Those who founded the Catholic League in 1913 stood in a long line of people who over centuries worked and prayed for the visible, corporate reunion of Christendom, and the recovery of its unity in faith. It is open to all who wish to further the Catholic approach to ecumenism, whether as Catholics themselves or as Christians in other Churches and Church communities aspiring to the realisation of visible unity in communion with the See of Peter. The present day members of the League seek to serve the unity of the whole Church, sharing in the whole of its Catholic faith, the whole of its communion - not just the separate parts which Christians experience in their divisions.
The story of a Catholic orientation to ecumenism in England is less well known than it deserves. While the polemics and sharp turning points of Church history are vivid, there was also a meeting of minds and aspiration across the boundaries of long separated traditions, marked by friendship, hope and a love of Christian peace and charity. These would all come into their own in the middle of the twentieth century with the founding of the World Council of Churches after World War II and then the Second Vatican Council. But the roots can be traced to more than a century earlier.
Association for the Promotion of the Unity of Christendom
In 1857, with the encouragement of Cardinal Wiseman, a small group of Anglicans, Catholics and Orthodox founded the Association for the Promotion of the Unity of Christendom, to work and pray for the corporate reunion of churches and church bodies in East and West. They were led by Ambrose de Lisle, a distinguished Anglican layman who as a Roman Catholic founded Mount St Bernard's Abbey. Wiseman had been influenced by fresh thinking on the nature of the Church by Fr Johann Adam Möhler, a professor at Tübingen, whose book Unity in the Church, recognised the Church as essentially a communion of bishops and their people, in spiritual, mental and corporate union with each other at the local and universal levels, through communion in turn with the Pope as Bishop of Rome, himself a local bishop. Möhler was the first to propose the notion of unity in diversity as a possible pathway for reconstructing communion between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches to the East, as well as with the historic Churches arising out of the Reformation period in the West. Grounded in deep scholarship of the Scriptures and the Church Fathers, this approach in turn influenced Cardinal Newman amd subsequently, through Fr Yves Congar OP, the formulation of Lumen Gentium at Vatican III.
Wiseman's Letter to Lord Shrewsbury, a leading Victorian Catholic peer, explored these ideas and resulted in a pamphlet by de Lisle, The Future Unity of Christendom. Its constructive and eirenic proposal hoping to create the conditions and the will for corporate reunion saw de Lisle, Augustus Welby Pugin (the famous Catholic architect) and the Anglican bishop Forbes of Brechin founded the Association with the express approval of Cardinal Wiseman. This was the first organisation to be established expressly to work and pray for Christian unity according to Catholic ecumenical principles. Its ideas would have been very much in tune with modern Catholicism's ecumenical movement since Vatican II, but in the 1860s it was too far ahead of its time. In 1864 Wiseman's successor, Cardinal Manning, secured a decree from Rome forbidding Catholics to continue as members. It was left to Anglicans and Orthodox to carry forward the Association and its ideals, first through the Anglican & Eastern Churches Association, and later through the Fellowship of St Alban & St Sergius, founded in 1928 as a society encouraging encounter and unity between Anglicans and Orthodox, but which like the Catholic League is nowadays fully ecumenical with strong Catholic participation.
'Reunion is in the Air'
Despite the setback with the Association, hopeful contacts between Anglicans and Catholics continued informally. Archbishop Maclagan of York's famous phrase expresses the optimism of the time, which led to renewed attempts at Anglican-Catholic rapprochement in the 1890s, facilitated by the Abbé Fernand Portal and Lord Halifax, on the question of mutual recognition of the Anglican and Roman Catholic ordained ministries. Although the investigating council was inconclusive and Pope Leo XIII decided against a juridical change in settled policy towards Anglicanism (in the letter Apostolicae Curae), the Anglican archbishops' scholarly response (Saepius Officio) was received with respect. As Leo seems genuinely to have desired reconciliation, the issue was not further contested at the time and arguably there was an agreement to differ. Although the Anglican leaders would now look more to the East and to continental Protestantism for its ecumenical hopes, nevertheless both they and Pope Leo committed themselves to continue with the official prayers for unity they had initiated earlier. The second Lambeth Conference in 1878 had designated Ascension Day as a day of prayer for unity and in 1897 Leo set aside Ascension Day to Pentecost as an Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity on a permanent basis.
The Guild of the Love of God
Undeterred by the setbacks of the 1890s, a number of Anglicans still felt that the unity of Christians was a command of Christ not to be disregarded and that this inevitably involved even more vigourous efforts at reconciliation between the Church of England and other Christians and the Roman Catholic Church. In 1910 the famous Edinburgh Mission Conference was convened to address the scandal of disunity between Anglicans and Protestant Churches working for the spread of the Gospel overseas, with 144 denominations acting more or less as competitors and thus seeming to divide Christ. This momentous event is often cited as the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement; but others at the time felt that the proclamation of the Christian Faith, at home as well as abroad, was impeded if it did not take account of the whole faith, including the Catholic Church and the ministry of the Bishop of Rome. While this view was not widely accepted by many other Anglicans at the time, it had considerable influence over time and has consistently been a factor in driving Catholic-Anglican encounter and dialogue on faith and order ever since. In 1911, the Guild of the Love of God was founded to promote interest in a Catholic approach to reunion, spirituality and pastoral-liturgical practice.
The Catholic League
The members of the Guild of the Love of God disagreed on whether it was desirable, given the English situation, to sustain a separate form of Catholicism distinct from the Church in communion with the Roman Primacy, or whether it was intrinsic to belief in the Catholic faith and the desire for unity in the Church to work and pray urgently for the recovery of the Church of England's former union with the Roman See. The controversy subsequently came to be addressed by Dom Lambert Beauduin at the Malines Conversations in his famous paper, 'The Anglican Church, United, not Absorbed'. Those who felt that the historic appeal of the Church of England to which they loyally belonged was to Scripture and Tradition, as interpreted by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church and defined in General Councils in union with the Pope, founded the Catholic League to promote the same ideals as the Guild, but also explicitly to concentrate their efforts on the re-union of all Christians with the See of Peter.
Thus it was that on 2 July 1913 the Revd Henry Joy Fynes-Clinton, assistant curate of St Stephen's, Lewisham, and the Revd R. L. Langford-James, vicar of St Mark's, Bush Hill Park, Enfield, met at St Mark's to found the Catholic League in London, with Fr Langford-James its first Priest-Director or Superior, and Fr Fynes-Clinton his assistant. This followed an earlier meeting to prepare the ground at the Holborn Restaurant, on the corner of High Holborn and what is now Kingsway. The formal signing of the Deed to inaugurate the League by its first 97 members took place at the Patronal Festival of the Church of St Mary, Corringham in Essex, three days later on 5 July. It was promptly banned by the Bishop of St Albans, in whose diocese Corringham then lay, so appalled was efforts towards Anglican unity with Rome. The League, however, celebrated its 50th and 60th Anniversaries at Corringham and on July 14, 2013, the Director of the League, Fr Mark Woodruff, and its General Secretary, David Chapman, returned to Corringham for a parish celebration to make the historic Centenary (following events in London the week before), presided by Bishop Norman Banks (a former Council member of the League's) and assisted by the vicar, Fr David Rollins.
|St Mary's, Corringham|
In the early twentieth century, with Britain more conscious than ever of its role in European affairs, the League's founders understood that Europe's Christian civilisation, and therefore the witness of its churches, was harmed by its long standing divisions along confessional lines. Their hopes for the visible reunion of Christians was thus not about reviving a medieval 'Golden Age' from before the Reformation divide. Nor were they inspired by plans for Catholic versus Protestant polemics and reviving the enmity of the past. Instead, they were looking to a contemporary realignment of Christians into unity with each other in the here and now.
Although at a particular point it fell to a group of Anglicans to convene a group to take forward the hopes for the reintegration of the Church in accord with Catholic principles, this was part of a movement historically embracing Roman Catholics and Orthodox too. Since the renewal affecting many Church traditions brought about by the Second Vatican Council, nowadays the Catholic League is fully ecumenical, restoring to contemporary ecumenism the pioneering witness originally given by the Association for Promoting the Unity of Christendom from 1857 to 1864.
Catholic ecumenism: reconciliation in one world through reconciliation in one church
Historically, as well as theologically, they saw the Catholic Church as the most likely means of bringing unity to the world, in an age facing its breaking point with the past. With so much of the surrounding social and cultural world "leaving home" (as Sir Simon Rattle, the distinguished conductor, describes the period) in search of new directions, the League's founders recognised upheaval in the world was calling for Christ's Church to be united and strong. British Christians of all traditions had been horrified by the persecution and martyrdoms of Catholic lay people, religious and priests under France's Third Republic from 1905 onwards. Their steadfastness in their Catholic faith and their loyalty to the See of Peter made a profound impression. It evoked within the League's founders a strong sense of solidarity with universal Christendom, and the limitations endured by a Christian faith divided on national and confessional lines. Perhaps they also sensed something of how the Christian powers of Europe were about to tear themselves apart in war.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, with the concerns of international peace and fair commerce, global warming, strife between the followers of great faiths, and abiding human rights, corruption, poverty, health and education problems, a sense of human solidarity seems to be in retreat. The post-modern West seeks religious inspiration, solace and a sense of direction from any and every kind of varying and even contradictory source. But it has come to suspect what it used to rely upon: the overarching story told by Christianity over two millennia, and its ethical and spiritual compass points. Part of the reason for this is the confusing voice of a Church that has remained divided and the scandal of Christians who are calling for reconciliation and unity in the world in the name of the love of Christ and the justice of his Gospel, but who are unable or unwilling to realise it visibly in their own life and organisation.
Over the last fifty years, the Christian traditions and people of all the Christian churches have grown together much more closely spiritually, in deep and loving frienship and in united action to heal the pains of the world. Indeed much of this is truly 'visible unity'. But the Church remains divided before the world, and the prayer of Christ, 'that they all may be one', for our complete and corporate unity remains insistent. The Catholic League believes, just as when it was founded, that growing into unity with the Catholic faith, and thus realising the fullness of communion with the Bishop of Rome maintaining the service of St Peter to strengthen and feed the sheep of Christ's flock, offers the best hope for Christ's mission from his Father - 'that the world may believe'.