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INTERCHURCH FAMILIES AND CHRISTIAN UNITY

11th International Conference
Newcastle, NSW, Australia
18-21 August 2005

Gerard Kelly


The world gathering of Interchurch Families in Rome in 2003 produced a useful document that bears careful study. There are three sections: how interchurch families see themselves; the contribution of interchurch families to Christian unity; and pastoral care and understanding. The importance of the document, I believe, is the way it tries to shift the perception of interchurch families and their place in the church. Both the introduction and conclusion to the document note this shift: these families move from being problems to being pioneers. We probably all remember the days when people were counselled most strongly by their own church against marrying someone from another church. We all remember how the wedding ceremony was downplayed – it was almost as though there was no ceremony; it was hidden. Of course, those were the days when the relationships between our churches were very frosty. As our relationships have changed so too has the way we understand and care for people who are marrying across church boundaries. The Rome document makes it clear that interchurch families can rightly be considered as pioneers in the search for Christian unity. I’d like to use this address this morning to explore the meaning and implications of being pioneers.

It is also worth noting at the outset that through the many ecumenical dialogues that have taken place internationally and nationally very few have focused on marriage. About the only one I can think of is the work of the Uniting Church–Roman Catholic Dialogue in Australia. Despite this, we also know that churches have issued some positive pastoral responses to interchurch marriages. Here I think, for example, of my own church, and in particular of the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms of Ecumenism. I am also aware of various documents published by the Australian Catholic Bishops, and of pastoral guidelines for sacramental life prepared by various dioceses. Similar documents have been produced in other countries.

The Phenomenon of Interchurch Families

The first issue that the Rome document raises is how interchurch families see themselves. It is about what we can say of the phenomenon of interchurch families. While this is no doubt fairly obvious it is important that we acknowledge the various dimensions of the phenomenon. We must begin, however, with the fact that these marriages, in most ways, are like any other marriage. Marriage is always the meeting of two different people: a man and a woman, each with their own experience of family life, of love, of growing up, of developing personal identity, of reconciliation, and often of ways of experiencing God. All of this has taken place in various communities, the most basic of which is the family, but which also extends to relatives and friends, places of education, and also the church. Marriage is always a meeting of people with diverse backgrounds and experiences who commit themselves to each other to create a new family that is loving and life-giving. The starting point for all marriage is diversity. I realise that at the time of getting married most couples will stress their unity and their complementarity, and hopefully this grows as they grow together in marriage. Nevertheless, the very nature of marriage is that two different people commit themselves to each other for the rest of their days. I believe that this means that marriage, by its very nature, is ecumenical.

Interchurch couples become acutely aware of the church differences they bring to their marriage. If in the past this was seen as a problem, today they want to see themselves as pioneers, who are giving witness to an essential aspect of Christian marriage. Something of the diversity they bring to their marriage includes a variety of differences in religious practice and custom. There are the obvious differences in ways of worship and in church discipline. There are also the subtle differences in language and imagery that each uses to speak of God and to know God; there are different spiritualities and ways of drawing close to God; there may be different understandings of salvation and the mystery of Jesus Christ, and perhaps even different experiences of the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. While these differences can fascinate theologians like me, the important point to acknowledge today is that people are shaped by these differences. The way to salvation and to life in Christ and the Holy Spirit can be very clearly defined by the church family that we belong to. So while denominationalism in the narrow sense of that word can be a hindrance to true church unity, the experience each of us has in our own church goes to the core of our Christian identity.

This leads me to another aspect of the phenomenon of interchurch families. They live with the tension inherent in denominationalism. On the one hand they offer to each other the gift of their own religious experience in such a way that they advance together on the path of holiness, able to integrate these diverse experiences into a common lived faith. In this sense they can be called a “domestic church”. On the other hand they remain members of their respective churches which are still divided. The tension they experience is between unity and division (and I say division quite deliberately because it is more than a healthy diversity). Their experience as a family is one of unity in Christ, while their experience as church members is one of being divided. There is always a temptation, of course, to say how silly all this is and to suggest that the interchurch family should live just one side of the tension, namely the unity. The problem with this is that institutional belonging is important for all of us. The only reason this couple can call themselves an interchurch family is because each of them takes seriously their belonging to their respective churches. The Rome document brings this out clearly when it says, “although it is one church at home, the partners remain faithful members of two as yet divided church congregations in their neighbourhood, and two as yet divided ecclesial communions in the world. As marriage partners they want to share all that is of value in each other’s lives, and as Christian marriage partners this includes especially the riches of their respective ecclesial communions” (B3). My point here is that interchurch families are truly pioneers as they grapple with this tension between their respective church affiliations and their own experience of oneness in the family. Herein lies the ecumenical challenge.

The Rome document speaks about working this out at the level of conscience. It acknowledges that there can be a clash between what the family wishes to do and judges to be right for their family life and its unity and the attitudes and rules – which are often conflicting – of their own church communities (B5). The appeal to conscience here is not an invitation to turn your back on the church community to which you belong; that would probably turn out to be even more painful than struggling to live within the church family. Rather, the appeal to conscience is an invitation to a deeper spiritual maturity. This is part of the phenomenon of interchurch families: they foster spiritual maturity. You know better than me, I’m sure, that difficult decisions are made after long hours of reflection and prayer, after studying the issue and seeking advice from wise pastors, and after testing alternatives to make sure that the decision that is being made is the best possible one in the circumstances. In a certain way, this process is ecumenical. By that I mean that it weighs up the different possibilities and seeks a solution that is faithful to the plan of God for a deep communion between God and all human beings, and a genuine unity between human beings.

Interchurch Families contribute to Christian Unity

This idea takes us to the second major section of the Rome document. I believe this is the key section, because it is here that we see the full weight of what it means to say that interchurch families are pioneers. I’d like to spend a bit of time unpacking two important ideas about Christian marriage and family life – ideas that are central to understanding the relationship between marriage and Christian unity. These ideas are first that marriage is a covenant, and second that marriage is a visible sign of unity.

Let’s begin with the idea that marriage is a covenant. Not all churches would use this language to speak about marriage and family life, although most would probably understand what using this language would mean. I’ll stay with the language of covenant because it is the language of the Rome document. It is rich language with a very strong biblical warrant. The prophets regularly liken the covenant between God and Israel to a marriage. We should note what is happening here: something that is a basic element of human experience, namely marriage and family, becomes an image to speak of God – and the prophets use the range of human experience around this to show how dynamic is the relationship between God and the people. In the prophet Hosea we hear a most profound description of covenant relationship: “I will take you for my wife forever; I will take you for my wife in righteousness and justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will take you for my wife in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord (Hos 2:19-20). Who is speaking: is it God addressing Israel, or perhaps the prophet addressing his estranged wife? Perhaps in the history of the development of the text what was an account of a human experience between husband and wife became the most appropriate way to speak about relationship with God. Whatever of this, though, the qualities of covenant love are important: righteousness and justice, steadfast love and mercy, and faithfulness.
A lot of the language we use in society around marriage is couched in terms of a contract. Now contract and covenant are quite different ideas. I would distinguish them this way: a contract sets out the minimum standards or conditions that the contracting parties agree to. The framework is legal, and there are always ways and means of getting out of the contract or at least of modifying it. A covenant on the other hand sets out the values that go to the core of a relationship: love, faithfulness, mercy, justice. Rather than name the minimum conditions, the language associated with covenant opens up horizons of possibility. The framework here is spiritual and theological; it invites God into the relationship. The covenant is made before God, and calls on God as its witness. Furthermore, the covenant relationship of marriage is a vehicle for deepening the covenant relationship with God.

It seems to me that there is something at the very core of the idea of covenant and its application to marriage and family that presupposes that marriage is dynamic. The covenant relationship is lived day by day. This, no doubt, is why it was such a powerful analogy for the relationship between God and Israel. That relationship was often a rocky one, but nevertheless it entailed multiple acts of forgiveness, reconciliation and re-commitment. When a relationship lacks this dynamism it becomes static and is dying or dead. The images we have in the Old Testament speak of relationships that experience strain, but always offer the hope that love and commitment are re-kindled. It is almost as though if we take marriage seriously as a covenant then we have to take seriously the idea that marriage is also the place where people learn the meaning of reconciliation.
When people today speak of Christian marriage as a covenant they want to say something about the dynamic quality of the relationship; they want to speak of the enduring quality of the relationship. While some may see covenant language as conveying lofty and exalted ideals – and it does – we should not forget that it also implies growth into a future, and the deepening of the covenant. Perhaps in a rather ironic way, we can say that the notion of covenant will never place heavy burdens on people’s backs, as will the demands of a contract.

The second idea I want to unpack is that marriage is a visible sign of unity. This idea follows on from calling it a covenant. The Rome document says, “the very existence of interchurch families provides a visible sign of unity to their churches” (C3). This too is language that not all our churches would use to speak of marriage. In fact, I suspect that some of our churches would be suspicious of this language because it implies notions of sacramentality. This is probably not the place to go into a discussion about sacramentality; but let me say that it has been on the ecumenical agenda since the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement. There was a lot of discussion about it in the years following the publication of Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry, and there is now more convergence than there has been previously. I am convinced that interchurch families have the potential to help the churches understand the true meaning of sacramentality – not because they will write some theory about it, but because they will simply be signs to us all of what unity means.

I am digressing too much; so let me return to considering how interchurch families provide a visible sign. To do this I want to reflect a little on the way marriage is described in the Letter to the Ephesians. I realise I am probably going beyond the Rome document, but let me continue because I hope what I have to say will throw more light onto what I have already indicated is the central insight of the document, namely that interchurch families are pioneers in the ecumenical movement because, by the witness of their own life, they call the churches to unity.

The text in Ephesians that I am considering is 5:31-32, “ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church”. The author has been giving advice to husbands and wives – advice that is not very fashionable in some circles today. But let’s not enter into that discussion because it will become a distraction from the central message of the Letter. Having given the advice the author quotes from the Book of Genesis about a man leaving his father and mother and clinging to his wife and the two become one flesh. This one flesh – this unity – he goes on to say, is a great mystery that refers to Christ and the church.
Now, to understand the author’s intention we need to consider how this fits in with the rest of the letter. So let’s go back to the beginning. The letter begins with a hymn to God; it speaks of the marvellous plan that God had since the creation of the world, and which is now finally realised in Christ. What was that plan? “With all wisdom and insight, God has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph 1:8-10). This is the divine plan for the unity of the whole of creation. The opening chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians tells us that the whole point of the Incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus was so that the whole of creation might be made one. Let’s remember that the Bible gives us many words to speak about the central message and mission of Jesus – words like kingdom of God, reconciliation, mercy, and justification. This mystery is so profound that no single word or expression can express it adequately. The more I reflect on this, however, the more convinced I become that unity is at the core of the Christian mystery. Put another way, ecumenism at the essence of the Christian mission.

We need to set the sentiments of this letter against the background of the history of the unfolding of God’s plan. We’ll start with the story of creation. We are immediately aware of the goodness of creation and of the harmony within creation. This is brought out in relation to human beings when we are told that the two become one flesh (Gen 2:24). In the creation of male and female the distinctiveness of each is maintained, yet there is also a unity. Indeed, the integrity of creation seems to presuppose a unity that does not stifle the diversity. But the story does not end there. It is also the story of the Fall, and it involves the man and the woman becoming estranged from God and from each other. Now the whole creation will have to wait with eager longing for the fulfillment of God’s plan of unity. The consequences of the Fall are serious; we see the situation getting worse. Cain kills his brother Abel. A little later we hear of the construction of the Tower of Babel and we learn that the estrangement infects whole peoples. The division is so strong that people can no longer communicate with each other. Then as the history of the people unfolds we hear of drama after drama, of the people in one territory being at odds with those in another territory. The great longing of the prophets is for the day when unity will be restored. The message from the author of the Letter to the Ephesians is that this has now taken place. He tells us bluntly that the dividing wall of hostility has been broken down, and that God’s plan is for one new humanity. The church is to be a sign of the mystery of God’s plan: “you are now longer strangers and aliens … but members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God” (Eph 2:19-22). According to this understanding the church will reveal what unity looks like.

This is the context for speaking about marriage in chapter five. The great mystery he refers to is that the two become one flesh. Now we know what that mystery means. It is revealed in Christ and in the Church. Just as the prophets of the Old Testament used marriage as a sign of the covenant between God and Israel, so the author of the Letter to the Ephesians says that marriage is the great sign of unity, which is God’s plan for the whole of creation. For our author this is not just a theoretical idea, but is a concrete expression of God’s plan. Here is the sign value of Christian marriage (marriage in the Lord): such a marriage demonstrates that the unity given by God is possible. Christian marriage is thus a visible sign of hope.

Of course, the experience of any married couple will tell us that this gift of unity is not some sort of magic potion that is applied to the marriage. Here we find a further dimension of the sign that Christian marriage offers to the world. The Christian life, like married life, is lived within the tension between, on the one hand, what has already been given by God as a definitive gift and, on the other hand, the existential situation often marked by painful wounds, disappointment, and sometimes failure. I’m reminded of the bumper sticker that used to be seen on come cars: Christians are not perfect, just forgiven.

We now need to consider this basic insight from the Letter to the Ephesians from the perspective of interchurch families. We are talking about the marriage of two baptised people. Throughout their married and family life they grow in the communion they share with each other. Their marriage is a visible sign of the unity that is God’s plan for the whole of creation. I believe that it is in this sense that they are called a “domestic church”, and that we can speak of them as being a sign of the church, which itself is a sign of the fulfillment of God’s plan. Yet we can all attest to the fact that the unity of the church is imperfect. The interchurch family is caught up in this perhaps more than other families because they experience from day to day the division of their churches. At this point they are called to be a sign of the unity willed by God in a particular way. They become the concrete living example that unity is possible. Let me be bold for a moment and use classical sacramental language: I believe that the interchurch family is called not only to be a sign of the unity that is God’s gift, but also to be an instrument in its realisation – to the extent that they call the wider church to unity. This is a call that is made by the very fact of being a sign. I think it goes something like this: “see, unity is possible; continue to heed the call to conversion that is at the heart of the gospel!”

The Rome document gives some practical examples of how this happens. These are worth mentioning (C4). First, there are the many opportunities to meet members of your spouse’s church community. The document reminds us that “an inter-personal bridge of understanding and trust is gradually built up”. Secondly, and following on from this, the members of the family each becomes an ambassador who can represent their own church congregation to that of their partner. Ambassadors also help ensure that the beliefs and practices of one church are properly represented and understood in another. Thirdly, the commitment of interchurch couples to seek unity across the churches means that they are often more aware of what has been happening in ecumenical dialogues and are quick to get hold of material and study it. Fourthly, and connected with the previous point, interchurch family members are often more active in ecumenical structures like councils of churches – or, might I add, ecumenical conferences such as this one. Fifthly, an interchurch family is more likely to invite members from both churches into important family events. In this way barriers can be broken down, understanding can grow and true friendships can develop across the churches. The Rome document sums all this up very well when it says, “in these and many other small ways interchurch families can contribute to the formation of a connective tissue which supports, connects and heals parts of the Christian body that have been cut or broken in our sinful divisions.”

Pastoral Care

These important insights become the gateway for the final section of the document, which deals with pastoral care and understanding. The context for reading this section is the fundamental premise of the whole document, namely that interchurch families are not problems but pioneers. The impression here is that the interchurch family movement has travelled a journey that has taken them from a stage where pastoral care was first of all about having their particular needs recognised in their respective churches, to a situation where the pastoral care ministry in both churches will work more closely together to provide joint pastoral care. Throughout this journey members of interchurch families have learnt to recognise and articulate their particular needs. Of course, this hasn’t meant that all the big issues have been solved. Quite clearly, sacramental sharing, particularly the Eucharist, is often still a painful issue. The document acknowledges, however, that even on this issue there has been development over recent years.

I wonder if the sort of progress reported in the document might not herald the way for what I could call the next step in pastoral care and understanding. The first step was getting the respective churches to recognise the pastoral care needs of interchurch families. The second step was the exercise of pastoral care jointly by the respective churches in particular situations. The next step, I believe, might well be the engagement, where appropriate, of members of interchurch families in the pastoral care of the community and of each other. This can be undertaken in a simple way, such as when members of interchurch families are active in promoting awareness and understanding among the broader community of the respective congregations. Perhaps we are not often inclined to regard this as pastoral care, but I think that in a very real sense it is, because it is about the whole community being aware of its members and the gifts they offer. A second example I could give is where members of interchurch families become actively involved in marriage preparation. They would do this as part of a team, but recognising the particular gifts they bring. I hope you might be able to identify other areas where this level of pastoral care could happen.

You will notice that I have been speaking about bringing gifts to the pastoral care context. In doing this I am trying to show the connection between ecumenism and pastoral care. We are all familiar with the notion of dialogue; it is fundamental to the ecumenical movement. Dialogue always involves an exchange of gifts. When you are involved in dialogue there comes a point where you ask two questions: What is the gift that the partner in dialogue is offering to me? What is the gift that I am offering to the other? This means that there is a capacity both to receive from the other – and to receive graciously – and to recognise our own gifts. Sometimes we only recognise our own gifts with the help of others. Like dialogue, pastoral care demands careful listening, as well as the offering and receiving of gifts.

The pastoral care interchurch families need and seek from the church can also be imagined from within this same context of dialogue. Practically, it means speaking and listening in such a way that all parties come to understand what is possible. I’m not suggesting that everything will suddenly become possible. However, it is unfortunate when we think something is not possible, when in fact it could be in certain circumstances. If we take ecumenical dialogues as a model for what we can do, there is a basic principle to take into account. It is a two-pronged principle. First, enquire in order to know the facts fully; and then be careful to respect the ecclesial boundaries. The point of this principle is that it should maximise what can be done, but in such a way as it doesn’t hinder real progress to unity.

Conclusion

We have made good progress to unity over the last half-century. Sometimes we become impatient because our churches (and by that I mean our church members as well as leaders) don’t always seem to have recognised the degree of communion that we already share with each other. The churches were challenged to do this by the famous Canberra Statement, The Unity of the Church as Koinonia: Gift and Calling. You who are members of interchurch families have put much effort into recognising the communion you share not only within your family, but also across your respective churches. This places you in a valuable situation where you can gently call the churches, by your own example, to deepen the communion they already share.

The concluding paragraph of the Canberra Statement offers what I consider to be one of the most challenging calls to be truly ecumenical. Let me quote it. “The Holy Spirit as the promoter of koinonia (2 Cor 13:13) gives to those who are still divided the thirst and hunger for full communion. We remain restless until we grow together according to the wish and prayer of Christ that those who believe in him may be one (John 17:21). In the process of praying, working and struggling for unity, the Holy Spirit comforts us in pain, disturbs us when we are satisfied to remain in our division, leads us to repentance and grants us joy when our communion flourishes.” I wonder if it might be appropriate in the light of this quote to suggest that interchurch families are a gift of the Holy Spirit to the church. I believe this is what the Rome document affirms when it speaks of them as pioneers rather than problems. May you continue to be pioneers who disturb us, comfort us, encourage us, and give us hope by the way you give witness to unity and communion.


Keynote address given by Fr Gerard Kelly from the Catholic Institute of Sydney at the Australian Interchurch Families International Conference, Newcastle, on 19 August 2005.