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“Interchurch Families- Their Ecumenical Significance and
Challenge for the Churches"

A Five year Dialogue Between the Roman Catholic Church and the Uniting Church, held in Brisbane. 
Co-chairs Archbishop John Bathersby, bishop of the Brisbane Archdiocese, and 
Professor Rev Dr James Haire, now President of the National Council of Churches in Australia. 
Endorsed in 2001 by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and the Australian Synod of the Uniting Church.

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

Elizabeth Harrington 
(Member of the Dialogue)

In Australia, as elsewhere, marriages between Catholics and other Christians have often aroused stern Prohibition, sectarian division and political strife.

Anyone old enough to have experienced the pain involved when "mixed marriages" were held in the church sacristy will appreciate the extent of the change of heart demonstrated in the publication of "Interchurch Marriages: Their Ecumenical Challenge & Significance for our Churches".

This small but significant document is the report of the most recent phase of the national dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Uniting Church in Australia. The dialogue began in Melbourne in 1978. Topics covered during its first 15 years include baptism, marriage, authority and ministry.

When the dialogue moved to Brisbane in 1993, seven members from each participating church were appointed to the dialogue team. Archbishop John Bathersby and Ref Prof James Haire were named as joint chairpersons.

The Brisbane team wanted both to build on the progress made by the Melbourne dialogue on significant theological issues and to ensure that its work would be relevant to the pastoral needs of the people in the two churches. It was agreed that the topic of interchurch marriage would allow discussion of a range of major theological issues in pastoral context.

While the churches espouse that 'those whom God has joined together; let no one put asunder', in many ways it is the churches which have done, and continue to do just that! Dispensations and a more sophisticated understanding of church regulations mean that 'mixed marriages' do not arouse the stern prohibition sectarian division and political strife that they did in the not-so-distant past. Yet this is to put it too negatively.

As was said as in Familiaris Consortio more than 20 years ago, interchurch marriages ought not to be a problem for the churches, but as a gift for the restoration of the unity of the church (papa78). The dialogue agreed that 'the presence of such couples in our midst may be a sign of God's unnerving and graceful call to us. Thus the Pastoral context moves from a problem to an opportunity' (p12).

Having decided on a theme for discussion it was agreed that these topics needed to be explored: the phenomenon of interchurch marriage, marriage, church belonging, baptism, Eucharistic hospitality (sharing communion) and pastoral care.

The dialogue process involved members of the dialogue teams working in pairs (one from each of the participating churches) to produce draft papers for discussion by the whole group. This was a long and painstaking process. Discussion on our understanding of baptism, for example, led to the teasing out of questions such as whether baptism is an initiation into the church or into a particular church, the relationship of confirmation and eucharist to baptism, personal faith commitment and joint celebrations of baptism.

Papers were discussed and rewritten many times in the process. One of the topics, Eucharistic hospitality, went through eight drafts before participants could agree on its content. The process of dialoguing means having to be clear on what we believe and practice as separate churches - and why, talking about our separate stances openly and honestly so that commonalities and differences can be clearly seen, and finally expressing these areas of agreement and divergence clearly and succinctly.

In order to help focus the discussion, the definition of the interchurch marriage used was 'the marriage of two baptized Christians from different traditions in which each spouse participates actively in his or her own church and in which each spouse takes an active role in the religious education of the children. To ground discussion in reality, a survey was conducted of twenty Uniting Church parishes drawn from urban, provincial and rural areas and representing variously sized congregations. Also twenty responses were received to a questionnaire sent out to a number of Catholic priests which enabled a picture to be compiled of what is happening at grass roots level. The sample yielded a great variety of attitudes and practice among people involved in interchurch marriages. What came through strongly in response from Catholic priests was that preserving the harmony and welfare of the interchurch family was their primary concern. This contradicts the perception of some people outside the Catholic Church that a Catholic priest would always seek 'conversion' of the non - Catholic partner. Both Uniting Church ministers and Catholic priests revealed a desire to respond to the needs of the interchurch families and indicated their need for some assistance in doing so. It is the hope of the dialogue team that its report will go a long way towards offering such assistance.

Members of interchurch families were involved in several stages of the process: through the informal surveys mentioned above, by speaking to a meeting of the dialogue group and by responding to a draft of the final report.

The difficulties which partners in an interchurch marriage have to face are acknowledged: 'When couples from different Christians traditions are uncertain in which Church they should be married, or in which Church they should raise their children, they deserve to be received with compassion, because the fault is not theirs but the consequence of our division,' the report says. 'It is not the case of the Church having to forgive them, but of asking them to forgive the Church. It is with this attitude that our churches should welcome candidates for marriage and, where appropriate, encourage - not impede - interchurch marriages' (pp 22, 23).

The statement is perhaps one of the most significant in the entire document. It is a turn - about in attitude from forty or so years ago. In the discussion of marriage it was discovered that, while our two communications use the language of the sacrament in different ways, members of both churches could find that in a covenant theology of Christian marriage many apparent differences implied in the language of sacrament are overcome. Much of what Roman Catholics endeavour to say when they call marriage a sacrament is already intended by members of the Uniting Church.

Whilst even these possibilities represent a big step forward, the issue of sharing communion is one which continues to cause a lot of hurt and anger for many interchurch couples. While the eucharist is of central importance to both churches, it is expressed differently according to the distinctive emphasis of each tradition. There is no agreement at this stage that the two churches mutually recognize and share each other's eucharist. The topic is among several listed for further dialogue in the last chapter of the report and will be dealt with by Rev Dr Barbara Howard in the final series of talks.

While acknowledging that it is not possible at present to achieve 'double belonging' through a jointly concelebrated baptism, the report offers a number of possibilities to explore with regard to a deeper level of baptismal sharing in an interchurch family:

  • The baptismal rite in one church can make reference to the other church and their shared fellowship in Christ.
  • One church can borrow elements from the rite of the other church in its celebration of baptism for an interchurch family.
  • Each church could develop and celebrate a rite to welcome/recognize/ bless a child and an interchurch family when baptism has taken place in the other church.
  • Representatives of the other church can be present at the baptismal celebration.
  • Representatives of each church can participate officially in the baptismal celebrations of the other church.
  • Each church can baptize its own candidates in a single common ecumenical ceremony.

These steps may well take the churches in the direction of a single common ecumenical ceremony of baptism, in which a representative of either church can baptize all the candidates from both churches and commit them to membership in a specific denomination.

The churches recognize that, while brokenness, separation and alienation are part of the world, there is a need to challenge this situation. To make a strong witness to Christ in our new century, Christians need to be prophetic. An ecumenical baptism may be such a prophetic act, which challenges our preconceptions and which allows the spirit to create a wondrous diversity from our sinful subdivision. Denominational tensions which may occur about baptism at the birth of a child are confronted by the triumphant assertion of the interchurch marriage, What God has joined, let no one put asunder!

The document emphasizes that an interchurch marriage needs pastoral care above and beyond that to which every 'domestic church' has a right. It offers guidelines which will take into account of their particular situation when it comes to preparation for the marriage. These guidelines recommend that:

  • As soon as one pastor is contacted by the couple regarding the marriage, the pastor of the other church is contacted to discuss how the responsibility for the preparation and celebration of the marriage can be shared.
  • A joint counseling session be held to give couples the opportunity to understand the similarities and differences in the way the two churches perceive and practice the Christian faith and how this is expressed both in the marriage ceremony and married life. 
  • Each pastor should have the opportunity to meet with the couple to discuss those particular areas which are part of his/her church's teaching and practice, particularly in respect to parenthood, the Christian education of children and the issue of divorce.

Guidelines are also given to pastors for preparing the wedding ceremony of an interchurch couple. This covers the legal requirements and paperwork for marriage, in particular the paperwork necessary for the marriage to be recognized by the Catholic Church, whether or not the wedding is celebrated in a Catholic church.

In marriage every Roman Catholic makes a promise to bring up children according to the law of Christ and his church. In the case of an interchurch marriage, that promise is made in a particular way. Paragraph 151 from the Ecumenical Directory is quoted in full to show clearly what this entails.

The document explains in detail how a joint service of marriage for an interchurch couple might be conducted. Normally the pastor of the church where the ceremony takes place presides while the other is given a place of honour and takes an appropriate role in the liturgy.

The orders of celebration for the Uniting Church and Roman Catholic wedding ceremonies (without eucharist) are set out side by side to enable both pastors and couples to see at a glance the many similarities and few differences in the two rites. While Roman Catholics consider it desirable for marriages to be celebrated within the context of a Mass, the document suggests that an interchurch marriage not include eucharist. This is because the eucharistic sharing is possible only under certain limited conditions. What should be a sacrament of unity could therefore become a sign of division.

The final part of the chapter moves beyond the wedding ceremony to look at some of the issues faced by the interchurch couple when it comes to living as a domestic church. It acknowledges that on-going pastoral care will involve ensuring that members of the couples local community or congregation have a proper understanding of the faith shared by the two churches and give the couple support and encouragement that they need.

The document also acknowledges the problems that interchurch families experience when it comes to decisions about the initiation of faith education of children. Sometimes compromises have to be made because of mutual respect between partners. This is the point at which the real challenge of being an interchurch family is met and lived. On the other hand, because parents are the primary religious educators of their children, interchurch families have a unique opportunity to integrate an ecumenical dimension into the religious development of their children.

Whilst the report opens up possibilities undreamt of thirty years ago, for some it will not go far enough. The final chapter lists areas in which full agreement between the churches has not yet been reached and which might form agenda for further dialogue in the future. The areas include the indissolubility of marriage, sacraments and sacramentality, ecumenical baptism, intercommunion and mutual recognition of ministries.

The report which was finalized in early 1999 has received the approval of the highest national bodies of the two churches involved, namely the Australian Catholic Bishops' Conference and the standing Committee on behalf of the Uniting Church in Australia Assembly.

Its publication was given good coverage in both religious and secular newspapers and was included as a topic on David Bush's ABC radio program. The dialogue chairpersons received a letter of congratulation from Cardinal Cassidy, head of Pontifical Council for the promotion of Christian Unity, for the excellent work it had done. Rev Robyn Boyd, Chairperson of the Unity Working Group of the Uniting Church in Australia, described it as: 'a very helpful document, written with a warm and irenic spirit … Written with full acknowledgement of the rules of our Churches … but also giving the most ecumenical, pastoral and loving interpretation of those rules'.

Of course, as with any official ecumenical agreement, the problem of reception remains. The churches must work to ensure that pastors, couples, families and worshipping communities hear about, know about, the 'good news' of new possibilities when it comes to interchurch marriages and put it into practice. Only then will the 'accumulated negativity' which often impedes the appreciation of ecumenical provisions for pastoral practice become a thing of the past. We as church members have an important part to play in telling people whenever and wherever the opportunity arises about the convergence of the churches in areas such as interchurch marriage.

A slim volume of ninety three pages might not seem to be much result for six years of work. It is important to realise this is only one indicator of the success of the dialogue process. Members of the dialogue teams have developed a high degree of trust and respect for one another; during the gatherings there is a lot of serious discussion on important theological issues, but at the same time a lot of personal sharing and good humour. In the process of sharpening our understanding of the theology and ecclesiology of each others tradition, we come to a better understanding of our own. Our churches will grow closer together as an open discussion gradually dismantles many of the divisions of the past.

Interchurch families will benefit as their contribution to the ecumenical movement is recognized and positive steps taken to support them as they express unity through their married lives.

Interchurch marriages are indeed significant for our churches. They are God's great gift in search for unity. May their example help the churches to live together in love so that the world may believe.

WHAT GOD HAS JOINED, LET NO ONE PUT ASUNDER!