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Unity in Communion

The Inter-Church Family Response

Craig & Michele Buchanan

Craig and Michèle Buchanan met while attending McGill University and were married two years after graduation in 1982.

Michèle is Roman Catholic while Craig is a member of the United Church of Canada although he did spend some of his high school and college years attending an evangelical church. They have 4 girls (Linda, Francine, Sandra, and Rachel) ranging in age from 5 to 18. 

Throughout their marriage they have regularly attended each other's churches as a family and their children are active in the youth and children's programs in both churches. They currently attend St. John' s United Church and St. Edward the Confessor Roman Catholic Mission which share the same building in Pointe Claire, Quebec. They have experienced the joys and the frustrations of baptism, first communion and confirmation for their children through the two church traditions. 

Craig and Michèle are founding members of the Association of Interchurch Families in Montreal and of the Canadian Association of Interchurch Families. Craig is currently serving a second two year term on the Board of Directors for the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism.

We are called to unity, as couples, with our churches, and our churches with each other. We are also called to communion, which includes, but is not limited to, Eucharist. How do we as couples live this reality of communion? Does our experience of unity and communion have something to offer our churches?

When Michele and I were preparing for marriage, Michele, who is Roman Catholic, was required to make a promise, in front of the priest and myself, that she would do her best to raise the children from our marriage in the Catholic faith. Several weeks before our marriage she formally made that promise and in response I promised to do my best to raise our children in my faith. Lucky for us, we had a very understanding priest because I would not be surprised if most clergy would cringe at the thought of this apparently incompatible situation. A divorce looking for the first born to make it happen!

Well, after 19 years, we haven’t had a divorce, we have four children, and we have both kept our promises. We attend each other’s church services regularly and our children are clearly active in both communities. We are both able to say that we have kept that promise we made before we married. Our current church situation makes this lifestyle a little easier. The building that we call St John’s United Church in Pointe Claire, Quebec is also home to St Edward the Confessor Roman Catholic Mission. These two churches share the same worship space, the same baptismal font, and the same altar. Indeed the churches have developed their relationship with one another to the point that the sign by the door to the church now reads "The Christian Community of St John’s United and St Edward the Confessor". Note that it reads ‘community’, a singular noun. The sign is not meant to be a theological statement of convergence of the churches, but more the feeling of the people who inhabit the building on Sunday morning.

We are called to unity as a married couple and we are called to unity as churches. As couples it is easier than as churches. As couples we have come together through our own desire with a commitment to love and live in communion with each other. As a husband and wife, just two people, we are better able to negotiate compromises or unique arrangements that our churches simply cannot do. As a couple we start off with a ‘clean slate’, no previous scandals of division from our past to block our present communion. We live this personal communion within the broader situation of a divided church.

Our churches don’t have it quite so easy. They carry baggage from centuries of division even violence between each other that makes reconciliation seem impossible. Divisions of history and doctrine makes unity seem far off indeed. The institutionalized churches still have a long way to go, a lot of wounds to heal and a lot of differences to resolve. But at the local and micro level churches are coming together. Our house church, the church within our home, is living in the unity of Christ daily, Catholic and Protestant under the same roof. It is not a perfect unity, but it is a visible unity. The Christian unity within our family has led my oldest daughter to see herself as neither Catholic nor Protestant, but as Christian.

And locally we are, as far as we can, living the path to Christian Unity. St John’s and St Edward’s gather together for special worship services during Advent and Holy Week, we hold joint bible studies, and we are regularly in one another’s prayers. There isn’t a social event in either church where the other church is not invited. The sadness felt in one church such as a death or serious illness is often shared with the other. All of this indicates to me that we are acting more like a family than as separate institutions.

At our last gathering in Geneva in 1998, Konrad Raiser said "Perhaps it is the experience of house churches which we need to inspire us to discover new ways of being the church, of building our communion from below rather than waiting for the formal doctrinal and canonical agreements from above. The impression is gaining ground that the organized ecumenical movement concerned with institutional inter-church relationships has reached the limits of what the approaches and methodologies employed so far can achieve. We need to be liberated from institutional captivity of our church and ecumenical situation. The historic churches have become too heavy, too much tied to their past identities. The call for a ‘conversion of the churches’ is more appropriate than ever before."1

Inter-church families in their house churches are opening new ecumenical spaces, as are local churches. At least within my local churches there is a growing understanding of one another. One local example of new ecumenical space is our local churches’ joint Good Friday Service. For the past 6 years the young people of St John’s and St Edward’s have presented the Passion of Christ in drama. At first it resembled very closely the traditional Stations of the Cross of the Catholic tradition, but over the years it has evolved into its own kind of worship, still depicting the Passion of Christ, but in new and exciting ways. At the same time as our Good Friday worship was changing it was growing too. People from our local Anglican Church are now attending this ecumenical worship.

Brother Gilles chose a piece of John 17:21 for the title of this presentation which reads "May they all be one, as we are one, so that the world may believe it was you who sent me." This is a favorite passage of a close friend who is also part of an inter-church marriage who very much wanted to be with us at this conference. It also appears on the crest of the United Church of Canada, "ut omnes unum sint", "that all may be one". This should be the battle cry of the Christian Church, the driving force behind ecumenism; may we be one so that the world may believe. As husband and wife we are one in our marriage and we are bringing our churches, sometimes kicking and screaming, into that oneness. As inter-church families we have to continue to do that, we need to continue to show the churches pathways to Christian unity. But as the Protestant half of this ‘oneness’, and despite that fact that I attend Mass almost as often as my wife, and certainly more often than many Catholics I know, I still feel like an outsider in the Catholic Church. And my wife will never feel completely a part of the United Church. We each have our own roots in our own churches and you cannot change your roots. But our children have been raised in both churches, for them both churches are theirs. Their roots grow out of both denominations. East meets west; Catholic meets Protestant in literally one body. It is no longer a symbolic image of two becoming one, husband and wife joining together in marriage, each with their religion with them. Our children have both churches with them and if they stick with it, they will likely challenge the churches even more than we have.

"GRÂCE À LEUR PAROLE" Belief in Jesus

Jesus said, "I pray for those also who through their words believe in me." (John 17

: 20) Jesus prayed for us since we have believed because of the testimony of others. But centuries of division have broken that testimony into many different strains. A dear friend and member of an inter-church couple took his grand niece to Mass with his Catholic wife. After the Mass the little girl asked why he had not gone up to the front of the church with his wife. Well he went into a simplified version of the divisions between the churches that led to the division we have today over the Eucharist. The young girl listened very attentively and when he had finished she said "That’s stupid!" We run the risk of loosing credibility over our divisions. Indeed we have already lost credibility in the world, but it would be far worse to lose it within our families. We have to be very careful when we transmit the faith to our children. How often have we heard one denomination putting down the beliefs or practices of another? The Christian Church hurting itself. How much worse would that be if it were within a single family?

"COMME NOUS SOMMES UN"

In John 17: 22 Jesus prays "That they may be one as we are one". I take great comfort in what Gilles has said about this. Jesus prays for a unity that goes beyond accord and tolerance with one another and even beyond unity in the faith. Jesus prayed for a unity and communion of our very being in the image of the communion of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It is this level of communion that we seek in our marriage even though the pressures of daily living and the conflicts that arise from it make this a difficult goal. I draw courage from knowing that this is Christ’s desire for our lives. If this unity is difficult within the family, it is far more difficult within the Christian church. In most cases the churches are barely beyond the point of tolerance and continue to struggle with union in the faith. But here we are talking about a personal communion, the communion of Jesus with the Father, communion between myself and my brother or sister in Christ, communion between my wife and I. Institutional communion isn’t part of this picture. This personal level of communion is further reinforced when Jesus said, "when two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them." This prayer and blessing is offered for each couple who live their married life as a life of faith in communion with each other and our Lord Jesus Christ. How much more is this true for an inter-church marriage, binding together into union two distinct church traditions. Rather than complaining about the institutional constraints imposed by divided church loyalties, we should begin to focus on the promise that rests on each of our house churches and trust that they become ecumenical spaces which manifest new qualities of community.

Thomas Ryan, former Director of the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism and author of several books on ecumenism, has referred to inter-church families as where the ecumenical rubber meets the road. Where ecumenism must come into practice. So let me finish with some reflections of how Christian unity, within the constraints of our two churches, is lived out in our family. Our inter-church relationship involves the Roman Catholic Church and the United Church of Canada, which is itself, a union of Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregationalist Churches. As guidelines for sacramental sharing, the Catholic Church in Canada subscribes to the policy that permits the Anglican or Protestant party to an inter-church marriage to receive Communion on "occasions of ecclesial or familial significance". My personal approach it to restrict my own sharing of the Eucharist in the Catholic Church to significant moments in my faith journey or significant moments for members of my family. The last time I had communion in the Catholic Church was at the Catholic confirmation of my third daughter, Sandra, this past spring. My personal feeling is that by not habitually taking communion it makes these special times even more significant for me. That may be partly due to the approach in the United Church of only having communion four or five times per year. That does not mean that I don’t feel the pain of our disunity every time the rest of my family goes to receive communion. That hurt is there every week. My wife chooses not to take communion in the United Church.

Our children have been exposed since birth to both Christian traditions and indeed feel truly a part of both churches. Our youngest child was baptized in an ecumenical celebration presided over by both priest and minister and registered in both church registries. This is referred to as dual registration of the baptism. After receiving the formal formation that precedes First Communion in the Catholic Church, they all began to take communion in both churches. First Communion in our dioceses is celebrated at around eight years old and at that age I don’t think it is necessary to burden them with the doctrinal differences that separate us at the Lord’s table. As they got older this pattern of participating in both communions continued to be normal for them so they have continued. They are indeed the ones who can claim the double belonging and in the end I think they are in an even better position to challenge the churches in their policy of a separated table.

This is not the rule for all inter-church couples in Canada. I know inter-church couples who regularly share the Eucharist together and I thank God that they feel called to do so. Sometimes I feel envious of their faith decisions but I still don’t feel that I have arrived at that point yet. As the years roll by I find that I don’t see myself getting much closer to the point when I can allow myself to participate regularly in the Catholic Eucharist. I share Konrad Raiser’s vision that the present situation surrounding Eucharistic hospitality could be eased if we could develop a new praxis of sharing a simple meal to affirm our ecumenical fellowship, to invoke God’s blessing on the food and to rejoice together.

Craig and Michèle Buchanan

Reference

1. Speech by Konrad Raiser on "Opening up Ecumenical Space" delivered at the International Meeting of Inter-Church Families at the Ecumenical Centre of the World Council of Churches, Geneva, 25 July 1998.

Craig & Michele Buchanan can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.