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INTERCHURCH MARRIAGES: towards a spirituality

This article originally appeared in : A.Brenninkmeijer-Werhan (ed): Marriage – Constancy and Change in Togetherness, Munster: LIT Verlag, 2017 (Symposium, 15). Reproduced by kind permission. 

An interchurch marriage is a marriage between Christians. As in any other, the spouses are called together by God to commit themselves to one another for life, to live together in a love that reflects God’s love for his people, Christ’s love for his Church.

In his post-synodal apostolic exhortation on the Joy of Love, Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis writes: ‘Christian marriage, as a reflection of the union between Christ and his Church, is fully realized in the union between a man and a woman who give themselves to each other in a free, faithful and exclusive love, who belong to each other until death and are open to the transmission of life, and are consecrated by the sacrament, which grants them the grace to become a domestic church and a leaven of new life for society’. This is just as much a description of interchurch marriage as it is of Catholic/Catholic marriage, although some in both categories would find themselves in situations ‘which do not yet or no longer correspond to the Church’s teaching on marriage’, as the passage continues (292). It should be noted, too, that ‘fully realized’ does not mean ‘perfectly realized’, as Pope Francis often insists (325).

Interchurch families have found themselves giving a warm welcome to Amoris Laetitia. It was not that the document said much about interchurch marriages in any specific way, although it included a positive and helpful – if brief – passage referring to them (247). Rather it was that what was said about marriage and the domestic church could be applied to interchurch families as much as to same-church couples. It offered a spiritual approach that was equally relevant to all. And beyond that, something else stood out from an interchurch family perspective; it was so easy to apply what was said in the text about relationships as they are worked out in marriage and family life to relationships between the churches as they commit themselves to walking the ecumenical path together. Amoris Laetitia reinforced the conviction of interchurch couples that simply by their commitment to one another in marriage and – as a unit – to one another’s churches, they are contributing in a small way to bringing together those churches into the unity for which Jesus prayed. They are indeed living the path to Christian unity.

A threat or a gift?

An interchurch marriage is a fully Christian sacramental marriage; the two spouses are called together to form a domestic church – a church in their home. So what is distinctive about interchurch marriages? They are one type of cross-frontier marriages; they cross the boundary between two separated church communities. Like all cross-frontier marriages, they can be perceived as a threat to the communities from which they come, for when the two partners commit themselves to one another in marriage they are declaring their determination to confront together and overcome differences between themselves that their respective communities have not been able to handle. That was how ‘mixed marriages’ were seen by the Roman Catholic Church and other churches before the Second Vatican Council. They were a danger to the separate identities of their churches. So Catholics (if their marriages were to be recognised) had to promise to do all they could to ‘convert’ their partners to the Catholic Church, and both partners had to promise that all the children of the marriage would be baptised and brought up in that Church. In response other churches strongly advised their members not to marry Catholics.

But like other forms of cross-frontier marriages, these marriages can also be perceived by their communities as a gift and a promise. If by the grace of God the partners and their children can succeed in living together in love in their domestic church, may not their experience in some small way help their wider church communities to live together in unity too? Since Vatican II, with the official entry of the Roman Catholic Church into the ecumenical movement, this positive view of marriages between baptised Christians of different traditions has been able to gain ground, Catholic rules have gradually been relaxed, and the fears and suspicions of other churches have lessened. There is still a long way to go, but the change in expectations and attitudes over the past fifty years has been phenomenal.

Mixed marriages between baptised Christians have claimed a distinctive terminology. They have distinguished themselves from other kinds of mixed marriages – interracial or interreligious, for example – by calling themselves ‘interchurch’, or else ‘interdenominational’ or ‘interconfessional’ families. Sometimes they have been called ‘ecumenical’ marriages. Starting with the French foyers mixtes in the Lyon and Paris areas in the early 1960s they have formed groups and associations of couples in a number of European countries and throughout the English-speaking world, supported by clergy and ministers, to encourage one another and to reflect on their situation. There is now an informal Interchurch Families International Network that links them together, and an international website: www.interchurchfamilies.org

In a paper adopted by the Second World Gathering of Interchurch Families held near Rome in 2003, they described what they meant by a ‘fully and intentionally’ interchurch marriage. ‘An interchurch family includes a husband and wife who come from two different church traditions (often a Roman Catholic married to a Christian of another communion). Both of them retain their original church membership, but so far as they are able they are committed to live, worship and participate in their spouse’s church also. If they have children, as parents they exercise a joint responsibility under God for their religious and spiritual upbringing, and they teach them by word and example to appreciate both their Christian traditions’ (Interchurch Families and Chrisian Unity, Association of Interchurch Families, London, 2004, p.2). Interchurch couples recognise that not all mixed Christian marriages share these intentions, but would like to offer to others their conviction that this is possible and can be deeply enriching. They also recognise that a ‘fully and intentionally’ interchurch marriage in no way means a ‘perfect’ interchurch marriage – to return to Pope Francis’ thinking in Amoris Laetitia, referred to earlier (122).

A work of the Holy Spirit

Many have seen the developments which have taken place over the last half-century in relation to mixed Christian marriages as a work of the Holy Spirit, leading us forward from the insights of the Second Vatican Council relating both to Christian unity and to Christian marriage. Indeed, the Indian Bishops’ Conference, in their mixed marriage guidelines, stated positively that the very existence of interchurch marriages can be seen as part of God’s plan. ‘Many circumstances of life’, they said, ‘and undoubtedly Divine Providence itself, arrange that at times compatible members of different Churches develop a desire to be united in a permanent bond of marriage … united in love.’ (Guidelines for Ecumenism, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, New Delhi 2000, part 4, 56)

From their earliest years of coming together in groups and associations, interchurch families discovered that they shared a desire to contribute to the growing unity of their two church communities, both in the sense of local congregations and wider denominations. They saw themselves as pioneers, going ahead of their churches because of their privileged experience, but always rooted in them and acting on their behalf. They desired to become both a sign of unity and a means to grow towards unity. They hoped to form a ‘connective tissue’ that would help in some small way towards the healing of the wounds in the one Body of Christ.

Gradually their ecumenical potential has been recognised by the Catholic Church. As early as 1970 Pope Paul VI’s motu proprio on mixed marriages admitted the possibility under cover of the negative: ‘mixed marriages do not, except in some cases, help in re-establishing unity among Christians.’ So ‘in some cases’ they can, concluded interchurch spouses, and prayed and worked to that end. Later popes encouraged them. ‘You live in your marriage the hopes and difficulties of the path to Christian unity’, said Pope John Paul II at York, England, in 1982. As they expressed that hope in prayer together, in the unity of love, he declared, the Holy Spirit would help them to grow in trust and understanding. At Warsaw, Poland, in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI declared that when two young people from different Christian communities come together in marriage, their decision ‘can lead to the formation of a practical laboratory of unity’. For this to happen, he said, it is not only the couple that needs mutual goodwill, understanding and maturity of faith, but also their communities, who must help and support them. When Pope Francis visited the Lutheran church in Rome in 2015, he used his favourite ecumenical image of separated Christians ‘walking together’ in and towards unity. To a Lutheran/Catholic couple he observed that: ‘You are a witness to an especially profound journey because it is a conjugal journey, truly a family journey, of human love and of shared faith’. (The full text is given as an appendix to Ruth Reardon, ‘Amoris Laetitia: comments from an interchurch family perspective’’, in One in Christ, 50, 1, 2016, pp 66-86)

From the beginning interchurch families were committed to promoting Christian unity. Later, as the movement for marital spirituality developed, with the creation of the International Academy for Marital Spirituality and the publication of the INTAMS Review, we found a language in which some of our own insights could be expressed and deepened. We began to recognise more clearly the way in which marital spirituality and spiritual ecumenism came together in our marriages. In the early days of the British Association of Interchurch Families one of our members wrote: ‘Some people play at ecumenism, but we live it.’ As our appreciation of marital spirituality developed, we came to see the profound relationship between Christian unity and interchurch marriages. Unity becomes not just what we do, but who we are, simply because we are so fundamentally joined together by the Holy Spirit in marriage and family life, in the depths of human love and shared faith. Pope Francis expressed this so clearly in 2015 in a way that resonated with our own experience (see above). We are grateful too that Amoris Laetitia had nothing at all negative to say about interchurch marriages – I think this may be a first for official Roman documents.

A gift and a call

Many interchurch couples have a very clear sense of vocation. The partners sometimes feel a stronger sense of being called to marry one another than do those in same-church marriages – precisely because it can be such an unexpected experience.  Many couples have been surprised by the way they have been drawn together in love, often attracted by the deep Christian faith of the other. A Canadian Catholic wife explained: ‘God gave me all I had asked for in a spouse – only I had forgotten to say he must be a Catholic.’ She was mirrored by a Protestant wife from New Zealand, who also received all she had prayed for: ‘only I didn’t ask that he shouldn’t be a Roman Catholic’. It is often a difficult decision to marry, especially when there is strong opposition at first from communities and families. But the surprise itself can lead on to a strong conviction that this is a gift and a call from God, and opposition can sometimes test and strengthen the bond between the couple.

The call does not always come to a young couple who have to decide whether they are going to throw in their lot with one another for life. Sometimes it comes to an older couple who have gone their separate ways for many years until something – maybe a meeting with another interchurch couple, or a particular life experience  – shows them the possibility of becoming a ‘fully and intentionally’ interchurch family and they are drawn irresistibly towards it. Sometimes it comes because one partner has become a Catholic – or because a Catholic has joined another Christian community. There is no single pattern.

I refer particularly to couples where one partner is Catholic and the other a member of a different church community because in these cases (as in marriages with Orthodox Christians) the two spouses belong to communities that are not in communion with one another; this presents particular difficulties when the couple are bound together in one domestic church and want to express that unity within their wider communions. It is simply a reflection of the unique position of the Catholic Church within the ecumenical movement; it claims to be ‘more church’ than others in a very fundamental way, and behaves accordingly, but on the other hand it wants to enter into theological discussions with other church communities on an equal level (‘par cum pari’ says the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism).

The French priest Abbé Paul Couturier, who inspired the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and saw that if Christians were to be united they must pray together for unity, had to grapple with this unequal situation. He totally transformed the earlier Octave of Prayer, with its prayer for unity around the See of Peter (which could only be a form of prayer used by those already convinced that the Pope is central to the unity of the Church), into a Week of Prayer for the unity that Christ wills, to come as he wills it (which can be prayed by all Christians who want to enter into Christ’s own prayer for unity, recorded in St John’s Gospel). Along with conversion of heart and holiness of life, Vatican II commended it as ‘the soul of the ecumenical movement’, worthy to be called ‘spiritual ecumenism’.

In marriage the partners are committed to one another on an equal footing, with equal rights and responsibilities as partners and parents. The new insights of Vatican II gave interchurch couples a solid basis for believing that they would be able to enter into their marriage partnership as equals. It made possible the ‘full and intentional’ interchurch marriage as described earlier. But often this is not a straightforward process. Sometimes it feels like one spouse having a family of origin that looks down on the other as its social inferior, and makes its attitude very clear. The couple have to negotiate the imbalance together, not allowing the views of one family to take over their marriage, but at the same time not allowing themselves to be distanced from either of them. It can be a slow process that can be very difficult at times in practice, but it is amazing how understanding can grow at a deep level. Sometimes a Catholic is surprised at how well their partner can explain to other Christians the position of the Catholic Church and the particular gifts it can offer to the ecumenical process – better than they could themselves!

Very often the spouses begin with all kinds of misunderstandings and prejudices about their partner’s church tradition. Because they love one another they are willing to talk them through. ‘I don’t suppose many engaged couples spend an evening discussing what it means to ask the prayers of a saint, what incense is for, or what the word “priest” really means’, wrote one Anglican wife. Defensiveness can be replaced by a realisation that intense questioning may not represent aggression but a loving determination to understand. And many interchurch partners have said that they have grown stronger in their own faith, more appreciative of their own tradition, because they have had to work hard to explain it to their spouse. ‘I am a better Catholic than I would have been if I had married another Catholic; I would have taken so much for granted and not really thought about it’, said a Catholic husband. And in the process, the couple find that their relationship is strengthened; because they have talked on a deep level about their church relationships, they can communicate better with one another in other areas of their life too.

A commitment to share in the life of two church communities, so far as they can, means hard work for an interchurch couple; church diaries and rotas are not geared to such an undertaking. But it can be experienced as a double blessing, in times of sorrow as well as times of joy. Many have spoken of their gratitude for the support they have received from both communities; for instance, when illness strikes or when a baptism is celebrated. Conflicts are part of marriage, and family life shows the church in its brokenness as well as in its call to unity. This is true for interchurch families as for all domestic churches, and it can affect them in a particularly painful way. But as the spouses, two different and distinct persons, come together to share their lives and grow together into one coupled person, they can embody Christian unity with a particular joy.   

Sharing of gifts

‘The ecumenical movement is not only about the removal of obstacles but also about the sharing of gifts’, said Pope John Paul II and the Archbishop of Canterbury in their Common Declaration of 1989. (Eds. Adelbert Denaux, Nicholas Sagovsky and Charles Sherlock, Looking towards a Church fully reconciled. Final Report of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission 1983-2005 (ARCIC II), London 2016, p 344) That is certainly true for interchurch spouses. They are committed to sharing everything they can, including their respective church traditions, the particular ways their communities have lived out their Christian faith. These can seem strange and even threatening in their unfamiliarity at first; things that are taken for granted by one partner can appear quite shocking to the other. This can be experienced in all marriages, of course; habits and assumptions that come from the family of origin of one of the spouses can be really unwelcome to the other. Negotiating the differences and establishing a new pattern of their own, drawing on what they judge to be the best of both their family traditions is an essential task for all newly-married couples. For interchurch couples it has a particular dimension.

The criterion is faithfulness to Christ and to the great tradition shared by all Christians. There is far more here that unites them than divides them. But there are real differences, and their task is to live this diversity in unity, not dismissing anything that is important to either partner out of hand, nor taking everything on board without discrimination either. There will be much mutual questioning, and not all couples will come to similar conclusions; each has to find its own way forward, to discover the best choices for their particular situation. One young couple considered how they could best organise their living space to welcome others – family, friends, and strangers – into their home, into their life together. ‘Offering hospitality at our dinner-table is part of this, and at our daily meals we like to remind ourselves from whom all good things come and give thanks by saying a simple grace before eating. Also, reserving a place in the house, in the living room for example, for times of prayer (placing a Bible open for scripture readings, a candle to light beside an icon …) has the effect of keeping our daily “material” life in touch with our “spiritual” life.’

Many interchurch couples have felt it important to learn to pray together as couples, precisely because their worship together in their respective communities could be problematic. This might start in a particularly intense way during their engagement, as part of a ‘getting to know you’ process, alongside an effort to be together during their respective church services. The practice may continue into their married life, as they seek to shape their domestic church in their home, and then have to be re-thought as they attempt to work out how they are going to share their prayer with their children. There will be practical questions to face: a decision to read the scriptures together may be relatively simple, but what about a balance between liturgical and extempore prayer, and how to use – or ignore – prayers like the ‘Hail Mary’ which are deeply rooted in one tradition but may feel very strange to someone coming from another. One couple decided that the Anglican partner (who was not comfortable with asking the prayers of the saints) should pray the biblical half, and the Catholic should respond with the second part of the prayer; thus it would it would become a prayer that their children would recognise when they met it in a Catholic context, and at the same time the partners would respect one another’s sensitivities without calling attention to their differences.

As they become more familiar with another way of praying, both partners can develop and change, and feel greatly enriched by the process. The same is true more generally as they begin to share more fully in the life of their spouse’s congregation. ‘We appreciate the Catholic liturgy and the Baptist sermon’, said one young couple. They considered that being exposed to both was much better than being limited to only one. Catholics can be impressed by the role taken by the laity in their partner’s Protestant church; others can appreciate the attention given to marriage and marriage preparation in their Catholic parish. Both partners can come to value diversity and take on an enlarged identity. Some go so far as to talk of ‘double belonging’ and see themselves as a united couple which is a part of both congregations. It is not surprising that interchurch families are often active and influential in local ecumenical relations out of all proportion to their numbers. They feel they have received so much from their exposure to other Christian traditions, and want to share their experience more widely. Their enthusiasm and commitment to unity can itself be a gift for their congregations.

The joy of love

Interchurch couples set out on their married journey with their ‘personal story of love’, as Amoris Laetitia puts it (9). The path is above all the path of love, reflecting Christ’s love for his Church, entering into the mutual love of the Father and the Son, into the communion of love that is the mystery of God, Father, Son and Spirit of love. This is equally the ecumenical path. Cardinal Mercier, Archbishop of Malines, was an ecumenical pioneer in the 1920s, welcoming Anglicans to his home. He realised that if divided Christians were to unite, they must love one another. In order to love one another, they must meet one another and get to know one another, he declared. That is precisely what interchurch couples have done, meeting one another, getting to know one another, and committing themselves together to the relationship of marriage that is indeed a school of love. Love is the first law of Christians. It is the same process, the same path of love that must be followed by the two partners joined in marriage and by divided Christians who share a common baptism.

They will find great joy in this path of love, but they know from the outset that they will not always find it smooth going. Pope Francis returns several times to the theme of ‘imperfect’ love. Although the grace of the sacrament of marriage is intended above all to perfect the couple’s love (89), he says, we have problems whenever we think that relationships or people ought to be perfect, or when we put ourselves at the centre and expect things to turn out our way (92). Love does not have to be perfect for us to value it. The other person loves me as best they can, with all their limits, but the fact that love is imperfect does not mean it is untrue or unreal (113). These words from Amoris Laetitia are a reminder of how the 1993 Ecumenical Directory described the way in which members of other churches and ecclesial communities are brought by baptism into ‘a real, even if imperfect’ communion with the Catholic Church (Directory 129). God offers the grace to bind married partners and separated Christians into loving communion, but as human beings we are always on the way to its full realisation, we can only grow gradually into the fullness of love. But that growth is real, our love is real, and walking together in love is the path, just as the fullness of love is the goal.

It is an on-going dynamic process, which advances as the partners are able to receive and integrate the gifts that God offers to bind them together in unity. God is patient, and knows that human beings can only progress towards unity by stages; it is not a once-for-all process. We can only take small steps at a time, but they are important. Pope Francis’ three little words ‘Thank you’, ‘Sorry’, ‘Please’, need to be practised all the time (133), until they come to express a habitual attitude of mutual gratitude, of repentance and forgiveness, and of a humility that leads to deeper unity. This is as true for the ecumenical journey as for the conjugal journey.

Christians are called to a love that never gives up, says Pope Francis. It is always beginning all over again. It endures everything. Married sacramental love is an ‘affective union’, spiritual and sacrificial, combining the warmth of friendship and erotic passion, and enduring long after emotions and passion subside (120). This love is a gift of the Holy Spirit, a powerful love that reflects the unbroken covenant between Christ and humanity that culminated in his self-sacrifice on the cross. Much has been written about the importance of the contribution that friendship has made to the progress of the ecumenical movement – a deep friendship that has grown between  Christians who have recognised that they are already fundamentally one in Christ, in spite of church divisions, a friendship that has stimulated them to work tirelessly for visible unity. At the end of his meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1989, Pope John Paul II said to Archbishop Runcie that ‘affective communion’ leads to ‘effective communion’. Conjugal love, as ‘the greatest form of friendship’, certainly has its part to play. So much in the language of Amoris Laetitia recalls that used of ecumenical relationships: a faithful covenant that entails no going back (123); sharing everything in mutual respect (125); joy growing through the free exchange of gifts (129); joy also growing through pain and sorrow and shared effort (130); a shared commitment to deeper growth together for the sake of society as a whole (131); definitive commitment made publicly (132); authentic dialogue that takes time (136-7); ‘unity in diversity’ or ‘reconciled diversity’, freeing ourselves from feeling that we all have to be alike, and a recognition that many disagreements are not about important things (139); reciprocal submission (156); a shared and lasting life project, living as one(163).

None of this is possible, says Pope Francis, without praying to the Holy Spirit for an outpouring of his grace, his supernatural strength and his spiritual fire, to confirm, direct and transform our love in every new situation (164). The grace of the Holy Spirit will enable married couples to grow in holiness through their married life, as they share in the mystery of Christ’s cross and resurrection in their sorrows and in their joy. They will care for one another, guide and encourage one another, and experience this as part of family spirituality (321). Spirituality becomes incarnate in the communion of the family. Those who have deep spiritual aspirations should not feel that the family detracts from their growth in the life of the Spirit, but rather see it as a path which the Lord is using to lead them to the heights of mystical union (316).

This passage resonates with the spiritual ecumenism and the way of prayer taught by Abbé Paul Couturier, mentioned earlier. When he asked separated Christians to pray for unity in, with and for one another, he asked them not simply to pray for other Christian groups, but in particular for their growth in holiness – for the sanctification of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Reformed and so on. This is above all how they would grow closer to one another – by growing closer to Christ, in his Spirit. And in their united prayer they are already one.

In this dynamic process we are seeking what is beyond us, and yet living it now – the ‘already but not yet’ that can become especially clear to interchurch families. It is true for the married path; it is true for the ecumenical way. At the end of his exhortation Pope Francis writes: ‘No family drops down from heaven perfectly formed; families need constantly to grow and mature in the ability to love. This is a never-ending vocation born of the full communion of the Trinity, the profound union between Christ and his Church, the loving community which is the Holy Family of
Nazareth, and the pure fraternity existing among the saints of heaven (325).’ We have not yet arrived, we cannot ask for perfection; that is for the Kingdom to come. This perspective will keep us from judging others harshly. We are striving towards something greater than ourselves and our families. ‘Let us make this journey as families, let us keep walking together. What we have been promised is greater than we can imagine. May we never lose heart because of our limitations, or ever stop seeking that fullness of love and communion which God holds out before us (325).’ Interchurch families will add their appeal: let us make this journey as churches and ecclesial communities too; let us keep walking together, never losing heart, trusting that in the fullness of time God will bring us all together to share in the marriage supper of the Lamb.

Pope Francis sees the Church as a ‘family of families, constantly enriched by the lives of all the domestic churches. In virtue of the sacrament of matrimony, every family becomes, in effect, a good for the Church. … The experience of love in families is a perennial source of strength for the life of the Church (87-88).’ In the letter to the Ephesians (4:7-13) we read that after his ascension Christ gave gifts to his Church, for the sake of the building up of the whole body. These gifts were people: apostles, prophets, evangelists and teachers. Here in Amoris Laetitia we see not just individuals but families recognised as gifts to the Church. In this perspective may we not see interchurch families as an ecumenical good, as gifts for the sake of the life of the whole Church. May the love that unites them be recognised as an ecumenical strength. May these families be seen as signs and instruments given to the churches for the sake of their growth into the full communion of the One Church of Christ, made visible as a witness to the world.

Ruth Reardon