Heartbroken though he was by Leo XIII’s declaration that Anglican orders ‘are absolutely null and utterly void’, the devout and determined Anglo-Catholic Lord Halifax always hoped that one day dialogue on the question would be resumed
There are not many major theological debates which started with a stroll on the island of Madeira. This is the story of how 125 years ago the pious hopes of two friends, one a leading English Anglican layman, the other a French Roman Catholic Vincentian priest, were derailed by the realities of history, theology and ecclesiastical politics.
In December 1889, Charles Wood, 2nd Viscount Halifax (1839-1934), went with his family to Madeira, where early the following year he met the Abbé Fernand Portal. Halifax was there to help the recuperation of his son from tuberculosis; Portal was convalescing after a consumptive disease. Their bonds grew in the course of their many country walks and they kept closely in touch after their departure from the island six months later. For Halifax, the words of John 17 were the key driver – “that they may be one”; Portal, who was to come to England as Halifax’s guest, visiting Anglo-Catholic parishes, convents and shrines, became persuaded that the Church of England, rather than being a Protestant sect, had a genuine claim to have inherited the apostolic succession.
Halifax and Portal realised that full unity was unlikely if not impossible, but hoped that a dialogue would be started that would see the Churches talk to each other rather than at each other. They saw the recognition of Anglican orders not as an end in itself but as a stepping stone to corporate reunion. Halifax was able to wield considerable influence as president of the English Church Union. Portal was closely in touch with the reformist movement in the French Church of the time and a journal, the Revue Anglo-Romaine, as well as a society to promote the cause, was founded. The distinguished church historian Louis Duchesne was persuaded of the validity of Anglican orders, and this had a considerable effect in Rome. Pietro Gasparri, professor of canon law at the Institute of Paris, and later Secretary of State under Benedict XV and Pius XI, wrote an influential treatise supporting validity, copies of which were requested by the Pope. The Secretary of State, Cardinal Rampolla, was sympathetic, and kept up an active correspondence with Gladstone.