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This article was published in the January 1997 issue of The Journal.

Interchurch Families - Hope for the Churches

 A French Perspective


Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the situation of interchurch couples (Roman Catholic/Protestant. reflecting French society) was painful. Either Catholic partners who didn't marry in the Catholic church were excommunicated, or Protestant partners had to put in writing that they would have their children baptised and educated in the Catholic Church.

In the early 1960s the first interchurch couples began meeting in Lyon. None of the churches was yet prepared to recognise their specific identity as couples in which each partner is faithful to his/her own church and also wants to share the spiritual richness of her/his partner's community to enhance communion. They were joined by Pastor Henry Bruston and the Dominican priest Rene Beaupere, who listened to what the couples had to say and learned a lot.

As interchurch couples shared their difficulties and their joys, three main themes emerged: the spiritual life of the couple, their relations with their parishes, and the Christian education of their children. At the end of 1964, they decided to share their experiences with others in a document which they named the LYall Charter. Several other groups of interchurch couples and families came into being in France and French-speaking Switzerland, and the Charter was translated into English by the World Council of Churches and used for a consultation on mixed marriages in 1966.

Then the first interconfessional documents appeared; one was produced in Switzerland (1967) by the Protestant, Catholic and Old Catholic churches. In France Catholics and Protestants worked on a common text (1968): Pastorale cOlnmune des/byers mixtes. Revised in detail, it was published as the official Recommandations de l'Eglise Catholique et des Eglises Lutheriennes et Retormees de France.

Couples began meeting in groups all over France and Frenchspeaking Switzerland; because they wanted to share their experiences, from October 1968 the bulletin Foyers AJixtes was published three times a year in Lyon. (The first number appeared in the same year that the Association of Interchurch Families was founded in England.)

A very important development in the history of interchurch marriage was the motu proprio of Pope Paul VI, Matrimonia Mixta (March 1970). It gave a canonical framework and left the bishops to apply it. The bishop's dispensation remained a requirement for mixed marriages; it was given for a "reasonable cause" on two conditions: that the Catholic partner declared that he/she sincerely promised to do everything possible to have children of the marriage baptised and educated in the Roman Catholic Church.  This was a step forward; the Catholic no longer had to guarantee to educate the children of the marriage as Catholics, but "do everything possible" for it.

There was the disappointment that marriages taking place outside the Roman Catholic Church were not recognised by the Catholic Church unless a dispensation was obtained from the diocesan bishop (not, as in the past, from the Pope). However, the bishop was allowed to recognise a marriage which had not been celebrated in the Catholic church retrospectively, by a sanatio in radice. That meant that the local bishop took a more important part in decisions it was a fonn of decentralisation which gave opportunities for local initiatives. In France it led to the Nouvelles dispositions pour les dioceses de France (1970), a big step forward in ecumenical relations. This was followed shortly afterwards by Nouvelles recommandations, prepared by the Protestant members of the Comite rnixte catholique-protestant de France, and by other documents from Switzerland, Belgium and Germany, texts which are still authoritative today.

In France the driving force for ecumenical celebrations of bapti5m came from interchurch couples themselves their experience and achievement played an important role in the Mixed Committee's Note sur La celCbration oecumenique du bapteme (1975). This extended practices already used in Lyon and Paris throughout France. Baptism, like marriage, can be celebrated with the active participation of both Christian communities and both ministers, Catholic and Protestant. It is not a concelebration, in the sense that the ministers do not concelebrate the actual act of baptism, but several options are suggested for sharing the readings, sermon, prayers, and so on.

These baptisms can be recorded in the registers of both parishes, Catholic and Protestant. Obviously, theologically speaking, there is only one baptism which is ecumenical in the sense that it is valid for all Cluistians, and only one minister is necessary. But for many interchurch couples the visible of double belonging are important

Children are encouraged to be familiar with the church communities of both parents. Up to the age of 12, the syllabus is mostly Bible-based, with (sometimes) doctrine classes for teenagers. Since 1975 an annual meeting has been organised by the Centre St Irenee in Lyon for catechists, interchurch families, pastors and priests to share their experiences. 1992 they could state that some points have been definitively established. The results of the main bilateral dialogues have been agreed, and ecumenical education is to be introduced at parish level. It is necessary to encourage it more in denominational schools, and to replicate the ecumenical centres of Geneva and Neuchatel elsewhere. A discussion point remains the age of First Communion/Confirmation, which is not uniform; however, this difference can be very fruitful!

Eucharistic hospitality
The burning ecumenical question is common participation at the eucharist.

Admission to communion is more difficult for the Catholic and Orthodox Churches than for other Christian communities. Of course, nowadays Protestant paltners are in many cases allowed by the relevant authorities to receive the Catholic eucharist if their belief about that eucharist is essentially that of the Catholic partner. The reverse presents a problem, because of difficulties about the total mutual recognition of ministries. The courageous position taken by Bishop Elchinger of Strasbourg, France, in 1972 allowed the possibility of eucharistic hospitality for interchurch couples, because the spiritual unity of the couple is more important than ecclesiastical differences. The local Reformed and Lutheran authorities answered positively, but within Catholicism, even in France. there was not yet unanimity. However, in 1983 the French Commission episcopate pour l'unite des chretiens published a note about eucharistic hospitality making two main points: eucharistic hospitality may not be normal; it can be considered in exceptional cases, as in the case of interchurch couples. These two principles are valid for the admission of Protestants to Catholic communion, and, in a more covert manner, for the participation of Catholics at the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Today in practice many couples accept their own responsibility on this issue often after having searched, hesitated, asked for advice, suffered.

The ecumenical celebration of marriage is allowed in the Vatican Directory (1993); for France, see the Nouvelles dispositions pour les dioceses de France, 1970 and 1984. As we saw above. dispensation from canonical form remains necessary; so the promise to do everything possible for the Catholic baptism and education of the children must be given to the bishop. But in 1980 the French Directoire de discemenlent of the French episcopal conference said that this does not mean "to do the impossible, but to decide in any particular case what will be best without bringing into danger other essential values such as respect for the other pal1ner's conscience, the likelihood of awakening the faith of the child and, above all, the unity of the couple". Nevertheless, a problem remains; the partner who has to ask for a dispensation is somehow humiliated, a feeling not lessened by these theological acrobatics.

In France, a way has been found to soften this declaration. The Catholic Church proposed that every couple, whether Catholic-Catholic or Catholic-other, after discussion with the priest, should write a "declaration of intent", to contain the main orientations which the couple wish to give to their conjugal and family life. This encourages a more spontaneous and richer expression of the engaged couple's intentions, and includes the special promise interchurch couples have to make, so the dioceses accept declarations which do not use the ritual expression "to do all that is possible".

Double Belonging
The Catholic tradition has always recognised the Christian family as a little church. Interchurch families are also building a "family church", but one that by "double belonging" draws on both their churches. By their love for one another they are anticipating the communion of the different churches. They are already reconciled, and in consequence they ask their churches to draw better ecclesiological and canonical conclusions and to renew pastoral care. At this stage of development, after 35 years of standing alongside interchurch couples and families, we can joyfully assert that these couples are no longer seen as abnormal, problem families by the ecclesiastical authorities, but as representing a new opportunity for the churches. They are active pioneers of renewal and of the communion of the churches.

The message of interchurch families
When interchurch families meet and become more confident and conscious of their uniqueness, groups can articulate those unique qualities and the "gift" which interchurch families can bring to the churches. They can cxpress those gifts and in doing so are encouraged to contribute to the life of the churches.

Because they are already living out communion across their differences, interchurch families show the churches how they too can live this communion, and that the key is love. Loves makes us want to hear, to listen to the other person. Love makes us want to understand the other person and his/her attitudes, feelings, and why some things are important to that person. This deep capacity for dialogue is only madc possible through tme, real love, and not as a result of a defensive attitude. In the interchurch family each partner has learned to defend those elements of belief which are deeply rooted in his/her faith, but yet the other partner is able to understand this. Through knowing the other partner, wanting to understand and be understood, each is able to speak a language which is comprehensible to the other. This ability to hear, to explain and to speak the other's language is important for our churches. Often they use language or symbols which cannot be understood by another church.

Next, because they want to live together. interchurch families have developed an "ear" to hear and to separate the essentials of faith from what is less important. By confronting what is unfamiliar in a partner's attitudes, the other partner learns much about his/her own church and faith. At the same time. each partner is forced to reHect on many customs and convictions (for example, standing or sitting [or prayer, the role of Mary, and so on). This forced reHection can be uncomfortable, but it develops the search for the deeper and more authentic Christian faith, and can lead to a continual correction of a one-sided way of celebrating the faith in one confession or the other.

Interchurch families, because they really, seriously, listen to one another, are able to recognise the richness which belongs in another tradition. They do not need to preserve their "frontiers" fearing that the partner will "devour" them, because they trust one another. So they are able to integrate new elements, enrich their own faith, transform frozen structurcs. This means that interchurch families are a very important element for the conversion of thc churches. Conversion in this sense, the sense used by the Groupe des Domhes, a group of Catholic and Protcstant theologians who emphasise the importance of renewing our churches, means that one church agrees to be interrogated by another partner church, and so growth within structures and convictions becomes possible.

Because of thcir experiences, interchurch families are able to bring a breath of fresh air to this process.

Spiritual capacities
Finally, after trying to show the richness and dynamism which interchurch families are able to bring to the churches, I want to focus on our spiritual capacities.

Interchurch families have strong spiritual capacities because of their daily experiences in living together which they are willing to bring to our churches and our world.

We are living the faith, together, daily. in common prayer and song, in teaching the children ... all this is a daily communion between the churches.

We are sharing love, which is the motor, the facilitator of all shared life. It overcomes barriers, helps us to and heal wounds we inflict on each other, holds hands and hcarts open, even if the barricades seem high.

We are living trust and hope, trust in the impossible, in the union of those who are separated, in the promise that life together is possible. Our little ecclesiula may be called to bring this hope into the churches, with the help of God.

Nicola Kontzi