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Ecumenical History in the Diocese of Westminster – Beginnings
posted on 01 January 1900
Catholic Diocese of Westminster
Diocese of Westminster

It is often assumed that the idea of ecumenism came from the Churches of the Reformation, especially after the famous Edinburgh Mission Conference in 1910 to overcome divisions between denominations in the world mission field. Indeed this led to the foundation of the World Council of Churches in 1949.

But there is another side to this story. At significant points far back into history, it has been Catholics who have vitally prepared and transformed our present vision of the Church’s communion, the desire among Christians for reconciliation and the urgency of overcoming the failure that is our separation.

1531-1603: The Martyrs

The story of Christian unity in this country truly begins with the time when Catholics and other Christians seemed at their most divided. From the ‘Catholic reformer’ Thomas Bilney in 1531, followed by St John Houghton, his fellow Carthusian martyrs, St Thomas More and St John Fisher under Henry VIII to Fr William Richardson in 1603 under Elizabeth I, in or from London alone around 110 Anglicans and Protestants and 110 Catholics lost their lives.

Virtually all died in innocence, strongly convinced of their commitment to the truth of Christ. They all believed, in different ways, in the need for the Church to be pure in its following of Christ and above all to be absolutely at one. The memory of Christians inflicting these cruelties on each other is a cause for shame - and a penitent promise that we will never allow these things to happen again. Christians today are moved by the heroism and obedience to Christ that the martyrs on both sides displayed.

Nowadays we acknowledge the history to be neither exclusively Catholic, nor Reformed, owning the story and the people on all sides as part of our own. Pope John Paul II reminded us that, in the moment of martyrdom, those who shed their blood on account of Christ's name are perfectly united with Jesus' own sacrifice on the Cross. In other words, from the world's perspective these martyrdoms signify our worst points of strife and division. But from the perspective of God our Father, they reveal our point of closest union with his Son. In Ut Unum Sint he spoke of the ‘reality of this holiness’ on all sides.

For more on the Catholic and Reformation martyrs and their role in achieving Christian unity, visit the website, The Seed of the Church.

1603-1634: Bishop Andrewes and St Robert Bellarmine in Dialogue: Charles I and Pope Urban VIII

The martyrdoms continued until 1681, but King James I attempted a coming to terms with the Holy See, regarding the Pope (Paul V at the time) as the leading bishop of Christendom. He did not want to worsen the separation between Catholics and others, but still maintained a distinction between the Pope’s spiritual authority from his jurisdiction over Catholics in England. While this involved an Oath of Allegiance to the King that no Catholic at the time could subscribe to, there was nevertheless a serious attempt at better relations.

A remarkable dialogue ensued - robust but still respectful and aimed at unity - between the great Anglican spiritual leader, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, and St Robert Bellarmine, a towering theological figure at the Council of Trent. In its way, this was the first Anglican Roman Catholic International Conversation. Although no agreement was to come of it at the time, it became a fruitful precedent for dialogue and working together today.

King Charles I and Pope Urban VIII exchanged diplomatic representatives. One of these, Dom Leander Jones OSB, tried to set up a reunion conference between Catholics and Anglicans. Sadly all efforts at rapprochement became enmeshed with the politics of the Civil War period and estrangement continued through into the following century.

1825: Johann Adam Möhler, Cardinal Wiseman and Vatican II

In 1825, a young lecturer at the Catholic Theological Faculty at Tübingen University, Father Johann Adam Möhler, published Unity in the Church. It arose from a dialogue with his counterparts in the Protestant faculty, and so it made its case strongly on the text of the Scriptures and the teaching of the early Church Fathers. It thus presented the Church less as an exclusive ‘perfect society’ on earth and more as the communion of believers in unity of spirit, unity of mind and doctrine, and unity of body, Christ’s body, the Church. This was recognised locally in communion with one’s bishop, and in turn through his fellowship with his brother bishops, all of whom were bound together in unity as successors to the Apostles through their communion in the universal Church with the Pope as successor to St Peter.

This book and its imaginative explanation of the Catholic understanding of the Church, borne out of dialogue with Protestant Christians, had a profound effect on Cardinal Wiseman, who later became the first archbishop of Westminster, and a supporter of moves to bring Catholics into closer contact with other Christians. Wiseman appears to have introduced the book to John Henry Newman, whose work in turn caused Father Yves Congar, the great Dominican theological expert who advised the Second Vatican Council, to bring many of these fresh ideas to life in the Council’s teaching documents, especially Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, and the Decree on Ecumenism, transforming Catholic church life and also its ecumenical orientation.

1845-1864: Spencer, Wiseman and the Week of Prayer for Unity

In 1845 Fr Ignatius Spencer, a Passionist priest who once lived in Highgate Parish, with the future Cardinal Newman and Dr Edward Pusey (one of the leaders of the Anglican Oxford Movement) worked out a joint prayer scheme for use by Anglicans and Catholics, praying separately, to recover unity in the faith of the Catholic Church. In a parallel development, from 1846 the Evangelical Alliance, too, suggested the first Sunday of the New Year should be a day of prayer for Christian Unity. This had arisen out of the ‘Great Awakening’, a charismatic renewal that swept among Evangelicals in north America, Scotland and northern England in the late 18th century, leading to the first prayers for unity and prayer in common across the divisions.

In 1857 Cardinal Wiseman encouraged a group of Catholics (including Pugin the architect and Ambrose Phillips de Lisle, the founder benefactor of Mount St Bernard’s Cistercian monastery), Anglicans and Orthodox to form an Association for the Promotion of the Union of Christendom, very much with Möhler’s thinking in mind. It proved too far ahead of its time and in 1864 it was decided that Catholics could not remain in it. But in 1900 one if its last meetings, at St Matthew’s Anglican Church in Westminster, led to the inauguration of the Church Unity Octave in 1908 by Father Paul Wattson, founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement.

1895-7: Pope Leo XIII and his Unity Letter to the English People

In 1895 a Commission was established by Pope Leo XIII to examine the question of Anglican faith and order, and Catholic relations with Anglicanism. He called for an octave of prayer between Ascension Day and Pentecost to promote this study of the possibility of Christian unity in a warm letter ‘to the English’,

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