Reunion Revisited

Reunion Revisited

Mark Vickers examines the ecumenical efforts of the 1930s

Lonely but prophetic voices always existed seeking the unity of Christians in these islands, including the nineteenth-century converts, Fr. Ignatius Spencer and Ambrose Phillipps de Lisle. Impetus was given to the movement by the nineteenth-century Oxford Movement, as the Church of England returned to patristic and Catholic sources to promote spiritual and moral renewal. The call for Reunion was taken up by the 1920 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops. Their Appeal made passing reference to the Catholic Church, but confident that they would receive no response. Anglicanism preferred rather to focus on practical cooperation with the Protestant Free Churches at home and vague overtures of sympathy towards the Orthodox and Lutherans overseas.

Anglican assumptions that they could safely ignore the Catholic Church in ecumenical matters reckoned without two factors. The first was Francis, Cardinal Bourne, Archbishop of Westminster, unfairly portrayed as hostile to the Malines Conversations held in Belgium in the 1920s. What Bourne did object to was Belgian and French Catholics claiming they had a better understanding of Anglicanism than English Catholics, and the suggestion that a different, less demanding form of Catholicism was taught on the Continent than here in Britain. While realistic about the prospect of immediate results, Bourne was in no way opposed to dialogue between Catholics and Anglicans. He gave the Malines Conversations his initial blessing, offered to send English Catholic delegates to Belgium and subsequently met the Archbishop of Canterbury with a view to commencing conversations in this country. It was Lambeth that declined to take up the offer.


Then, there existed within the Church of England a curious group unknown to most Catholics: the Anglo-Papalists. The 1896 Papal bull, Curae Apostolicae, categorically denied the validity of Anglican Orders and seemed to rule out conclusively any possibility of rapprochement between the two Communions. An Anglican clergyman from the Cotswolds, Spencer Jones, who deserves to be far better known, developed an imaginative, if controversial, response. He recognised that the Catholic Church cannot change her doctrine, whereas change is characteristic of the Church of England; therefore, it is for Anglicanism to change and accept papal claims. In his writings and in the Church Unity Octave, which he co-founded, Jones argued that, historically, this Papalist stance actually represented the true nature of Anglicanism, rather than the Protestantism forced upon it by the civil power at the Reformation. Prayer and education were needed to convince his fellow Anglicans.

Believing, as they claimed, in all defined doctrine of the Catholic Church, many Catholics naturally asked why these Anglo-Papalists remained in the Church of England. They gave two reasons. They worked for ‘Corporate Reunion.’ Individual conversions, they argued, would only delay the ultimate return of the Anglican Communion to the Catholic Church, leaving Anglicanism in the hands of Protestants and Modernists. Then they felt unable to become Catholics if that involved the denial of their priestly orders, of which they were passionately convinced.

These Anglo-Papalists shared with Bourne a similar understanding of the basis for ecumenical progress. Both understood the different senses in which the term ‘Reunion’ was being used. For Anglo-Papalists, as well as for Catholics, it meant ‘true dogmatic agreement upon defined truth,’ rather than ‘mere friendly relations and cooperation.’(1) A much stronger appreciation of this distinction needs to be recovered today. Ecumenical contact might start gradually with friendly contact, but, unless we are clear and honest about the ultimate objective, then we ought not to be surprised if little progress is made. The Papalists were scathing of the encroaches of Modernism in the Church of England and increasingly critical of an Anglo-Catholicism which, they felt, yearned more for Establishment endorsement rather than concerning itself with the propagation of the truth. Catholicism, the Papalists argued, meant more than ‘a revival of ceremonies and costume.’(2)

The Lambeth Conference and contraception

Attempts at dialogue in England had been mooted in the late 1920s. What finally brought Cardinal Bourne and the Anglo-Papalists together were the resolutions of the 1930 Lambeth Conference. The Papalists were horrified by the limited recognition and possibility of intercommunion offered by the Church of England to Protestants who made no claim to apostolic succession. The presence of Orthodox delegates at the Conference did not help. The Papalists suspected a conspiracy to create a ‘non-papal’ Catholicism, which for them was unthinkable.

But the Anglo-Papalists reserved their greatest fury for the sanction granted to the use of artificial contraception. (In this respect, Fr Holloway wrote, ‘The Church of England in particular might be called the very barometer of moral pressure against the harsh perfections of Christ on the weakness of human nature.’(3)) For Anglo-Papalists and many others at the time, this was ‘the Moral Heresy’ – ‘Lambeth had blessed mortal sin.’(4) We marked the fiftieth anniversary of Humane Vitae last year: it is worth recalling that there are those beyond her visible confines who look to the Catholic Church to defend the natural law and Christian tradition. The Anglo-Papalists were delighted by Pius XI’s encyclical, Casti Connubii, in which he censured the Anglican Bishops for departing ‘from the uninterrupted Christian tradition’ in the erroneous belief they could ‘declare another doctrine.’(5)

The London Conversations of 1931

It is against this backdrop that highly-confidential London Conversations commenced in January 1931 at the Thackeray Hotel opposite the British Museum. Initially, they were chaired by Sir James Marchant, an English Presbyterian who worked in the world of publishing and presided over various quasi-governmental bodies. His presence was later dispensed with as both sides suspected him – with justification – of being less than straight forward and advancing his own personal agenda.

It was not for lack of effort on Marchant’s part that authorised, senior Anglican representation was lacking. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York were in an invidious position. In the light of their own Appeal for Christian unity, they could not be seen to reject outright these efforts towards mutual understanding and reunion with Rome. Yet, for them, this represented the wrong kind of ecumenism. They limited themselves, therefore, to the vaguest expressions of sympathy. So, the Anglican conversationalists were drawn from the highly-unrepresentative Papalist grouping: Spencer Jones, the highly irascible author Dr Scott, and four other parish clergy.

By contrast, Cardinal Bourne was fully appraised and supportive of the conversations.

The Catholic delegation was impressive: the Jesuit, Archbishop Alban Goodier; Cuthbert Butler, former Abbot of Downside and a considerable scholar; Bede Jarrett, Provincial of the Dominicans; and another Jesuit, Martin D’Arcy, intellectually brilliant and a renowned convert-hunter. British Catholics have no reason to be apologetic about their commitment to the search for unity in the early twentieth century.


To the surprise of the Catholics, doctrine did not feature large in the initial Conversations. Assuming that they were already united in belief, the Papalists produced four historical monographs for the consideration of their Catholic friends. These papers sought to validate the Papalist claim to be the true voice of the Church of England and to demonstrate that it was possible to be out of communion with Rome, while being neither in heresy nor schism. Archbishop Goodier, who led the Catholic team, recognised immediately: ‘The question is not one of history; it is dogmatic.’(6)

Goodier was not a speculative theologian. Lacking the vocabulary of ‘degrees of communion’ provided by the Second Vatican Council, he struggled to define the relationship to the Catholic Church of these exotic Papalists. There was a great deal of ultimately unhelpful discussion as to the possibility of schism within the Church as opposed to schism from the Church. Frustrated by what he felt was mere semantics, Goodier was inclined to call a halt to the Conversations. Butler and the others urged perseverance. It was possible that, in God’s Providence, the Papalists ‘are doing a Catholicising work that we can’t do; they are in fact touching wide and ever wider circles that none others reach, or can reach.’(7)


Matters progressed at the meeting in June 1931 when attention turned to practicalities. What were the Papalists seeking from Rome? In 2009 Pope Benedict XVI was praised for his creativity in establishing Personal Ordinariates to allow Anglicans to move into full communion with the Catholic Church in a corporate manner, retaining elements of their Anglican patrimony. In fact, such proposals had been considered three generations earlier. Rome was eminently practical. Did the numbers justify such concessions? The Papalists claimed the support of 400 Anglican clergy. But what was it they wanted?

The Anglican conversationalists accepted that some concessions might only be of temporary duration. Drawing upon the Malines Conversations, they requested the following:

• That the Archbishop of Canterbury should be created ‘Patriarch of such Anglican churches throughout the world as should desire to enter into the union;’

• That Anglicans being reconciled should be governed by their own canon law – with the possibility of appeals to the Holy See; • The right to appoint their own bishops;

• The Holy See should authorise use of ‘an English rite’ for the liturgy – the Book of Common Prayer revised to ensure its full conformity with Catholic doctrine;

• The use for the moment at least of the King James Version of the Bible;

• The Pope to ‘regularise the orders of the Archbishop of Canterbury,’ who, in turn, would regularise the orders of all other clergy;

• Married clergy who were reconciled should be permitted to continue to function – but those ordained in the future would embrace celibacy; and

• The option of Communion under both kinds. (8)

Pope Benedict XVI

It is instructive to compare the concessions granted subsequently by Pope Benedict. The final point had already become the norm in the Latin Church. Under the 2009 Apostolic Constitution, Anglicanorum Coetibus, groups of Anglicans entering full communion were granted their own ordinaries and constitution, provision for married clergy and their own liturgy embodying ‘Anglican patrimony.’

These requests were not dismissed out of hand in the 1930s. Far from it. Cardinal Bourne asked for the preparation of a background statement for the benefit of the Vatican, and he himself presented the Papalists’ memorandum to Pope Pius XI at an audience on 9 December 1931. We know that the Pope received the memorandum sympathetically. The fact that there was no further action in Rome was at least in part because then (and again three years later), the Vatican, with good reason, doubted that sufficient numbers of Anglican clergy would respond even if such concessions were granted.

It was not the end of the road for these English Conversations. Having ditched Sir James Marchant as their chairman, the Anglicans and Catholics continued to meet through 1932 at the Rectory of St. Mary’s, Chelsea, the residence of Archbishop Goodier.

Mutual understanding

Cardinal Bourne gave permission for a conference at St. Ermin’s Hotel in Westminster on 25 October 1932 at which both Catholics and Anglicans would present papers with a view to building mutual understanding and contact between the two Communions. Informed of the proposal, the Archbishop of Canterbury simply noted the fact that it was occurring. The conference, intended as the first of a series, was attended by 120 clergy – and its occurrence and the content remained confidential!

The subject of the conference was ‘The Ideal of the Church.’ Archbishop Goodier led for the Catholics, and spoke at length. He was much more comfortable handling doctrine than history. At last, he seemed able to articulate his understanding of the distinction between the Anglo-Papalists and Roman Catholics. Affirming their shared belief in the divinity of Christ, he maintained that there was a ‘fundamental difference of outlook.’ Even when Anglicans accepted Catholic doctrine, including the claims of papal jurisdiction and infallibility, this was for them ‘a matter of personal judgment, and personal interpretation.’ Whereas, for Catholics, authority always took precedence, and was only subsequently confirmed by personal judgment. Goodier held that the fundamental distinction was between ‘belief in the Christian religion’ and belief in ‘the Christian Church.’

The Archbishop was able to point to the unchanging doctrine of the Catholic Church. She speaks as Jesus spoke, because He bids her; as the apostles spoke, because she is one with them. She commands as they commanded, and can do no otherwise.’ Having been so critical themselves of the recent sanctioning of artificial contraception by the Lambeth Conference, the Papalists would have been forcefully struck by Goodier’s next point: ‘the faith or morals of one generation cannot contradict the faith or morals of another … the Church that teaches morals which have never been the morals of the Church of Jesus Christ, declares herself formally heretical.’(9) 

Home truths

The paper delighted his fellow Catholics. Bede Jarrett wrote: ‘Here is controversy in excelsis. Archbishop Goodier is in the tradition of St. Francis de Sales.’(10) But Anglicans too appreciated his honesty and clarity. One acknowledged ‘that home truths were spoken, but in a charitable manner; that they were needed to be stated; and that the result was on the whole good.’(11) There is something here to be learnt in ecumenical dialogue today. The cause of unity is not advanced by obfuscation.

Contrary to expectations, there were no further conferences. Why not? Death and illness intervened. Catholic patronage and participation of the Conversations had been crucial. But within a few short months Cardinal Bourne, Butler and Jarrett had either died or were incapacitated. Tellingly, it was during Bourne’s brief return to health and active ministry in 1933, that the prospect of further conversations was raised. It is also difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Anglicans’ bluff had been called. Hearing of the avowed intentions of the Papalists, the Pope declared that he was ‘ready to do anything’ to help their journey into full communion. A few Anglicans recognised a moment of unique opportunity, and pleaded with other members of the group to take ‘the Next Step.’ It was with infinite sadness that it dawned upon them that was to be no Next Step. ‘No one will admit there is any definite point in the Anglican Communion’s disintegration beyond which we can’t be associated with it.’ (12) A handful of brave souls were reconciled to the Church, but what had promised to be a significant movement in the English ecclesiastical landscape never materialised.

The Faith Movement is concerned with reconciling the claims of faith and science, but it must never neglect the lessons to be learnt from history. After all, we proclaim ‘the primacy of Jesus Christ overall creation, throughout history.’ Pope Benedict demonstrated his capacity to learn from history in his creation of the Ordinariate structures: both the limitations sometimes of formal ecumenical dialogue, and the requirement for creativity in response to the needs of individuals and groups. And we Catholics we have no cause for complacency. We too need to learn continually anew how destructive can be the inroads of Modernism from which these anguished Anglo-Papalists suffered in the 1930s.

We state in our Origins and Purpose: ‘Faith is ecumenical in spirit.’(13) Let an understanding of history inform that statement and make it an increasing reality.


Fr. Mark Vickers is a parish priest in West London. His book Reunion Revisited: 1930s Ecumenism Exposed (2017) is published by Gracewing

1 Rev. W. R. Corbould in Revv. H. J. Fynes-Clinton & W. R. Corbould, What are We to Say? (London: Council for Promoting Catholic Unity, 1932)

2 Rev. H. K. Pierce to Revv. S. Harris, S. J. Jones & A. Acheson, 21 March 1932

3 Fr. Edward Holloway, Catholicism: A New Synthesis (Wickford: Keyway Publications, 1969), p. 434

4 Pierce to Confraternity of Unity Council, 17 February 1933

5 Pope Pius XI, Casti Connubii (1930), n.56

6 Archbishop Alban Goodier to Sir James Marchant, 15 March 1931

7 Abbot Cuthbert Butler to Goodier, 6 March 1931

8 Undated Memorandum (revised), Downside Abbey Archives, Butler Papers, P/7

9 Goodier, ‘The Ideal of the Church,’ Blackfriars, 14/155 (February 1933), pp. 90-100

10 Fr. Bede Jarrett, Editorial, Blackfriars, 14/155 (February 1933), p.85

11 Pierce to Rev. D. Rea, 12 January 1933

12 Pierce to Jones, 15 December 1932

13 ‘Origins and Purpose of the Faith Movement’ at

Faith Magazine

January/ February 2019