Main Menu  

   

STORIES FROM AUSTRALIA

The Australian story varies from great hopes to almost despair and is as varied as the dioceses which make up the country. Since Australia covers an area about the size of Europe, or the USA, or Canada, the picture varies widely. Events since the 1998 Geneva Conference have seen a slow progression in the story of the Interchurch Family Movement.

In Australia, a huge debt is owed to Archbishop John Bathersby and his document Blessed and Broken – Pastoral Guidelines for Eucharistic Hospitality for the Archdiocese of Brisbane issued in 1994. Written as a response to the 1993 Directory for Ecumenism, this pastorally sensitive document has been a landmark.

A branch of Interchurch Families has been in existence in Brisbane since the arrival of this document’s inception. It was through meeting members of this group in Sydney in 1994 at a national gathering of Catholic Ecumenical Commissions that the existence of AIF became known to me. I found that the Interchurch Families Movement was for people like my Anglican husband Kevin and myself, a Catholic. They had literature on display which I was able to take home with me and what a journey this began. It finally led us both the Geneva and now to Edmonton.

The main thrust of the gathering in Sydney was to study new Directory for Ecumenism, issued by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. We were fortunate to be led by a Mons Kevin McDonald from Birmingham who had been one of the team which had prepared the document.

Blessed and Broken has been followed in May 1998 by Guidelines for Eucharistic Sharing in the Catholic Church for the Diocese of Rockhampton, also in Queensland. It’s final sentence states that on occasions such as Marriages, Baptisms, First Communion, Confirmation and Funeral Masses when Christians of other denominations may be attending, persons presenting for Communion at the time of distribution should never be refused. Such persons can be considered to be acting in good faith.

The name and focus of the Ecumenical Commission of the Diocese of Rockhampton now includes Interfaith relations. Central Queensland University is drawing increasing numbers of temporary residents from other faiths. This is a common occurrence at Australian Universities.

Rockhampton Diocese, like most Australian dioceses, has a large rural component. The rural perspective is reflected in a most significant Queensland Churches Together Document Being Church in Rural Queensland. Jane O’Shea writes that, as Rockhampton is a large, predominantly rural diocese with fewer priests, ecumenical cooperation in small towns is becoming more common and joyful. As part of responding to this trend, and to learn from it, the Diocesan Commission has begun a series of visits-for-listening to rural centres. "We do tell them about the work of the Commission, but predominantly listen to what they are doing in their community life." Naturally, the Guidelines for Eucharistic Sharing in the Catholic Churches of Rockhampton Diocese, which sets out the norms for shared worship, plays a role in this rural scene.

In 1999, the Interchurch Family cause was given further impetus by the report on the Australian dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Uniting Churches. This was issued under the title " Interchurch Marriages, their Ecumenical Challenge and Significance for Our Churches." For the dialogue, the interpretation of interchurch couples was that both were active members of different denominations. The Report was examined by the Committee for Doctrine and the Christian Unity of the Catholic and Uniting churches and was approved by the highest national bodies of the two churches, viz. The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and the UCA Assembly Standing Committee on behalf of the Uniting Church in Australia Assembly. A copy is available at this Conference. It states (p22):

When couples from different Christian 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 pain which this causes is not their fault, but that of our churches which have placed them in this situation.

It is a case not 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.

In New South Wales, in 1999 Bishop David Walker published Guidelines for the Diocese of Broken Bay, which are very similar to Blessed and Broken. It seems to have aroused few concerns or comments. This diocese adjoins our diocese of Maitland-Newastle, and includes part of Kevin’s Anglican Diocese of Newcastle. A motion was passed at the Anglican Synod congratulating the Catholic diocese and notifying the Anglican parishes of the new norms. For us in our region, it was good news, as we were working on our own diocesan guidelines.

Since the Geneva Conference, Kevin and I have been in contact with Interchurch Families internationally. With their encouragement, we were able to form a Newcastle and Hunter Valley Branch with the active collaboration of Warren Sheppard (Catholic) and his wife, Rev Christine Shephard (Uniting Church). In this we were totally supported by Bishop Michael Malone (Roman Catholic), Bishop Roger Herft (Anglican) and the leadership of the Uniting Church, who are our patrons. The aim of the branch is to spread the good news of the possibilities for sacramental sharing that are available through the Directory to Christians of other denominations We are in contact with groups in Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria.

We are blessed in the Hunter region by the close and harmonious ecumenical collaboration which has been developed over the past fifty years. At present, the harmonious relationship between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Bishops extends to Heads of Churches of all denominations who meet on a regular basis. This close harmony is supported by the work of a lay group (A.C.T.S.: Action of Churches Together in Solidarity). It is also supported by the Catholic and Anglican Ecumenical Commissions. Ecumenical activity covers many fields. One is a Dialogue Between Bishops when questions are submitted beforehand on controversial or puzzling issues which are dealt with by Anglican and Catholic bishops. In addition, questions are also taken from the floor. The latest of these a few weeks ago attracted an audience of over 200 people. Needless to say questions on Sacramental, including Eucharistic Sharing, are always aired.

At the most recent Dialogue, in June 2001, the Roman Catholic Bishop was able to announce his impending launch of two documents, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations within the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle and its condensed version Real Yet Imperfect- Pastoral Guidelines for Sacramental Sharing. We are justly proud of their existence. A huge debt is owed to the Geneva Conference and Father Ernest Falardeau. The Conference input was further enhanced when Father Ernest kindly sent us a copy of the Ecumenical Guidelines for his Diocese of Santa Fe. When my Catholic Bishop saw this document, he believed that something similar would be most suitable for our Diocese, for which Father Ernest gave permission. The result is the twin documents which we have brought for you to inspect and which are now available on the Diocese of Maitland - Newcastle Web Site. The larger document traces the history of ecumenism in our Diocese, deals with Canon Law and the Directory, theological issues and the varied ecumenical practices within the Diocese. It suggests ways for enhancing ecumenical formation. Because of our strong ecumenical history, the smaller "Real Yet Imperfect" is consistent with the Directory which strongly recommends episcopal conferences or diocesan bishops to establish local norms for the application of the general norms given in the Directory. (No.130)). We owe a debt to Bishop Michael Malone for accepting this recommendation.

Tremendous thanks are due to the help received from the Journal of the Interchurch Families Association. The work of Ruth and Martin Reardon in recording world steps in the area of sacramental sharing and Ruth’s revues in the Journal are without price. Thanks are also due to all the earlier documents which have been faithfully recorded in the Journal of the Interchurch Families Association.

Through attending the Geneva Conference, it was possible for me to attend the W.C.C. 8th Assembly in Harare later that year. How rewarding it was to help at the Padare workshops on Interchurch Families chaired by the Catholic co-chair of the Joint Working Group between the Vatican and the W.C.C. Bishop Mario Conti. This Joint Working Group has on it agenda the ecumenical significance of interchurch marriages. The Executive Secretary of the National Council of Churches in Australia Rev David Gill has just returned from a Faith and Order Meeting in Northern Ireland where this matter was on the agenda. Harare presented many opportunities to discuss the implications of Eucharistic Sharing. I spoke with theologians who had been involved in producing some of the documents which have been consulted to produce Real Yet Imperfect.

It was also rewarding to meet with the other Australians at Harare and to spread information about Interchurch Families to them.

In Western Australia there is small group of three or four Interchurch Families who meet occasionally. David White is current chairman. They are in the process of preparing posters and fliers to be distributed to

Churches in Perth. We conclude with an Australian Story of a sad recent experience in Western Australia. The mother of the husband of an interchurch couple died. It was thought that the funeral mass was certainly an occasion for which the Ecumenical Directory would apply with regard to the non-catholic spouse receiving the Eucharist. The parish priest took a letter out of his filing cabinet from the time of the couple’s marriage, seventeen years ago, in which her beliefs about the Eucharist had been expressed, and used this to refuse Communion. Given the stressful situation surrounding grieving, this should not be the time that one should have to argue a case for receiving communion. The clerical response did not allow for any growth in faith as this couple have lived an interchurch marriage for the last 17 years. There needs to be compassion and sensitivity to people in pain. A request to receive the Eucharist is a request to draw closer to Christ. The compassion of Christ was not evident through his church and her representatives. A number of AIF members attended the Requiem, along with several others from a small prayer group. In a sign of unity, all went forward for a blessing, including the Catholic members. It was the first time they had not received the Eucharist at Mass.

Interchurch families are not the only Christians who experience a grave need for reception of Catholic sacraments, especially the Eucharist. We are grateful that the revision of the Code of Canon Law in 1983 followed by the Directory for Ecumenism in 1993 opened the way for such possibilities. People of other denominations in nursing homes and hospitals, those who have studied and prayed ecumenically together in parish groups, and retreat centres, servicemen and women on active duty, people in danger of death are examples. As Real Yet Imperfect points out, parents today are involved in the sacramental preparation of their children. In our area, since more than half of marriages involving Catholics are mixed marriages, the non-catholic parent may also experiences grave need for the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. You must read both documents to obtain the full picture.

From these varied events, it seems that the biggest hurdle to overcome with regard to sacramental sharing in the Catholic Church by Christians of other denominations, is the problem of education in the dioceses where sacramental sharing norms have been formalised. So many people could be spiritually enriched if they were aware of the possibilities, in the case of Interchurch Families. Our diocese is currently undertaking an education programme by conducting workshops, for pastoral regions and for those involved in catechesis in State schools. Our hope is that documents such as Blessed and Broken and Real Yet Imperfect foster reparation for many present and past hurts to individuals and groups.

And lastly, an historic meeting occurred on the 6th July, when over 90 Anglican and Catholic clergy from the Anglican Diocese of Newcastle and the Catholic Dioceses of Broken Bay and Maitland-Newcastle held a joint clergy conference at Toronto N.S.W. The keynote speaker was Brisbane’s Archbishop Bathersby who is the Vatican appointed Co-Chair of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Working Group. Attending the conference were the Right Reverend Roger Herft, Anglican Bishop of Newcastle, the Right Reverend Graeme Rutherford, Anglican Bishop of the Central Coast, the Most Reverend David Walker, Roman Catholic Bishop of Broken Bay, and the Most Reverend Michael Malone, Roman Catholic Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle. The event was a follow-up to the meetings in Toronto, Canada last year where the Australian representatives were Archbishop Bathersby and Anglican Primate Archbishop Carnley. Archbishop Bathersby’s keynote address spoke of the structures that hide the messages of faith. In the afternoon, the five bishops formed a panel and engaged the clergy in an interactive Q & A session. The Dialogues Between Bishops which we hold in our region assisted the performance of our bishops. The press wrote the day as "Holy union as clergy take step towards common ground."

We hope this style of good news spreads.

Bev Hincks
Belmont
New South Wales
Australia

6 July, 2001