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This article was published in the January 1994 issue of The Journal.

AN INTERCHURCH FAMILY IN THE COUNTRY

We have been "rural" Christians for most of our married life. English village life has many joys, but also frustrations; for us, not least those caused by our continuing allegiance to two churches, often geographically far apart.

Our first village 

At the beginning of our married life we were part of a small group of committed people trying to continue prayer and fellowship in an Anglican parish church where the vicar was on the point of retirement. Sunday worship was not a high point of the week, but the fellowship group was one of the best we have ever joined. The Catholic church in the village was strong but isolated, with few links with other churches. We attended both churches regularly, but felt we had to keep our heads down with the rather traditional priest. 

Our second village 

Our move to another village brought hope. Both vicar and priest were more supportive. We became involved in both churches in the way many interchurch families do ­ I found myself on many Sundays ringing the bells at the Anglican church at the top of the hill, then driving hurriedly down the hill to play the organ for mass! Ecumenical work in the village was encouraging; the congregations did plenty of liaising, and we were fully involved. We were still unable to worship together with complete freedom ­ Richard was welcomed for a blessing at mass, but this was such an unusual practice that our priest invariably forgot when we got to the altar rail, and this created confusion and embarrassment. 

When Jonathan was born, we celebrated a very happy shared baptism service, attended by many people from both congregations. Churchgoing became fraught with the usual problems of those with babies, but on the whole we kept to "alternate weeks" attendance. It became more important to us to be at church together. The strains of family life with a baby meant we needed each other's support more, and for me the routine of worship and prayer was sometimes all that kept me from total disintegration. 

Another move 

We moved again. In looking for a community with strong churches in the unfamiliar Midlands, we came to our present home and were immensely encouraged to find that the Anglican parish church loaned its building to the Catholic congregation for Saturday evening mass. Surely, we thought, God has led us here; surely there will be plenty of sharing between the two congregations. It was not so. Saturday evening mass was attended by few people, and certainly not by young village families; the priest was elderly and tired, and six months after we moved in the Saturday mass was discontinued. 

I became disheartened. The Anglican parish church had a good vicar, but he found work with young families hard. Many of the congregation did not see the need to encourage the younger generation. The Sunday school was strong, but run separately from the usual Sunday services. Attempts at family services were disappointing ­ many of the congregation stayed away. We had begun to attend a nearby Catholic church, and even to get to know people a little, but as it was a few miles away the two communities were unlikely to meet and had little in common. The birth of Laura meant another baptism; we managed to celebrate again with members of both communities as well as our families, but this time there were two distinct groups in church. 

For a year we often attended church separately. Practical considerations took hold ­ other people's children never bothered us, but our own did! So I would go to mass on Saturdays, or at 8.00 a.m., and then often run the Anglican creche while Richard attended church. Sometimes we went together to one or other church while the children were in the creche. It was not ideal. 

Keeping our heads down 

We started attending another Catholic church, and settled, in a big congregation where it was easy to remain incognito. The priest was willing to offer communion to non­Catholic partners in our situation, so long as it was discreet, so Richard started receiving, which proved a great strength to us both. The arrival of a new priest, who found time to visit, added an actual invitation to share, and an explicit assumption that our children would grow up to share in both communities too, was wonderful. I participated fully in the village church worship also, and was made welcome. We learned to keep our heads down in both churches, and to count our blessings. But how could we contribute our real family experience to our respective church communities? Talk of "double belonging" made us wonder where we had gone wrong ­ I didn't always feel I "belonged" in my own church, let alone in two. 

As the children grew older, they entered the Anglican Sunday school with many of their village friends. Their attendance at mass was spasmodic ­ Saturday evenings were rather late, early Sunday mornings too early and too much since they came also to Sunday school. Sometimes Jonathan would ask to come to mass with me, and when he was able to promise to behave, at about four, it became a privilege for him. A couple of years later we started to attend mass occasionally as a family on Saturdays, and on Sundays in the holidays when the village Sunday school closed down. The children settled well, but knowing few members of the Catholic congregation, and the irregularity of the children's attendance, meant that they had little sense of Catholic identity. Worship at the Anglican church was beginning to seem monotonous to me, and not really enough for when the children were older. 

Discussion and prayer 

All this cost us much prayer and concern. We tackled it together, but we didn't always see eye to eye on the solutions, either for our congregations or for our family. We have worked with others for many years to build up the worship and fellowship life of the village church, with some results, but it is an uphill struggle. I was keen to draw on our Catholic church community, both for the children's sake and for my own. Our priest has always laid great stress on rich worship patterns particularly family worship, and encourages the involvement of the children in mass, especially on feast days. We had to start to talk to each other about what was going to happen as the children fast approached First Holy Communion age indeed, Jonathan was so tall that he was often offered communion, to his embarrassment. The main practical problem was that the Catholic Sunday school was held on Sunday mornings after mass, which meant that the children would have to change completely from Anglican Sunday school to the Catholic one, so we should be less able to worship as a family, as Richard would often need to be at the village church for various duties. 

We became more regular at attending mass together, and started praying hard for guidance. We talked the children quite carefully through the need to go twice to church. They were beginning to notice other interchurch friends receiving communion, and had close Catholic friends in the village, so their comments gave us our opportunity. We made it clear that if they were to make their First Communion in the Catholic church they would first have to spend time attending worship and really understanding what it was all about. As a couple, we had no disagreement about communion for young children, and also agreed that if it did not seem to be practical or desirable, we would not make the children go through with it. The prayers became more intense, and we were enormously grateful for prayers of godparents and other Christian friends. 

After a year of attending mass together regularly, we asked our priest to come to discuss with us what would be appropriate. Jonathan was by now ten, and Laura eight. Children in the First Communion class were generally a year or two younger, and the rule was that they had to attend Sunday school for at least a year before preparation for First Communion, which took a further year. We were relieved that our priest and the Sunday school leader agreed that their religious education so far, at home and in the Anglican Sunday school, would count for the preliminary year, although both were worried about how it would look to other parents. In fact, our priest said that if the children found it difficult to settle in the class, he would be happy for us to prepare them ourselves. We found this encouraging, but felt it would be helpful to have other adult input, and the parish community to back us up. 

Preparation for First Communion 

The preparation course the class used was one designed for children in forces' schools abroad. On the whole, we found it good. There was homework every week, often quite simple, but adaptable to the age and understanding of our two. We embarked on it as a family. The logistics of attending mass, at a distance, followed by the children attending Sunday school for a further hour, and then needing collecting, meant that both of us had to be involved if we were to have any Sunday lunch at all. It became rare for us all to attend church together Richard had duties at the Anglican church and needed to be there, and the children and I were not able to be with him. This was the biggest downside of the programme. However, teaching and praying together as we helped the children think through their homework each week for about half an hour was tremendously uplifting. They took it seriously, in different ways ­Jonathan needed a more thoughtful approach, Laura perhaps a more spiritual one. We always talked to them separately, before coming together for a summing up, which mirrored our usual practice for bedtime prayer and Bible study. They learned a lot from each other, and became closer during this year. We were pleased we had waited till they were older to start the preparation ­ we could never have gone so deeply into some of the ideas if they had been six or seven. 

Meanwhile, our vicar had also been encouraging, and the Anglican Sunday school leader, though somewhat uncomprehending of our weird behaviour, proved supportive too. During half­term holidays when the Catholic Sunday school did not meet, we returned to the Anglican church and the children were considered as still on the books. They were invited as a matter of course to parties and outings, which we appreciated. But some members of the congregation, particularly "part­time" ones, seemed not to realise that we were not there any more ­somewhat depressing! We felt guilty about one of Laura's friends, whose parents were not regular attenders, leaving the Sunday school because she was not there . . . I have to admit to finding the Anglican church service, when we went, as monotonous as ever, and really appreciated the family liturgy of Sunday morning mass week by week, with plenty of children's participation and more meaningful music. But regular informal services were starting up on Sunday evenings at the village church, which was encouraging, and meant we could all still feel part of the Anglican community. 

Our priest holds a series of evening meetings for parents of First Communion children. The first two or three were about the first part of the children's course which dealt with Reconciliation, not the easiest aspect to start with! But we were pleasantly surprised to find, when we got to know people a little more, that Richard was accepted well, in a fairly large group of Catholic parents of all shades of belief. Group discussion made us as a couple talk about subjects which in the rush of family life we had not broached for years. As a Catholic, I had to confront my own doubts and lapses, particularly in relation to Confession, while trying to pass on my faith to the children, and this caused a lot of heart-searching. 

The question of sharing communion 

It was while attending these meetings, only a few weeks before the First Communion mass, that we had a real problem. We had asked our priest if, unlike the usual Sunday practice at our church, the children could receive communion under both kinds on this special occasion. He thought this would be "impractical", but he asked the other parents what they thought. Most thought it was a wonderful idea and, more than that, several mothers expressed their (non­Catholic) husband's desire to receive with the family at the same time. At the next meeting, our priest carefully explained what the Church's rules were, and equally clearly and compassionately explained what "some people" (us) felt about shared communion. He ended by saying that each person should decide prayerfully how he or she should in conscience act, but that he felt shared communion was not right. As far as receiving under both kinds was concerned, he was willing to ask the children what they wanted to do. It had become clear that most parents thought their children would wish to receive both bread and wine. 

The request for non­Catholic husbands to receive communion and our priest's explanation of the rules made Richard feel very uncomfortable. Inevitably perhaps, what the priest was saying to us as a couple was at odds with his public statements, and it was unclear how far he actually approved of Richard receiving communion. A further issue was whether Richard, having made himself known as an Anglican in the discussions, would cause problems within the congregation if he received communion in such a public way when other non­Catholic parents had been told fairly explicitly not to do so. Communion under both kinds, which we had deeply wanted, would obviously make him more visible. 

I found myself unable to share Richard's worries, which gave rise to much discussion. However, we worked through these doubts in prayer during the week. Richard came to feel that he could comfortably receive communion after all and, united again, we were able to talk to the children's godparents, mostly interchurch couples, about our priest's position and how we felt. 

The week before the First Communion mass, our priest had the children for a whole day. The theme of the liturgy was to be "The Bread of Life", so they made bread and prepared prayers concerned with feeding the hungry. The whole congregation had been involved in praying for the children; their photographs were displayed and the First Communion mass became a community occasion in a wonderful way, as well as a family and personal one. The twenty­six children did readings, prayers, songs, homily, and the offertory, all up round the altar, participating as fully as possible. The practical problems of offering communion under both kinds to a large congregation had been resolved, and we felt deeply moved and privileged to be there, accompanied by godparents and interchurch friends. It was the next stage in our Christian life as a family. 

What next? 

And yet it had happened all in one church, and we had to determine what we were to do next about our place in the Anglican congregation. Richard was fully involved in the village and I knew I should be, but was reluctant to return to the still (to me) uninspiring worship. Jonathan was about to start at the Catholic secondary school, and was happy to return to the Anglican youth group on Sundays, although few boys of his age remained in it. Laura was beginning to notice that her friends had left the Anglican Sunday school, and as she had made new ones at the Catholic church she felt like staying there. We could surely not split two and two to attend church on Sundays for any length of time. 

Our present pattern is to attend the Saturday evening folk mass together. Our priest and the Sunday school leader, up to now supportive, disapproved of our decision to remove Laura from the Sunday school (Jonathan was too old for it by then), saying that it would make problems with other parents and teachers who felt that we had "used" the Sunday school to "achieve" the First Communions. In a way we had, but this accusation hurt us and made us wish, momentarily, that we had kept our heads down and taken up the suggestion of doing preparation for First Communion at home. 

We are all again regular worshipping members of the Anglican church on Sundays, Laura inviting a friend to come with us. The children communicate in the village when they are present at the full eucharistic service, but only go up for a blessing when they return with the Sunday school just at the end. Most people have not even noticed, but the vicar and some of the congregation have been welcoming. There are positive moves afoot to liven up the Anglican worship, a new family fellowship group has started in the village, and although there will be problems fitting it all in, we look forward with hope. 

When the children were small, alternate weeks' attendance was satisfactory, but not now. Both children are playing in the music group at the Catholic church, a commitment which should be regular. AISO7 the quality of the worship in the Catholic church is such that we feel it important to be regular. The Anglican Sunday school runs a good programme which it would be a pity for the children to attend only part time, and after the experience of Laura's friends dropping out, we have an evangelising role too! We don't know how long the children will be willing to be at church twice at weekends ­ it will presumably depend on how worthwhile they find it, which depends to a large extent on the churches themselves. 

Life as an interchurch family is never going to be "tidy". We have found that it needs evaluating regularly, and above all to be rooted in family prayer and discussion at all stages. We are just about to embark on the teenage years with our children. They may end up lapsed from everything, and we are not assuming that we are immune from those pressures which we see many friends confronting. For us, the two most important elements in nurturing an eventual adult believer are: to bring the child into contact with other committed Christians in as many ways and as intimately as possible; and to povide many opportunities, especially through worship and prayer, for the child to be brought into the presence of God. 

Those are experiences which cannot be denied when our children ultimately have to make their own decisions. 

Melanie Finch