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The 14th Academic Consultation of Societas Oecumenica, Prague, 17th –22nd August 2006:  a Report from an Interchurch Family Perspective for the Society of Ecumenical Studies 

I have never been to a meeting of the Societas Oecumenica before, although the Society for Ecumenical Studies, established in England in 1994, is a corporate member and any of us are entitled to go. Not many of us do, perhaps because we are on the whole enthusiasts for ecumenism rather than ‘professionals’ in the way that many of those present from German universities and academies appeared to be. Everyone seemed to be able to understand English, but people asked why there were so few participants from England at Prague. Martin Conway, formerly President of the Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham and Chair of SES, is of course a past-president of the Societas. But we don’t have anything like the Irish School of Ecumenics in England (a member of its staff was elected to the Committee at Prague), although maybe the Centre for Ecumenical Studies in Cambridge will develop further in that direction. At Durham University, too, there are stirrings of possible developments, and it was at the consultation organised there early in 2006 on ‘Receptive Ecumenism’ that I first met the Secretary of the Societas Oecumenica and learned about the Prague meeting. I was drawn to go to Prague because of this year’s subject: ‘Ecumenism of Life as a Challenge for Academic Theology’. Haven’t interchurch families always wanted academic theologians to take their experience seriously as raw material for reflection? I saw that Fr René Beaupère OP from Lyon, who has worked with foyers mixtes since the early 1960’s, was down to give one of the main lectures, and participants were invited to submit short papers on topics that included ‘mixed marriages’. It seemed an opportunity not to be missed.

Native French-speakers were in even shorter supply than the English; only Fr Beaupère I think, although one could add Dr Antoine Arjakovsky, Director of the Institute of Ecumenical Studies of the Catholic University of the Ukraine at Lviv, inaugurated in June 2005, who also lectured in impeccable French. He spoke of mixed marriages, too, in his lecture on ‘The Love of God as Foundation for the Ecumenism of Life’, and as his was the first lecture of the first full day of the conference, that was most encouraging. He was speaking specifically in the context of dialogue between Greek Catholics and Orthodox in the Ukraine and the very troubled history of relationships there. It was good to learn that the Institute of Ecumenical Studies had been inaugurated with a colloquium on ‘Friendship as an Ecumenical Value’, and that many interchurch families are able to enjoy eucharistic hospitality in the Ukraine. Later in the conference it was very moving to hear his colleague from the Catholic University of the Ukraine, Dr Myroslave Marynovch, speak of his ten years in the gulag. Labour camp solidarity among the prisoners of conscience was a profound experience that meant that he can no longer condemn ‘the Orthodox’ – he remembers particular people with whom he entered into such deep relationships in Christ. That will resonate with interchurch families.

Fr René Beaupère spoke on the ‘Grace and Challenge of Interconfessional Marriages’. In the early 1960’s with the convocation of the Second Vatican Council a more positive attitude to interconfessional marriages was able to develop, along with a pastoral effort to support them. Over two decades (roughly 1965-1985) a wealth of suggestions, confessional and interconfessional recommendations were put forward. These addressed first of all the preparation and celebration of marriage between Catholics and Protestants, then the baptism and Christian education of their children, then the place of these families in their parishes, their communities and the world. As a result these families – or the most vibrant among them – became not a problem to be solved, but a grace that if well received could bear much fruit. The churches have benefited from the way interchurch families have been able to play a bridging role between them, and the theological convergence texts (on baptism, the eucharist, marriage, catechesis) have both benefited the families and have been stimulated by them.

But now that some of these couples have become, not simply the recipients of pastoral care but recognised and active partners in the ecumenical process (at least to a certain extent) they have become a challenge to the churches, unable as they are to accept a slowing down of ecumenism. This challenge is not an aggressive confrontation, but a conscientious appeal that calls not just for words but for action. These couples, with their joint commitment in two churches, are a living proof that the churches are no longer isolated blocks, but share a common responsibility, a certain communion. More than ten years ago, said Fr Beaupère, he and Pastor Jacques Maury asked the churches to consider how their relationships were changed by the fact that in these ‘domestic churches’ they had members common to them both, or at least partially common. How could this be expressed in ecclesiology? ‘Interchurch families seem to us to be “islands of reconciliation” within the one Church, developing the potential contained in the reality of our mutually recognised one baptism.’ 

Over a decade later, said Fr Beaupère, it is surely helpful to point to three areas where interchurch families not only challenge academic theology but even certain ecclesiastical institutions. The Orthodox should be brought in here. First, the churches need to revise their theology of marriage and their pastoral attitude to divorce. If the three great confessional families came together on this question, could they not recover the fullness of the Gospel witness in this field? Secondly, for fifty years pastors and priests together have worked pastorally with interconfessional couples. There is a practical mutual recognition of ministries here; have the churches accepted the ecumenical consequences? Third, interconfessional families should lead the churches to take more seriously the apparent contradiction between a mutually recognised baptism and a eucharist which sets a boundary to sacramental sharing. Might not certain differences simply evaporate in the fire of a eucharist where mutual hospitality was practised? The list could be lengthened … .

Two of the short papers given in the seminar sessions at Prague picked up the ‘common members’ and the ‘domestic church’ referred to by Fr Beaupère. My paper on ‘Double Belonging’ gave a brief history of how the term has come to be used by interchurch families. It raised the question of how the reality experienced by interchurch families could be re-expressed in a way that would make it easier for their churches to accept that reality, since there have been recent negative reactions to the term. Thomas Knieps-Port le Roi, Editor of the INTAMS review, Journal for the Study of Marriage and Spirituality, and a professor at Louvain University, spoke on ‘Interchurch Marriage: Conjugal and Ecclesial Communion in the Domestic Church’. He reviewed the official theological and practical approach to interchurch families in the Roman Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council, explained how interchurch families see themselves, and pointed to the need for further study of the nature of the ‘domestic church’ and its place in Catholic ecclesiology. This is crucial for a theological understanding of interchurch marriage.

Interchurch families were rather marginal to the discussions of the Consultation, but it was encouraging all the same to see how Ecumenism of Life as an ecumenism of human relationships in Christ came through now and again to lighten the conceptual approach of many of the participants. Antoine Arjakovsky rejoiced that some theologians engaged in ecumenical dialogue have the agreement of their bishops for the participation in eucharistic celebrations of the other confession – as, for example, in the case of the Groupe des Dombes. At that level, he said, academic theology becomes indistinguishable from ecumenism of life. It is no accident, perhaps, that his example is a long-lasting dialogue group that has practised spiritual ecumenism from its inception. Ecumenism of life and ecumenism of the Spirit are not identical, but they are closely linked, as Professor Bernd Jochen Hilberath of the Tübingen Ecumenical Institute, President of the Societas, said in his opening lecture on the first evening. Catherine Clifford from St Paul University, Ottawa, pointed out that theological dialogues engage people, and they change people. Another resonance for interchurch families.

The newly-elected President of the Societas, Dr Ivana Noble of the Ecumenical Institute of the Protestant Theological Faculty, Charles University, Prague, is a Hussite pastor married to an English Roman Catholic. It is rare nowadays, she said, that people are brought up exclusively in one tradition. I recall an interesting exchange on ‘identity’, following Fr Beaupère’s lecture, between her, the lecturer and Dr Arjakovsky, in which the latter offered a trinitarian undergirding for persons in mixed marriages. It is good to know that he is thinking of the possibility of his Ecumenical Institute organising a consultation on interchurch marriage in Lviv.

Ruth Reardon