The Legacy of the ‘Malines Conversations,’ One Century Later

A symposium co-hosted by the Belgian and British embassies to the Holy See focused on the consequences of the historical event that has inspired the ecumenical movements of the past 100 years.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (L) speaking at the Embassy with Dr. Alana Harris (R) and Archbishop Rowan Williams formerly of Canterbury.
Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (L) speaking at the Embassy with Dr. Alana Harris (R) and Archbishop Rowan Williams formerly of Canterbury. (photo: Screenshot / Embassy of Belgium)

The history of ecumenism marks the 100-year anniversary of the so-called “Malines Conversation,” which saw the holding of an unprecedented series of encounters between Catholic and Anglican representatives in the Belgian Archdiocese of Malines (Mechelen) from 1921 to 1927.  

One century after the opening of this historic dialogue, the ambassadors of the United Kingdom and Belgium to the Holy See — Sally Axworthy and Patrick Renault — convened several leaders of both churches in Rome on June 11, to discuss the conversations’ impact and legacy and the future of ecumenism. 

The Malines Conversations took place in a Europe that the First World War had left bloody and wounded. On this heap of wartime ruins, some Christian authorities of the time sought to bring a common horizon to the foreground. 

In 1920, the Anglican Lambeth conference issued an “Appeal to all Christian People” — stating that “the times call us to new outlook and new measures,” and that “the faith cannot be adequately apprehended and the battle of the Kingdom cannot be worthily fought while the body is divided” — intended to create a more favorable context for such a dialogue.

But it is the friendship between the then-president of the English Church Union, Lord Halifax, and Vincentian Father Fernand Portal that significantly helped trigger the process, with the aid of a leading Catholic figure of that time, Cardinal Désiré Joseph Mercier, the archbishop of Malines and primate of the Catholic Church in Belgium. This prelate, who remains in collective memory as a figurehead of the Belgian patriotism and resistance against the German occupiers during the Great War, enjoyed a strong popularity in Allied — and especially Anglo-Saxon — circles, which gave him the necessary moral authority and legitimacy to open this new path of dialogue within Christendom. 


Unity to Evangelize the World

“Cardinal Mercier understood in his time that the challenge of finding unity among Christians was absolutely necessary to enable them to serve a world in a grip of a terrible trial,” Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said in an interview with the Register on the margins of the June 11 symposium. It was entitled “The Malines Conversations 100 Years On,” and held at the Embassy of Belgium to the Holy See in Rome. 

The cardinal believes that, prior to the Malines Conversations, the Belgian prelate was deeply influenced by the holding of the Edinburgh Missionary Conference (considered the first ecumenical conference of international scope, although it only gathered Anglican and Protestant representatives) in 1910. 

“He saw that the greatest obstacle for the evangelization of the world was the loss of unity among Christians and it is no accident if, from Edinburgh onwards, the ecumenical and missionary movements joined forces,” Cardinal Koch said. “It is probably there that he imagined a strategy to deepen the unity, especially between Anglicans and Catholics.”

From December 1921 until his death in 1926, Cardinal Mercier hosted a series of conversations (with the approval of the Holy See and the archbishop of Canterbury) between Catholic and Anglican theologians, which addressed means to bring together the two churches. His successor, Cardinal Jozef-Ernest van Roey, tried to continue this work but the dynamism of the process quickly dissipated after Cardinal Mercier’s death. 

However, these encounters, considered among the first bilateral dialogues of modern times, bore fruit in several respects, leading notably to the intensification of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and, ultimately, to the visit of Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsay to Pope Paul VI in 1966. The creation of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) in 1970 and the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM) in 2001 are also considered to be direct results from the Malines Conversations.  

While noting that these meetings drew criticism in their time and were not universally supported, Belgian Ambassador Patrick Renault concluded the symposium — also attended, remotely, by Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels Cardinal Josef De Kesel, Archbishop Rowan Williams, former archbishop of Canterbury (2002-2012,) and a dozen other eminent religious authorities from across the world — by asserting that today, as in the past, this dialogue and cooperation between theologians and experts of different Christian denominations remains an absolute necessity to successfully advance projects in many parts of the world, starting with Africa and notably in the field of education and healthcare. 

Such a point of view was shared by Cardinal Koch, who mentioned in particular bioethical issues as a mutual workhorse between Christians engaged in public life. 

“In the 1980s,” he told the Register, “we used to say that ‘the faith divides us and actions unite us.’ It looks like we should say the contrary now since the faith in Christ cements us as tensions grow around the questions of the beginning and the end of the human life.”


Dialogue of Truth 

Questioned about the risk of compromising the Catholic faith, a concern often raised by critics of ecumenism, Cardinal Koch underscored that “the purpose of dialogue is above all to deepen mutual knowledge,” and that it was important in such a process to distinguish between a mere “dialogue of love” between friends and a “dialogue of truth”, devoid of relativism, which implies “dealing with theological issues that have divided the Christian Churches over the centuries to regain unity.” 

Such a dialogue of truth, he said, is only meant to reconcile the unity that is desired by Christ with the existing diversity, respecting the peculiarities of all people but fostering the solidarity that our societies need — now even more than ever.  

The cardinal also noted that his Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity is currently involved in two major dialogues through two distinct sections. 

“Our Eastern section is in relation with all the Orthodox Churches, and its core topic of discussion is the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, the relation between synodality and primacy, but we almost have the same faith,” he continued. “Through our Western section, on the other hand, we exchange with 12 different Reformed churches, focusing on the understanding of the Church, the relation between the Church and the Eucharist.”

While regretting that all these dialogues haven’t yet resulted in a more visible unity among Christians, Cardinal Koch considered that the Malines Conversations still represent a solid method to help Christians worldwide look to the future.