’s prayer that all should be one – led to a dogged pursuit of unity by ARCIC: zealots for unity, such as our parish priest in the 1980s, proclaimed from the pulpit that there was no need for an Anglican to become a Catholic, and that the time would soon come when he could concelebrate Mass with the Baptist minister.
At the time, I felt deep misgivings about ecumenism (just as now I am dismayed by Catholics praising Luther and the Reformation: Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation makes clear that it was the source of many of the evils of the modern world). In the 1980s, it seemed to me that much of what was audacious and astounding about Catholic belief, such as the true presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, was played down in Catholic catechetics to accommodate Anglicans. Moreover, most of the devout Anglicans I knew, such as my mother-in-law, were horrified by the idea of union with Rome. The theologians on ARCIC might produce agreed statements on theological issues, but they were above the heads of those in the pews of both denominations.
However, the drive for unity went ahead with impressive ecumenical gestures, such as when, in 1982, Pope John Paul II and the archbishop of Canterbury prayed together in Canterbury Cathedral.
But then 10 years later, the General Synod of the Church of England voted for the ordination of women to the Anglican priesthood, and all the ecumenical aspirations came tumbling down. Breaking ranks with other Christian denominations at the Lambeth Conference of 1930 had not been an aberration but a portent for the future.
Piers Paul Read is a novelist, historian and biographer