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This article was posted in the summer 1994 issue of  The Journal.

Admission to communion in the Roman Catholic Church
for partners in Interchurch Families 

The provisions of the directory for the application of principles and norms on ecumenism, issued by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian unity, 1993 

PART ONE: A change in the law and clarification on how the law can be applied to Interchurch Families

Recently, having moved into a new Catholic diocese, I was re-commissioned as a special minister of the eucharist. Before we were commissioned our bishop set the present-day need for lay eucharistic ministers in its historical context 

It takes a long time 

When church historians look back at the twentieth century, he said, they might well call it "the century of communion". At the beginning of the century Catholics received communion rarely - maybe three times a year. Then Pope Pius X spoke of communion as "our daily bread", and also said that children should be able to receive communion as soon as they could understand that it is the Body of Christ: that is, communion should be received early and often - even daily. But there was little change for a long time. (When the bishop was young, he joined the Guild of the Blessed Sacrament which worked hard to encourage people to receive communion once a month, at that time, nobody except the clergy ever received communion at the mid-morning sung mass.) Later Pope Pius XII realised that the fasting rules hindered frequent communion, and the process of relaxing the rules began. (The bishop said that when as a newly-ordained priest he gave his mother permission to drink a cup of tea before his first mass, and still take communion, the parish priest had not been entirely happy about it.) It took a long time before large numbers began receiving communion at all masses; when they did, and especially after Vatican II reintroduced communion under both kinds for the laity, then special ministers were needed. 

Pastoral and liturgical change takes a long time. It is not surprising therefore that admission to communion for interchurch families has taken a long time - almost thirty years between the Decree on Ecumenism of the Second Vatican Council and the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism issued in 1993. 

Vatican II on sacramental sharing This is what the Second Vatican Council said in 1964 about sacramental sharing: As for communicatio in sacris, however, it may not be regarded as a means to be used indiscriminately for the restoration of unity among Christians. Such communicatio in sacris depends chiefly on two principles. it should signify the unity of the church, it should provide a sharing in the means of grace. The fac~that it should signify unity generally rules out communicatio in sacris. Yet the gaining of a needed grace sometimes commends it. The practical course to be adopted, after due regard has been given to all the circumstances of time, place and personage, is left to the prudent decision of the local episcopal authority, unless the Bishops' Conference according to its own statutes, or the Holy See, has determined otherwise. (Decree on Ecumenism, n.8) 

In the longer perspective outlined above, it seems unsurprising that it has taken a long time for the Vatican II statement on sacramental sharing quoted here to bring about the kind of change in the rules on admission to communion (so important for interchurch families) that we see in the 1993 Directory. Nor is it surprising that there are those (like the reluctant parish priest quoted above) who are hesitant to accept that a new pastoral policy is possible, even desirable, more than thirty years later. 

Because the new Directory is very little known yet, either among Roman Catholics or in other churches, it seems important to set it in its historical context and in particular to study exactly how it has changed the situation, especially since some people are saying that it has changed nothing. 

The norms of the Code of Canon Law It is of course perfectly true to say that the Directory has not changed the substance of the norms laid down in the Code of Canon Law (1983); it is a Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism, and what it has done is to clarify the application of those norms. 

We refer here in particular to canon 844, which sets down the rule that Catholic ministers may lawfully administer the sacraments only to Catholic members of Christ's faithful, who equally may lawfully receive them only from Catholic ministers, and then goes on to deal with the exceptions. 

The exceptions: Catholics in need may lawfully receive the sacraments of penance, the eucharist and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose churches these sacraments are valid; and Catholic ministers may lawfully administer these sacraments to members of the eastern churches not in full communion with the Catholic Church if they spontaneously ask for them and are properly disposed. 

However, for members of non-eastern churches there are stricter conditions: If there is a danger of death or if, in the judgement of the diocesan Bishop or the Episcopal Conference, there is some other grave or pressing need, Catholic ministers may lawfully administer these same sacraments to other Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church, who cannot approach a minister of their own community and who spontaneously ask for them, provided that they demonstrate the Catholic faith in respect of these sacraments and are properly disposed.

In all these cases the diocesan Bishop or the Episcopal Conference is not to issue general norms except after consultation with the competent authority, at least at the local level, of the non-Catholic church or community concerned. 

Between the Council and the Code 

The Ecumenical Directory of 1967, issued by the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, made the first attempt to express in terms of law what the principles laid down in the conciliar Decree on Ecumenism might mean in practice, so far as western Christians are concerned (n.55). It allowed access to the sacraments in danger of death or in urgent need (during persecution, in prisons) if the separated brother has no access to a minister of his own community and spontaneously asks a Catholic priest for the sacraments -so long as he declares a faith in those sacraments in harmony with that of the church, and is rightly disposed. In other cases the judge of this urgent necessity must be the diocesan bishop or the Episcopal Conference. A Catholic in similar circumstances may not ask for these sacraments except from a minister who has been validly ordained.

In the mid-sixties some bishops (notably in Italy) had already given permission for a non-Catholic partner to receive communion at a wedding mass, and the Dutch Episcopal Conference judged, in the year following the appearance of the 1967 Ecumenical Directory, that a wedding mass was an occasion which came into the category of the Directory's "urgent necessity". (For full documentation on eucharistic sharing in the period between Vatican II and the publication of the Code of Canon Law, see the Appendix to Sharing Communion, edited by Melanie Finch and Ruth Reardon, Collins, 1983, pp. 105-42 - out of print, but still available from AIF.) 

It was not long, however, before warnings came from the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity against extending the "urgent necessity" of the 1967 Directory too widely, and the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales quoted these in its 1970 Directory concerning Mixed Marriages, in order to justify its statement that "at present intercommunion is not allowed on the occasion of a mixed marriage". 

"For a prolonged period"

Two years later the Instruction Concerning Particular Cases when other Christians may be admitted to Eucharistic Communion in the Catholic Church, issued by the Secretariat on the authority of Pope Paul VI in 1972, sent a mixed message to interchurch families. On the one hand, "urgent need" became "serious spiritual need", defined as "a need for an increase in spiritual life and a need for a deeper involvement in the mystery of the church and its unity" (which seemed to express very well the kind of need felt by a number of interchurch couples and families to receive communion together), and it was stressed that Catholic bishops had "fairly wide discretionary power" in admitting other Christians to communion. On the other hand, a clause was slipped in which qualified the inability to have access to another minister; those could be admitted to communion who experience a serious spiritual need and who for a prolonged period are unable to have recourse to a minister of their own community. Not all bishops took this clause literally, and at least two, the Bishop of Strasbourg and the Bishop of Superior, Wisconsin used the wide discretionary powers allowed them by the June 1972 Instruction to indicate that they would admit the non-Catholic partner in an interchurch family to communion on certain occasions. But once again these initiatives were frowned upon by the Secretariat; in an Interpretative Note of October 1973 it repeated the conditions for admission laid down (including the words "for a prolonged period") and observed that so far as admission to communion is concerned, "an objective, pastorally responsible examination does not allow any of the conditions to be ignored". 

The Note was a great disappointment to interchurch families. Following the initiatives of the Bishops of Strasbourg and Superior, which had seemed to them so hopeful, such stress on the need to observe all the conditions laid down in the Instruction seemed to interchurch families to imply that the words "for a prolonged period" effectively excluded the other Christian partner in an interchurch family from admission to Catholic communion. 

The Synod of Bishops

Interchurch families continued to lay their serious spiritual need before church authorities, and in some places admission of the other partner to Catholic communion on an informal basis went ahead. 

It was not until 1980, however, that there seemed to be much movement on an official level. Interchurch families were heartened in 1980 by a powerful speech made by Cardinal Willebrands, President of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, to the Synod of Bishops which met in Rome that autumn to consider the subject of marriage and family life. 

Cardinal Willebrands addressed the Synod on the topic of "Mixed Marriages and their Christian Families". In the course of his address he spoke of the need experienced in mixed families for eucharistic sharing, and he spoke too of the dialogue with other churches and ecclesial communities which had considered the doctrine of the eucharist and of the church, and the relationship between the mystery of the eucharist and that of the church. 

Christian life in marriage and in the education of children can lead towards unity, he said; therefore he wished to ask for a fresh study of the possibility of admitting the non-Catholic partners in mixed marriages to eucharistic communion in the Catholic Church. The 1972 Instruction had recognised the possibility of such admission so long as a number of conditions are fulfilled. The Cardinal listed them: "It is required that the non-Catholic Christian should profess a eucharistic faith in conformity with that of the Catholic Church; that he should should ask for communion of his own accord; and that he should experience a real need for this sacrament", and added: "It seems to me that these conditions are often fulfilled in mixed marriages." The following two sentences were crucial: "But there is a fourth condition: it is required that the non-Catholic Christian be unable for a prolonged period to have recourse to a minister of his own church. To my mind this condition is less closely connected with eucharistic doctrine and faith." 

It was a clear indication that the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity judged that the time had come for a new initiative on eucharistic sharing in interchurch families.

The question was not explicitly taken up by the Bishops at the Synod, but the Cardinal's words seemed to have had considerable effect when the new Code of Canon Law was published in 1983. To the joy of interchurch families the words "for a prolonged period" had been dropped.

The application of the norms of the Code

The dropping of the words "for a prolonged period" seemed very significant for interchurch families, since their need is to receive communion together, and the availability of another minister somewhere else is not relevant. 

Over the following ten years the way has been open for Catholic bishops to apply the "grave and pressing need" referred to in the Code to the situation of interchurch families, when other Christian partners "cannot approach a minister of their own community" precisely because their need is to receive communion on this occasion, at this mass, with their Catholic partner. It is the need of the couple as such that has been recognised, and a growing number of bishops have realised that they do have the authority to admit the other Christian partner in an interchurch marriage to communion, and have been willing to exercise it when convinced that the need of interchurch families to receive communion together is indeed "grave and pressing". 

The 1993 Directory makes it quite clear that their interpretation is correct. It specifically refers to mixed marriages in the context of admission to communion. It is clear that communion can be given at the wedding (n.159) and other "exceptional sharing" is envisaged (n.160). The Directory is not changing the substance of the norms in canon law, but showing how they can be applied. 

There should be no room for the argument which still says: "But they can approach a minister of their own community - there are plenty around." It would be nonsense to say that another minister is available on the wedding day, once it is recognised that the need is to receive communion together at the wedding. It is the same with other exceptional occasions. After all, mixed marriages usually take place in regions where other ministers are available; numbers of mixed marriages in totally Catholic regions would be negligible, already covered by the unavailability of a minister, and simply not worth mentioning in the Directory.

This understanding is confirmed by what was said at the press conference in Rome which introduced the new Directory. Mgr Eleuterio Fortino, undersecretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU), said that while the Directory cannot and did not expand the possibilities presented by canon law, it is saying: "Apply the norms, but in a benevolent way." The secretary of the PCPCU, Bishop Pierre Duprey, commented that "If two people share ties of communion not only in baptism, but also the ties of another sacrament, that of matrimony, this opens the way to other prospects." 

This point has been laboured because admission to communion is so important for so many interchurch families. Of course bishops are not obliged to admit to communion, but they should no longer say that they cannot do so. It is important that it should be recognised by those who administer the law and by the whole Catholic community that there has been a change in the law (following Vatican II) and that the new rules on admission to communion can be applied to interchurch families.

Who is to decide when this is done?

The Directory states that it is strongly recommended that the diocesan Bishop, taking into account any norms . . . established . . . by the Episcopal Conference . . .. establish general norms for judging situations of grave and pressing need". Canon law has already stated that these general norms are to be established only after consultation with at least the local competent authority of the other interested church or ecclesial community.

There is a new provision giving guidance to Catholic ministers: they will judge individual cases and administer these sacraments only in accord with these established norms, where they exist. Otherwise they will judge according to the norms of this Directory (n.130). 

The following section repeats the conditions: the sacraments may be administered to a baptised person in the circumstances referred to above (n. 130) if that person be unable to have recourse for the sacrament desired to a minister of his or her own church or ecclesial community, ask for the sacrament of his or her own initiative, manifest Catholic faith in this sacrament and be properly disposed.

PART TWO: The reasoning behind the change

It is important to understand how the change in the law and the clarification of its application to interchurch families has taken place without compromising Catholic principles. Thus it is necessary to study the reasoning with which the 1993 Directory introduces its section on "Sharing Sacramental Life with Christians of other Churches and Ecclesial Communities" (n. 129). There is a considerable development here from the short passage in which the Decree on Ecumenism set down the "two principles" (quoted above) on which sacramental sharing is to be based. To understand this we need to go back over the ground we have already covered and look at the stages of development from this point of view. 

The 1964 Decree The passage on sacramental sharing in the Decree on Ecumenism was both startlingly new and very brief. Inevitably there was a great deal of confusion about what it could mean. One of the problems with its formulation was its use of the word "means". It could be argued (and was so argued) that the Decree was entering into the debate on "intercommunion"; that "intercommunion" could be seen as a means to be used (with discrimination) for the restoration of Christian unity, that the "means of grace" includes the "grace of unity", so sacramental sharing can sometimes be a means to unity. This was felt by many Roman Catholics to be a threat to the Catholic understanding of the Church. 

The 1967 Ecumenical Directory Three years later the Ecumenical Directory practically reseated the Decree, but there was a significant change in its use of the word "sources" to replace "means": Since the sacraments are both signs of unity and sources of grace the church can, for adequate reasons, allow access to these sacraments to a separated brother (n.SS). This was already a clear attempt to get away from the argument about the eucharist as a " sign of " unity and a "means to" unity. 

The 1972 Instruction

The 1972 Instruction on Admission to Communion moved away altogether from the "two principles" of the 1964 Decree by speaking of one "principle" but of two "governing ideas" which would safeguard simultaneously the integrity of ecclesial communion and the good of souls (n.4). 

The "principle" (the first "governing idea") was set out first: (a) The strict relationship between the mystery of the church and the mystery of the eucharist can never be altered, whatever pastoral measures we may be led to take in given cases. Of its very nature celebration of the eucharist signifies the fullness of profession offaith and the fullness of ecclesial communion. This principle must not be obscured and must remain our guide in this field.

The second "governing idea" was then presented as in no way obscuring this "principle": (b) The principle will not be obscured if admission to Catholic eucharistic communion is confined to particular cases of those Christians who have a faith in the sacrament in conformity with that of the church, who experience a serious spiritual need for the eucharistic sustenance, who for a prolonged period are unable to have recourse to a minister of their own community and who ask for the sacrament of their own accord; all this provided that they have proper dispositions and lead lives worthy of a Christian. This spiritual need should be understood in the sense defined above: a needfor an increase in spiritual life and a needfor a deeper involvement in the mystery of the church and its unity.

The 1972 Instruction seemed to imply that the "two principles" of the 1964 Decree were not to be taken on the same level. The first was the true Catholic "principle"; the second was not to be placed on the same ecclesial level (as had sometimes been argued on the basis of the Decree). In the light of the Instruction the "means of grace" was to be referred to the spiritual needs of Christians cut off from the ministrations of their own churches - a pastoral provision rather than an ecclesial principle. 

The 1993 Ecumenical Directory

The new Directory represents a considerable development in its explanation of why the Catholic Church judges that this sacramental sharing is not generally possible but is sometimes to be commended (n.129). The same concern as that expressed in the 1972 Instruction, that church and eucharist should not be separated, comes across in the 1993 Directory. The fact that the eucharist is both "sign" and "source" (and means) of unity becomes a single principle: A sacrament is an act of Christ and of the Church through the Spirit. Its celebration in a concrete community is the sign of the reality of its unity in faith, worship and community life. As well as being signs, sacraments - most specially the eucharist - are sources of the unity of the Christian community and of spiritual life, and are means for building them up. Thus eucharistic communion is inseparably linked to full ecclesial communion and its visible expression. 

Baptism and eucharist 

Then a second, different sacramental principle is introduced: At the same time, the Catholic Church teaches that by baptism members of other churches and ecclesial communities are brought into a real, even if imperfect communion with the Catholic Church and that "baptism, which constitutes the sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are reborn . . . is wholly directed toward the acquiring offullness of life in Christ". The eucharist is, for the baptised, a spiritual food which enables them to overcome sin and to live the very life of Christ, to be incorporated more profoundly in him and share more intensely in the whole economy of the mystery of Christ.

This paragraph has introduced a second ecclesial principle: the fact that Christian baptism - wherever it is celebrated - is "wholly directed" to full ecclesial communion. 

The section concludes: It is in the light of these two basic principles, which must always be taken into account together, that in general the Catholic Church permits access to its eucharistic communion and to the sacraments of penance and anointing of the sick, only to those who share its oneness in faith, worship and ecclesial life. For the same reasons, it also recognises that in certain circumstances, by way of exception, and under certain conditions, access to these sacraments may be permitted, or even commended, for Christians of other churches and ecclesial communities (n. 129). 

PART THREE: The spiritual needs of the couple andfamily

I began this study with our bishop's historical introduction explaining the relatively recent need to commission special ministers of the eucharist. Another element in the "century of communion" which historians will mention (but which the bishop didn't as it wasn't relevant to his purpose) is the rediscovery of the corporate nature of communion. At the beginning of the twentieth century individual Catholics were encouraged to make their individual communions - a "God and me" perspective. The liturgical movement has emphasised that the community is united in communion - a corporate perspective which says that "we are in communion with God and with one another". This has particular importance for interchurch families. When the Catholic Church emphasises the corporate nature of communion for the local congregation, it also emphasises the importance of the family, the domestic church, receiving communion together. 

A corporate perspective

As interchurch families, like other Christian families, are influenced by this perspective, so they increasingly feel their need, as a domestic church, to receive communion together and so to affirm sacramentally their unity as couples and families in Christ. 

It is perhaps difficult for those not personally involved to understand the depth of this need. Sometimes a reaction which goes beyond pain - a kind of spiritual outrage at the fundamental wrongness of it which seems to go to the depths of one's being - wells up in interchurch partners when refused communion together. It might happen on the occasion of the First Communion of a child whom both partners have nurtured in the love of Christ; it might happen at Christmas or at Easter or on a wedding anniversary. It often takes a lot of courage for couples to ask for admission to communion; the sense of rejection if refused is difficult to put into words. However, their spiritual need has come to be recognised over the years by some bishops and other pastors who have done all that they could within the limits of the possibilities open to them to minister to the needs of such families. 

United in baptism and marriage 

The needs of these families have never entirely fitted into the perspective of individual Christians cut off from the ministers of their own communities. In their case, it has not been just a question of the needs of an individual. Cardinal Willebrands recognised this when he made his speech to the Synod of Bishops in 1980 when he put forward the need of the couple to receive communion together. 

His first appeal was to baptism and to the sacramental union of two baptised Christians: "The Church teaches that every valid marriage between baptised persons is a true sacrament which gives rise to a certain communion of spiritual benefits.... It can be said of the marriage of two Christians who have been baptised in different churches, as it is of a marriage between two Catholics, that their union is a true sacrament and gives rise to a 'domestic church'; that the partners are called to a unity which reflects the union of Christ with the Church; that the family, as a family, is bound to bear witness before the world, a witness based on that 'spiritual union . . . which is founded on a common faith and hope, and works through love'. Thus 'the family itself, as a little church, is somehow called in a similar way to the Church itself, to become a sign of unity for the world"' (here the Cardinal is quoting from the Synod's working paper). 

The Cardinal went on to speak of the need felt by interchurch partners to receive communion together: "Spiritual communion, an outstanding feature in many mixed families, eventually affects even sacramental life and prompts the partners to ask permission to approach the Holy Eucharist together. For this is a moment at which they keenly feel their division, and also feel keenly their need of the spiritual nourishment that is the eucharist." He set this felt need against the background of the dialogue taking place with other churches and ecclesial communities on the doctrine of the eucharist and the church, and of the relationship between the mystery of the eucharist and that of the church - a dialogue "not yet complete, but the differences seem to be less". It was in this context that he made his statement about the "fourth condition . . . that the non-Catholic Christian be unable for a prolonged period to have recourse to a minister of his own church . . . is less closely connected with eucharistic doctrine and faith." 

Official eucharistic sharing for interchurch families 

As we have seen, in dropping the fourth condition (or rather, the phrase "for a prolonged period" within it) the Code of Canon Law left the wav oDen for the concept of "spiritual need" to be applied to interchurch families as families, and it has been acknowledged that some bishops and pastors have already done this. 

The 1993 Directory has confirmed this application at the level of the universal church. 

It is in its section on mixed marriages that the Directory specifically refers to the possibility of the non-Catholic partner sharing communion at the wedding - the decision on this must take into account the particular situation of the reception of the sacrament of Christian marriage by two baptized persons (n. 159). There is also the general statement which explains that although the spouses in a mixed marriage share the sacraments of baptism and marriage, eucharistic sharing can only be exceptional (n. 160). Here the focus is not just on the needs of an individual, but (as Cardinal Willebrands had asked in 1980) on the needs of the couple. Of course interchurch families feel an on-going week-by-week need to share communion, but it is a great sign of hope that it is now clearly allowable (and indeed commendable) for Catholic pastors to meet this need on occasion. 

We should not underestimate the magnitude of the step which has been taken by the 1993 Directory with reference to interchurch families. It is still a question of the admission of an individual Christian from another church to Catholic communion, as allowed in canon law. But the context is one of a baptised couple united by the sacrament of Christian marriage - a couple and family already experiencing Christian unity as a "domestic church" and needing to affirm and build up their corporate unity in Christ, as "a sign of unity for the world". 

Some interchurch families in their particular situation and with their particular needs, and those who have ministered to them in those needs, have made use of the concepts of "going beyond the law, not going against it" and "anticipatory obedience" for a long time - but an adaptive pastoral approach and the acceptance of personal responsibility for one's actions are in anticipation of a change in law, not a substitute for it. Others would in any case think it wrong to change their practice before the law changes. 

Law is not the most important level of the church's life, but it is nonetheless important. Changes in the law and its application express deeper changes in understanding and attitudes - and they also contribute to such changes. We can rejoice wholeheartedly, then, in the change in the law and in its application which has taken place in the past ten years.

Fears and dangers

Many interchurch partners have consistently put forward their deep spiritual need to share communion, and it has been their duty and responsibility to do so for the good of their families. But it is also necessary for them to understand the fears which will make some people continue to be resistant to such change. Whatever our own personal attitudes to "intercommunion" in the general sense, it is very important to be able to understand the Catholic fear of "obscuring the relationship between the mystery of the church and the mystery of the eucharist" - after all, a strong sense of this relationship is one of the positive contributions which the Catholic Church makes within the whole ecumenical movement. 

With every change for the better there are corresponding dangers. The bishop referred to earlier turned to consider these as he ended his historical survey. Of course it is good that people come frequently to communion, and that they receive communion under both kinds; they should be encouraged to do so. But he quoted the old adage that "familiarity breeds contempt", and exhorted us as eucharistic ministers to try by our actions and words to do all we could to preserve the proper respect for the eucharistic species. The parish priest mentioned above was presumably influenced by the fear that, if you allowed people to drink a cup of tea before receiving communion, their proper respect for the sacrament would be eroded; thus he was hesitatant over the relaxation of the rules on fasting before communion. 

In a country where there are many mixed marriages there is a fear of "opening the floodgates", and although this does not justify the witholding of much-needed spiritual nourishment from interchurch families, it is a fear which is understandable. There is also a fear of hindering, rather than helping forward, the ecumenical movement as a whole. This was expressed by the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales in its reply to the National Pastoral Congress in 1980: Concern forfamilies where the parents are of different churches led Congress delegates to ask not for "intercommunion" but that non-Catholic partners whose eucharistic faith agrees with that of the Catholic Church might on certain occasions be welcomed to receive holy communion.... In our present circumstances it is necessary to realise that it could be counterproductive to use what is the perfect symbol of unity achieved as a means of achieving it. This could defer indefinitely the full corporate union for which we all pray. We keep this delicate matter under review, but, while fully sensitive to the pain such exclusion can cause, we are unable to compromise these principles.

At the time it seemed puzzling - and indeed intensely disappointing - that the "at present intercommunion is not allowed" of 1970 had become "we are unable to compromise these principles" in 1980. In the longer perspective of this study, it is less puzzling. It is clear that what is really alarming from the Catholic point of view is the sort of pressure towards "intercommunion" which would leave the denominations as they are. We need to realise that there will be lingering fears and anxieties, even though the theological reasoning set out in the 1993 Directory, as well as its reassurance that the need for eucharistic sharing in an interchurch family can legitimately be met on occasion, now offers a way forward. 

Something which interchurch families can do is to be careful of their terminology, realising that the use of certain terms arouses quite unnecessary fears. Thus we can agree that "intercommunion" is not a particularly helpful term to use; it can be gratuitously offensive to some people and can obscure what interchurch families are talking about when they ask for admission to communion as couples and as families. 

"Intercommunion" is strictly speaking a word to be used for a relationship between churches. Nor is it helpful to talk of eucharistic sharing in terms of a " sign of " or a "means to" unity; this can only polarise a debate which has largely passed beyond that kind of terminology. Admission to communion for interchurch families is a pastoral measure for the good of the couple and family. Certainly it is a pastoral measure which is made possible in the context of a developing relationship between the churches, but it does not weaken the witness of the Catholic Church to the strong link between the mystery of the church and the mystery of the eucharist. 

Hope for the future

Living in an interchurch family gives plenty of opportunity for the development of sensitivity to the concerns and fears of the "other" church. 

Remarkable evidence of how this has happened in one family can be seen in the video recently made by the Association of Interchurch Families. There is an interview with a couple where the husband is a Roman Catholic and the wife is an elder in the United Reformed Church. Their local Catholic bishop has admitted this United Reformed wife and mother to communion on the occasion of her elder son's First Communion. She is asked how she will feel in the future when she is not able to receive communion with her family. This is her reply. 

"I think I shall feel a great sense of hope. It sounds unusual to say that, but this was a very special occasion. The bishop made it clear to us that this was a special occasion and he was in no position to be able to offer communion to me on every single occasion. I understand that. Of course we would like to think that we will be able to go on and receive communion in other situations of pastoral need - and we would like to create lots of situations of pastoral need for that to happen. But I don't look forward with great pessimism. I look forward with optimism to a growing towards each other, and an understanding not just from the Catholic Church's point of view, but from the Protestant churches' point of view that there is a lot more to this than just saying, 'yes, you can share communion'. We've got a long road to travel down and we've got to walk along it together, and there are lots of other issues that we need to share - as well as First Communions and sharing communion - in the future." 

Ruth Reardon 

There is to be no harsh uniformity of discipline which would refuse exceptions even when these are possible and desirable. 

From Directory concerning Mixed Marriages by the Episcopal Conference of England and Wales, 1970.