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A View From Both Sides

Mary's story has challenged me to describe from my own perspective how our interchurch family has evolved.

Our respective backgrounds
I am a cradle Catholic, the product of an old-fashioned mixed marriage indeed, of three generations of mixed marriages in Australia. From my earliest years my spiritual growth was nurtured by the institutional church. For this, I am profoundly grateful. My father, who was the non-Catholic parent, was from before his marriage a non-practising Anglican. He regarded the Catholic Church with an amused and sometimes irritated detachment. In my childhood, family religious arguments always had a political or social edge, which is not surprising in a country where working-class Irish Catholics frequently clashed with a powerful Anglo-Protestant establishment.

When Mary and I were courting and rehearsing in our conversations the wonderful years that lay ahead, the one matter which was not negotiable on my part was my Catholic membership and any duties and obligations which that entailed, including the requirement to bring up the children as Catholics.

The spiritual inheritance which Mary brought to our marriage could not have been more different. She provides the sparkle, the spontaneity and the complementary trust in God which seem to me even now the jewels of the Protestant tradition. At the time of our engagement she belonged to no church or formal fellowship, but she was supported by a network of friends who shared the Evangelical faith to which she became attached as a young adult. She had been brought up in the Presbyterian Church. I feel that her idea of the institutional church was and still is very different from mine, and is more in the nature of a resource to be used when needed.

Having met in Canada and completed our preparatory instruction with a fairly unbending young priest in Vancouver, we were married in Mary's home town, Leeds, by an elderly Irish priest whose attitude was very different from his Canadian counterpart. At the time, I put this down to the happy ecumenical spirit which was abroad in England and which found an echo in the gentle tolerance of Mary's family, especially her father who was an Elder of the Presbyterian church.

Early in our marriage I met the most influential of Mary's evangelical friends. These are good people - strong, austere, Scottish Bible Christians - but their opinion of the Catholic Church was (and is) so venomous that I was quite taken aback. It was nothing like the comparatively mild prejudice that I had encountered elsewhere.

The first few years of our marriage saw a pattern of religious observance develop in our family which I described at the time as being Catholic in public and Protestant in private. We had different beliefs regarding, for example, the Eucharist, and Mary had no desire to receive Communion at a Catholic Mass. I was prepared to accompany her to Protestant services, but Mary only infrequently attended.

Back in Australia
A short time after settling back in Australia, I found myself in a parish with a most unusual parish priest. He was a married man with a family, having previously been an Anglican priest. Previously I was quite unaware that to those whose ecclesiology springs from the Reformation, like Mary, the blanket prohibition of priests marrying tends to make them sometimes threatening and less understanding of women's needs. So now she was able to speak to a Catholic priest she liked and respected and who liked and respected her. For my part, he encouraged me to acknowledge with greater emphasis the special charisms of her Protestant traditions, such as the high place given to the study of Scripture, and to avoid defending the indefensible in my own. During his ministry, Mary would sometimes come to Mass with me and our four very small children, and after some discussion with him she accepted his suggestion that she receive Communion. She rarely attended any other service, but developed a most fruitful prayer relationship with another mother of four who was a member of a neighbouring Anglican parish.

After some years, the Catholic priest was replaced by a man more in the traditional mOUld, quite uninterested in ecumenism. Mary continued to receive Communion whenever she accompanied me to Mass and I encouraged her in this. I also dissuaded her from confronting the new priest, since I knew he would simply ask her not to receive Communion. I felt justified in pursuing this level of insubordination because I was aware of our converging Eucharistic beliefs and because I felt that our family's pastoral care should not rest simply on the vagaries of clerical appointments.

Schooling for our children
It had always been my intention and our joint understanding that our children should go to Catholic schools. There are three school systems in Australia. The State system derives from various Education Acts dating from the 1880s when free compulsory and secular education was introduced. The Catholic system caters for about one-fifth of the student population and more or less parallels the State system. It dates from the same era and was built up without any government assistance. The third system comprises high fee-paying schools run by Protestant churches for a socially elite clientele somewhat on the model of the English public schools. Serious, committed Catholics would occasionally send their children to State schools on the grounds that they were breaking out of the ghetto, or that any school fees undermined their egalitarian principles, but almost never to Protestant schools. We decided to do just that for our girls.

Mary had expressed a longing to pass on, especially to her daughters, the knowledge and love of the great Protestant hymns which mean so much to her. She felt that this eould be done by sending our eldest, Jenny, to Penrhos College, a Uniting Church school reasonably close by. I was persuaded more by the intensity of her feelings than anything else. For me, music is on the periphery of my faith. With Mary it is nearer the centre. The principal of Jenny's new school was an ordained clergyman with broad awareness of the ecumenical scene and he understood the significance of my decision.

Sharing communion
Mary's growing discomfiture with what she increasingly felt to be a subversive participation in Mass whenever she came with me reached a head when she wrote to the Catholic Archbishop explaining her hurt at how she was being treated by the Church. I wrote too in support of her. During our interview we were granted permission to receive Communion in each other's church. By now Mary increasingly described herself as an Anglican. I was amazed. I had never in my wildest dreams expected to be able to receive Anglican Communion with the blessing of my own Church. It was at this time that we became aware of the AIF and in particular the book surveying couples' experiences of intercommunion was most helpful in putting our case. The Archbishop recognised that Mary had no wish to become a Catholic, or to be seen as one, nor I to cease being one, and for this reason recommended that intercommunion be kept for special occasions.

The Church - one and diverse
The publication of the final statement of ARCIC I was an event of the utmost significance for me. Following its release, informal grass roots discussions were held throughout Australia, including one discussion group which met in our home. It is important for an understanding of the nature of our family's interchurch challenge to explain that for Mary ARCIC meant almost nothing. For her, the Church is the local community of believers who think along similar lines. This decisively congregationalist outlook introduces a wonderful asymmetry to our relationship. My church includes all the Borgias, the Mafia and sundry local reprobates, a powerful organisation with evil tendencies. Mary's church consists only of people she knows well, or whose integrity she can vouch for. Her church is welcoming and friendly. Mine is remote and forbidding. I love Mary's church, but I love my own too even as I acknowledge its reprobates, for I feel the power of its sanctity stretching back through the ages to the time when Our Lord walked by the shores of Galilee.

To me, one of the noblest themes of the AIF literature is the idea that interchurch families, by their very existence, challenge the Churches to break new ground in ecumenical dialogue. Mary does not identify with this struggle, since to her the universal Church is either an unrealistic abstraction, or a merely human organisation which has always been rent by division and discord, fuelled by ambition and cupidity. But she does identify with that other great theme of the suffering family whose hurt is imposed from without by churches demanding a destructive and sectarian loyalty, trampling over the inner loyalties of the family. Since her church, by its very nature, makes no demands. the villain once again is the Catholic Church.

From my point of view, our family situation is very much a microcosm of the whole Church. How do we reconcile Christian freedom with Christian faithfulness? Is the Church a community of believers, or a believing community? Does God speak primarily to individuals, or through the community? Which community? Is our marriage, our domestic church, sanctified by the sacrament conferred by the larger Church, or does this wider Church only receive legitimacy through our participation? Is faith an objective reality grounded in history, or an inner spiritual feeling? And, finally, must these questions be couched as ORs, or could they be ANDs?

What next?
I am sure that our situation is not unique, but it is certainly different from the usual case histories dealt with in AIF literature where one spouse is Catholic and the other strongly bonded to the Anglican Church or one of the Free Churches. In our case, Mary, as the non-Catholic partner, is strongly attached to no one denomination, although she is currently a member of a particular congregation which happens to be Anglican. I feel we could go forward along one of two paths.

Mary's identification with the Anglican church might grow, which could lead to some exciting developments including a joint confirmation of Elisabeth, our only unconfirmed child. ; She would have to be willing, and the Catholic and Anglican bishops would have to be persuaded to do something that has probably never happened in Perth before. As things are at present, I don't think Mary could see the point in battling with ecclesiastic authorities to overcome a division which is scandalous to her only in so far as it impinges on individual freedom. There are other ways round that.

Another way forward is for us somehow to combine Catholic faithfulness with Protestant freedom. Essentially this is what we have been trying to do all along, but on one level these are simply direct opposites which can draw us away from commitment towards conflict.

In the meantime we look forward to our 25th wedding anniversary, in November 1995, which we hope we shall be able to celebrate in a suitably ecumenical way. Please pray for us.

This article is taken from the Summer 1993 issue of The Journal.