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The following article was published in the January 1998 issue of The Journal.

A presentation on the experience of interchurch families

The Second European Ecumenical Assembly was held at Graz, Austria, from 23rd-29th June 1997, sponsored jointly by the Council of European Catholic Bishops' Conferences and the Conference of European Churches. The theme of Graz was: Reconciliation: gift of God and source of new life. There were six sub-themes, of which the first was "the search for visible unity between the churches ". Ruth Reardon was asked to give a brief contribution to the Dialogue Programme on this theme, and on 26th June in the context of a Forum entitled "Towards Sharing Holy Communion" to speak on "the experience of interchurch families". She said:

An interchurch family comes from a mixed marriage between baptised Christians. There are many kinds. I speak here of marriages where one partner is a Roman Catholic and the other a member of a different communion. My experience comes from within western Christianity, where mixed marriages cross the Reformation divide. I assume here that both partners are committed members of their churches. In the words of Vatican 11 they are one "domestic church" at home. However, their one family is linked with and nourished by two divided churches, both in the sense of denominations and local church congregations.

I am Roman Catholic; my husband is Anglican. We married in 1964 -the year the Second Vatican Council issued its Decree on Ecumenism. Because we were called to weave together our baptismal lives in Christian marriage, it was always important to us to be together at the eucharist week by week, as well as to share in the life of both our churches in many other ways too.

This being together at the eucharist is as much the expression of our married unity in Christ as is our sexual union. The experience of being together at the eucharist over many years brought us to a profound longing to share communion as a couple. Then our 8-year old son said that he did not want to receive his First Communion in the Roman Catholic Church unless his father could share communion with him. At this point our responsibility as parents for the nurture of our child in the faith of Christ was at issue. We know that many interchurch couples, throughout Europe and indeed throughout the world, have experienced a similar longing to share communion as couples, and a similar challenge to their responsibility as parents. Like us, they rejoice when it is possible for them to share communion; like us, they suffer when it is not possible.

It has been a source of great joy to us that the Roman Catholic Church has recognised our special, indeed unique, situation of need. I ask you not to underestimate the enormous step taken by the Ecumenical Directory in 1993. It applied the concept of special cases of pastoral need, in which eucharistic sharing is not only allowed but positively commended, under certain conditions, to the specific need of those who share the sacraments of baptism and marriage. This is a unique identification of need at world level - the only specific example of pastoral need besides that of danger of death. In many regions our churches are now trying to work out what this can mean in practice. It is not easy for some to see that it does not weaken the witness of the Roman Catholic Church to the close relationship between eucharistic communion and ecclesial communion. Rather, it builds on the recognition of the "partial but real communion" which binds all the baptised, also recognising in the case of a baptised Christian married to a Roman Catholic an additional sacramental element which draws him or her into closer bonds of communion with the Catholic Church.

But I venture to suggest that it has wider ecumenical significance. For it is a response to the urgent need of the married couple to share the eucharist. It moves beyond a response to the need of an individual cut off from the ministry of his or her Christian community. The Vatican 11 Constitution Gaudium et Spes described the married couple as a "community of life and love". An interchurch couple is therefore seen as an ecumenical community of life and love. It is not so much different in kind from other groups and indeed whole church communities. Where it may be different is in the urgency and the intensity of the partners' mutual commitment to love, to be reconciled, to grow together in the life of Christ.

An interchurch family presence at Graz

Five representatives of interchurch families from England joined foyers mixtes from France and Switzerland to set up a stall in the agora at Graz, side by side with one staffed by German and Austrian interchurch families. The Austrians organised a workshop, and an Italian couple took part, along with an Italian bishop, in a presentation of the joint text on interchurch marriage published by the Italian Catholic bishops and the Waldensians and Methodists.

But the outstanding memory is that of the worship service prepared by the Vienna group of interchurch families. In a packed church, the Mariahilferkirche, they acted out the way in which the churches divide interchurch families. Two strong men sawed a wooden Table in half - the atmosphere was electric as the chalice and paten it had held clattered to the floor. In a mime a couple, clinging to one another, tried hard to gain entry into two different groups celebrating the eucharist; each time they were pushed away. Only when they separated were they welcomed, one by one group and one by the other. It was an unforgettable service. Afterwards the two halves of the Table were brought into the agora, and we heard that later one half was sent to the Catholic Bishops' Conference and the other to the Austrian Lutheran Church.