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The Path Travelled - Past and Future

Our Future Path

Martin Reardon

Martin Reardon, an Anglican priest, was sent in 1960 by the Church of England for a year to Louvain University, Belgium, to make contact with Roman Catholic theology following the calling of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII. There he met Ruth, a Roman Catholic; they married in Louvain in 1964. They lived for seven years in Sheffield, where Martin was Secretary of the Council of Churches. Ruth edited the Catholic ecumenical quarterly One in Christ, and became a member of the Roman Catholic Ecumenical Commission for England and Wales. 

In 1968 they were founder-members of the Association of Interchurch Families. Martin became co-chair together with Fr John Coventry SJ, and Ruth honorary secretary .In the 1970s Martin was Sub-Warden of Lincoln Theological College, and their two children spent their early years there. In the 1980s Martin was General Secretary of the Board for Mission and Unity of the Church of England, and Ruth was Sussex Churches Ecumenical Officer. From 1990 until he retired in 1997 Martin was General Secretary of Churches Together in England. He remains AIF’s Anglican co-chair. Ruth was elected one of AIF’s presidents when she retired as honorary secretary in 2000, and continues to edit the journal and co-ordinate the work of education and representation. 

They were recently honoured with the "Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice" award for their work with interchurch families.  They now live at Turvey in Bedfordshire.

I am no prophet nor am I a prophet’s son but in prophesying about our future path I will try to work on the principles of Amos and the other Old Testament prophets. They were convinced they knew what God wanted; they looked around at what was happening in the world, and particularly at what the people of God had done and were doing; and they foretold the future path in the light of that.

I am convinced, we all are, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and that he has committed to his people, the Church, the ministry and message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:18,19). As interchurch families I assume that we remain committed members of our respective churches, and wish to participate, as far as our time and energy allow and our churches and extended families permit, in the life of our spouse’s church as well.

By definition therefore our future path will be alongside the path our two churches take; and we shall continue to join in Christ’s prayer that all his disciples may be one as he and the Father are one (John 17:11) – the prayer Bro. Giles so movingly expounded yesterday. We share the sin of our churches in their continuing divisions, but because we have entered into a lifelong marriage contract with each other, and because we have so little time to bring up any children God gives us in this divided situation, we probably have a stronger motivation and impatience than most to hurry our churches along the unity path.

After all there is only one final solution to the problems of interchurch families and that is the full communion and unity of our two churches. So our future path will be alongside and in critical solidarity with our two churches on their road to closer unity.

It is easy to talk about interchurch families in the abstract. Who are we actually and what two churches do we belong to? In England most of us are Roman Catholics married with Anglicans , Baptists, Methodists or United Reformed Christians. I guess the same is true of most of those of you who come from other countries, except that you also have many Roman Catholic – Lutheran couples also. These are the churches we walk in critical solidarity with. But we are aware that in some other countries different sorts of interchurch couples meet different problems and opportunities. In Finland for example the majority of interchurch families are Lutheran – Orthodox. They have big problems. Have they crossed your paths yet? Can we help one another? Can we walk together at all? In two weeks time we shall have an Anglican – Orthodox couple at our annual English interchurch families’ conference for the first time. Will they find it helpful? I don’t know. I raise the question because we don’t want just to assume that all interchurch families will share the same problems and opportunities and therefore we can all travel happily together. Our future paths will inevitably vary according to the different paths that our different churches take. Some of us will have much more terrain to cover and trouble to keep up with our two churches than others!

The world context

The next issue we face in considering our future path is the world context. As the Old Testament prophets constantly affirmed God does not work his purpose out solely through his people Israel, but by what we would now call ‘secular forces’. Ruth pointed out that 30 years ago interchurch families were often regarded as oddities. The increasing mobility of populations all over the world has led to many more mixed marriages in many more countries, and although the proportion of those who want to practise in one another’s churches while retaining their respective affiliations remains relatively small, we are now very much on the ecumenical map and the churches have begun to take notice of us. And here I would like to thank Bishop Marc’s predecessors and staff at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity for the way they have for many years brought our existence to the attention of Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conferences. We know now that there are Roman Catholic – Anglican or – Protestant interchurch families not only in Europe, North America and Australasia. We have come across their existence also in Africa, Asia and Latin America. I understand that there were a number of applications from Africa and Asia to attend this conference, but sadly their visa applications were refused. Our future path will clearly cover the globe. How will we handle that? Ruth edits the Journal,Interchurch Families, and Ray runs his website and list. Recently some of us have been to Italy to begin to prepare for a multilingual world gathering of Interchurch Families near Rome from 24 –28 July 2003. But how else can we help interchurch families from other countries and continents, and particularly from the third world, who share similar churchly experiences to ourselves, but whose cultural experience may be very different, and most of whom won’t have the material resources that we have to travel to international conferences? This was a question raised by a small group called together by the Joint Working Group of the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church in Geneva in 1989, but as far as I know little has yet been done about it. Can we help them?

So far I have claimed that our future path as interchurch families runs alongside and in critical solidarity with that of the churches of which we are members, and that we need to encourage our churches on their journey as they grow closer together. How best can we do this? To answer that question we need to see how our churches have tried to proceed towards unity, so that we can see where we as interchurch families can be most helpful.

Our churches’ path to unity

To summarise, in a ridiculously short space, the churches’ ecumenical attempts to go forward, I would say that their efforts have focussed on four aspects:

  1. They have created and refined structures through which they can meet and talk and co-operate internationally, nationally and locally (World, National and Local Councils of Churches).

 

  1. They have tackled in theological dialogues the points of faith and order on which they have previously disagreed.
  2. They have engaged together, especially locally, in life, work and service to the community.
  3. And Protestant and latterly also Anglican Churches have attempted union schemes of various sorts, one of the earliest of which resulted in the United Church of Canada and the latest of which is the Waterloo Agreement between Anglicans and Lutherans in Canada.

For reasons I do not need to spell out the Roman Catholic Church has not shared in these union schemes, and only relatively recently has begun to participate in national Councils of Churches or their equivalents. Their priority has been tackling issues of faith and order in theological dialogues. These have focussed on those disputed questions which until now have proved obstacles to closer union between Roman Catholics and other Christians – e.g. Justification, Ministry, Sacraments, Authority.

In 1989 Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury and Pope John Paul II put out a joint statement which I believe is of critical importance for all future work for Christian unity, and especially for interchurch families (and I know that Ray and Fenella Temmerman will agree, because of the sharing of gifts exercise with which we began this conference). They said that Christian unity is not only about removing obstacles; it is also about sharing gifts. Of course it is vital to remove the obstacles in church structures and doctrines which have divided us, and we thank God for the remarkable progress that has been made in this. But this work is unlikely to arouse the enthusiasm and motivation of most ordinary folk for Christian unity. What can arouse enthusiasm is to discover the positive gifts, values and resources which other churches possess, and the desire to share them. As Robert Runcie left Rome in 1989 John Paul II said to him ‘ our affective ecumenism will lead to effective ecumenism’. Marriage is all about love, affection and sharing gifts and resources - indeed about sharing and procreating life itself.

We witness by what we are.

I believe it is here in particular that interchurch families can make a unique contribution to our churches’ future path to unity. I suggest we examine our own experience and vocation, and bear witness to it by what we are and what we do and what we say. Our interchurch marriage is our Christian vocation. It is our spiritual path to God. We travel that path together. We come to our marriage with our two distinct Christian traditions and identities. We remain two distinct identities, but as we grow together we develop in addition a new common Christian identity, our new family identity, in which the gifts and spiritual traditions of our two churches come to be shared. It is this new common Christian family identity that our children inherit. That is why so many of them refuse to choose one church or the other, because if they did so, they would be giving up part of their own spiritual identity.

This sharing of gifts, this marriage covenant has been witnessed by our two churches. Both our churches recognise our baptisms, both recognise our marriage contract which the Roman Catholic Church regards as a sacrament. We therefore form a domestic household church. St Paul likens marriage to the relationship between Christ and His Church (Ephesians 5:32). Yesterday Bro. Giles Bourdeau meditated with us on John 17, on the co – inherence of the Father and the Son, and their co – inherence through the Spirit in the disciples. In Ephesians 4:11-13 the author describes some of the gifts the ascended Christ gives to his church and these gifts are given to enable the whole body, all of us, to grow into unity in Christ. Unity isn’t a static thing which existed once in the past, and we lost it, and we pray that in 2020, or in 2050 we will achieve it again and never lose it. It is a gift of God which goes on growing. We know about growing together into maturity in marriage, though perhaps we’ll never reach it in this life, just as in a good marriage we begin to catch a glimpse, as far as humans can, of co – inherence, of living in one another’s hearts and minds. And in interchurch families all of this is a healing experience of people from two Christian traditions. We do or can form a human bridge connecting two churches. It is because of our churchly, sacramental reality that the Roman Catholic Church has gone so far as to include interchurch families among exceptional cases who may under certain conditions be permitted to share eucharistic communion at mass.

As early as 1974 the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, which already included full Roman Catholic participation, said at its meeting in Accra: "Mixed marriages, so often regarded as a ‘problem’, can rather be seen as the connective tissue par excellence between separate Christian communities. Thus the partners deserve to be given all possible pastoral help to share as fully as possible in the life of both communities in which they are involved, and to bring these together". The connective tissue referred to is that which grows over a wound enabling it to heal. Wherever our churches recognise and understand our experience of ‘double belonging’, there our very existence can provide an effective sign of unity between our churches. Of course the experience of ‘double belonging’ that our children have is even greater than that of their parents. They have been brought up since infancy to share as far as possible in the life of the two churches of their parents. Many feel they belong to both equally, and are unwilling to be confirmed in one only if it means cutting themselves off from the other. By Roman Catholic rules a strictly joint confirmation service, at least at present, is not permitted, but both in Canada and in England recently pastorally sensitive clergy have permitted celebrations of confirmation or affirmation in which both churches have been able to participate to some extent.

What interchurch families ask of our churches is that they give continuing attention to who we are, to what our experience of ‘double belonging/ participation/ insertion’ in the life of two churches means, and our churchly significance for the development of Christian Unity.

We witness by what we do

We bear witness by what we are, but also by what we do. By regular attendance as a family in two churches we can provide a regular channel of communication between the two. Just as marriage partners live in one another’s lives, so we can encourage our churches to live in one another’s lives, to pray for one another regularly, to celebrate major festivals together, to participate frequently in one another’s services, and to engage together in the service of the local community. Churches Together in England, the national council of churches, is at present encouraging its member churches to participate in a process they have called ‘Together in a common life’. They are even beginning to discuss sharing resources. Interchurch families know all about that, as did the early church as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles (2: 44-46).

Then interchurch couples can get involved in the ecumenical structure of their churches at local, diocesan/district, national and international levels. Ruth and I were privileged to be invited by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the World Council of Churches respectively to talk with their Joint Working Group in May about interchurch families. The previous May Dr. Mary Tanner, one of our English Association’s Panel of Reference, was in Mississauga near Toronto for the world meeting of Anglican Primates and Presidents of Roman Catholic Bishops Conferences, who hope to turn the level of theological agreement so far reached between our two communions into commensurate common practical action. At that meeting, we understand, there was much discussion of interchurch families from bishops from all the continents represented.

Nationally, both in Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, the four nation ecumenical body, and also in Churches Together in England, we have an interchurch family representative on their respective councils; and both of these representatives have shown themselves so valuable, that both councils have elected them onto their respective steering/executive committee. If you want to know more about that, ask Gill Walsh who is one of them.

I know also that some Australian, Canadian and British interchurch family members have also been represented on state/county ecumenical bodies; and several German interchurch families will be working hard to prepare for the first joint Catholic – Protestant Kirchentag in 2003. So we can and are witnessing to our churches by our very existence, and also working with them on their unity path by our actions.

I said earlier that we were in critical solidarity with our churches. We perhaps need more confidence to share our experience with our churches – to press them gently but firmly to turn their professed commitment to unity, their remarkable discoveries of doctrinal agreement into much more commensurate action. We would like to see many more joint celebrations of baptism – not only for interchurch family children. We want to see the churches working much more closely together in preparing couples for marriage and supporting them in it. So many of the marriages today, so many of the children brought for baptism come from mixed marriages. The wedding and the birth of a baby are times when many people are open to the wonder of human life and love, and come near to a sense of God. These times call for much greater pastoral understanding, but sadly for too many mixed marriages these are the times when clergy clumsiness turns couples away from God.

We witness by what we say

This failure in pastoral understanding should not be blamed entirely on our ministers. Those who are celibate cannot be expected to have a full appreciation of what it is like to be married, and we cannot expect ministers, who inevitably have to spend most of their time in their own churches, to have a complete pastoral understanding of interchurch families. We need to witness not only by what we are and by what we do, but also by what we say. We need to tell our story. We need to help our pastors and our congregations to understand what it is like to be an interchurch family – our opportunities as well as our problems. In order to do this we need to learn to express our experience in words that our respective churches will understand. We need, for example, to realise that for most Roman Catholics and Orthodox the word ‘intercommunion’ is a bad word that they do not use in a positive sense. If the partner who belongs to another church wishes to receive communion in the Roman Catholic church they should ask in terms of admission to communion. As we begin to understand the language of one another’s churches we can act as interpreter for others. Perhaps we need more confidence in articulating our requests. Certainly a number of Roman Catholic bishops in England have said that they have very few requests from interchurch couples for the Anglican or Protestant partner to receive communion. I realise, of course, that to ask and to be turned down can be devastating, but if none of us ever ask our need will not be known. If none of us talk about our experience, the contribution we can make to the unity of our churches will not be known.

I conclude with a quotation from a poem by Arthur Clough, a nineteenth century English poet. It was the present Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster who drew Ruth’s and my attention to its relevance to work for Christian Unity.

‘Say not the struggle naught availeth,
The labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth,
And as things have been they remain.
.
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking,
Seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks, and inlets making
Comes silent, flooding in, the main’.

I like to think of interchurch families as ‘creeks and inlets’!

Martin Reardon.