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The following article is published in One in Christ, Volume 52 (2017) Number 2.

Walking the path to Christian Unity

As part of the Responding to the Reformation Conference, Richard and I (see footnote) were asked to represent the Association of Interchurch Families. Initially we were asked to be part of a panel speaking on reconciliation but Jenny Bond also asked us to run a workshop. The instructions indicated many people appreciate stories about personal experience.

So during the workshop we shared the following story. Our daughter Ruth was brought up within our two churches having been baptised in the RC church at the Easter Vigil with the full participation of Richard’s vicar. He agreed to receive her and register her baptism on Easter Sunday morning. In the RC baptism a candle is lit from the Paschal candle and passed to the father for safekeeping. Knowing that something similar is a part of the Anglican service we took her candle with us on Easter Sunday. As we walked up the steps towards the vicar, he leaned forward, ‘What do you want me to do with the candle?’ I whispered in reply, ‘We thought you might light it from your Paschal Candle?!’ He looked slightly embarrassed, ‘I’m afraid to say I hadn’t thought of that!  What a good idea!’

As the panel had a specific focus on reconciliation, Richard opened our contribution by reading the following quote:

A desire to promote Christian unity has been a constant for Interchurch families throughout the past forty years. They have a particular incentive to take part in ecumenical work, and many have been found working for unity at local, national and international levels. Their experience of living in one another’s traditions and growing in mutual understanding and love is a particular contribution they can make to the ecumenical movement; they can be signs to the churches on their way towards unity. From ‘Forty Years of Interchurch Families’ by Ruth Reardon, ‘Issues and Reflections 8’, October 2008

I continued with stories about Ruth which had an emphasis on reconciliation. The first story happened when she was three years old and at Sunday mass with me. As we got nearer the time for the Eucharist she asked if she could receive communion. I knew that wouldn’t be possible so I whispered that she needed to be older. I hoped that would be the end of it, but I hoped in vain. The following Sunday she pulled my arm, ‘Can I receive this week? I’m older now.’ I decided to take a different approach and rather than answering her question I asked one of my own. ‘Why do you want to receive communion?’ She looked shocked, clearly expecting me to know the answer and then responded, ‘Because it’s Jesus, of course!’. I looked around the congregation and wondered how many had such a deep theological understanding of what was happening. In fact I would have struggled to put it so succinctly. I turned my attention to making it clear she  was still unable to receive.

Thankfully, the following summer we went to an Interchurch Families International Conference in Rome. Members of the Waldensian church provided a programme for the children in four languages. At one of the services led by a Lutheran Minister he said ‘If you feel your child understands what is happening at the Eucharist and is ready to receive they are welcome to do so.’ Ruth asked if that meant her and when I nodded she smiled and stood reverently waiting until she received. I think she must have been happy after this experience because she didn’t mention communion again for a while.  

However, when she was six years old the issue was raised again when the Anglican diocese took a decision to admit children to communion before confirmation. The vicar in our local parish had a daughter two years older than Ruth and decided to admit the children at seven years old.  This created a problem for us as the Roman Catholic diocese permitted children to make their first communion in the school year in which they were eight. I spoke to Ruth about it and made it clear that she could do the preparation but if she wanted to make her first communion in the RC church she would be unable to be admitted in the Anglican church with her friends.

She was happy to go through the Anglican preparation which used a course adapted from the RC model and I took her every week. I thought she was happy with her decision as she never complained. The day of admission was set for Easter Sunday during morning service. Her friends were given certificates to show to other churches that in spite of not being confirmed they were able to receive. Whilst this ceremony was going on she turned to me, ‘Why won’t the Catholic church let me receive communion if I make it here first?’ I wondered how I could explain the Reformation to a seven year old. I settled on the following: ‘The Anglican church fell out with the Catholic church and they still feel hurt.’

‘How long ago was this?’

‘About 4 or 500 years ago.’

‘Isn’t it about time they forgave each other?’ I was left wondering why a seven year old could see something so clearly that church leaders couldn’t. As one person said to me, ‘Out of the mouth of babes......?’

At this point we were told that time was running out. Richard drew our piece together by indicating that these stories summed up our experience of reconciliation as an Interchurch Family and he finished our contribution with this piece,  

We have some concerns about the work toward unity, even as we celebrate that work. We are concerned that our churches in most cases appear not yet ready to love each other first, and only then to work out how that love is to be expressed. Instead, we see churches insisting that every "i" be dotted, every "t" crossed before commitments to unity are made. We suspect that, were marriage to be approached in the same manner, we would have very few marriages, and the 'domestic church' would become merely a fine archaeological specimen. From ‘Revealing the Holy: Interchurch Families on the Path to Christian Unity’ by Ray & Fenella Temmerman, in INTAMS, Vol 6, #2, 2000

The other panellists made their contributions to the discussion followed by a plenary open to everyone. One group had wrestled with the difference between forgiveness, reconciliation and atonement. During the preparation for the panel the previous evening I talked about the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation. I believe forgiveness is something you can do on your own without necessarily being reconciled  especially if it involves abuse or the perpetrator is dead. I briefly shared this with everyone. I was reminded of a book I read two years ago by Desmond and Mpho Tutu, ‘The Book of Forgiving’ which I have on Kindle. I asked if I could read from chapter 7, Renewing or Releasing the Relationship. Desmond Tutu said the final part of forgiveness is the decision to renew the relationship or to let it go. There was a profound moment of silence and then Richard had the last word, ‘Unity is not an option rather it is an imperative.’

Footnote: Richard Connell (Anglican) Reader Emeritus and Helen Connell (RC) MTh (Oxon)