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This article was published in the January 2000 issue of The Journal.

Challenge and Significance

In October 1999 a report on interchurch marriages by the bilateral dialogue group between the Roman Catholic Church and the Uniting Church in Australia was published. It had been approved by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference and by the UCA Assembly Standing Committee on behalf of the Uniting Church in Australia Assembly. Its full title is: Interchurch Marriages: their Ecumenical Challenge and Significance for our Churches (93 pp, St Pauls and Uniting Church Press, Aust $6.95).

The title itself is a landmark. This is the first official church report to be published, so far as we know, that focuses not simply on the pastoral care of interchurch families, but on the "ecumenical challenge and significance" that the existence of such families presents to the churches. There was a hint of it in the title of the report published by Churches Together in England in 1994 (see Interchurch Families, 3,1, Jan.1995, p.4)Churches Together in Marriage, but as the sub-title indicated, its main focus was the Pastoral Care of Interchurch Families.

Official recognition
This Australian report is to be warmly welcomed, therefore, as a sign that official church bodies are beginning to take up the theological perspectives that have been worked on for some years within the interchurch family movement. Early on the report quotes from the 1968 editorial in One in Christ that was seminal for the development of the Association of Interchurch Families in England. It makes particular use of George Kilcourse’s Double Belonging: Interchurch Families and Christian Unity, published in the United States in 1992. It is in Australia, however, that these perspectives have first been presented at such an official level, just as it was in Australia that the first post-Directory episcopal guidelines on eucharistic sharing appeared offering real pastoral help for interchurch families (see Interchurch Families, 4,2, Summer 1996, p.8).

It may be that the two things are linked. Perhaps it is only as the pressure is gradually taken off interchurch families, notably in the area of eucharistic sharing, that it is possible for them to be more clearly seen as having a significant ecumenical role. There is a hint of this in the Introduction to the report: "With dispensations, and with regulations being understood in more sophisticated ways, interchurch marriages have ceased to be the major irritant in relations between our churches which they were. Rather, interchurch couples, that is couples committed to their own churches and also to the ecumenical ideal, need to be seen as God’s great gift to the churches’ search for unity."

The Catholic/Uniting Church dialogue began in 1978, not long after the inauguration of the Uniting Church. It thus continued the previous Catholic/Presbyterian and Catholic/Methodist dialogues. Work focused on the subject of interchurch families began in March 1993. (Interchurch Families reported earlier that when the dialogue group met in Brisbane in November 1993 it invited two Catholic/Uniting Church couples to talk about their experiences – see 2, 2, Summer 1994, p.9). The report is thus the fruit of six or seven years’ work.

Potential interchurch marriages
Chapter 1 on "The Phenomenon of Interchurch Marriage" states that in Australia there is a relative scarcity of marriages and families that would fulfil all the requirements for a marriage or family to be truly called "interchurch". Here it follows George Kilcourse’s definition of two baptised Christians each actively participating in his or her church, with both taking an active role in the religious upbringing of their children. Varieties of "mixed" marriages are described, and some of these are judged to be "potential interchurch marriages". Surveys carried out among Uniting Church parishes and Roman Catholic priests indicated a low level of pastoral care for those interchurch families that do exist. However, "there were many expressions of regret or unease about this situation"; pastors said they would welcome help and guidelines in ministering more effectively to these couples and families.

There are six further chapters on Marriage, Belonging, Baptism, Eucharistic Hospitality, Pastoral Care, and Topics for Further Dialogue. A Conclusion expresses the conviction that the "presence [of interchurch families] in our churches needs to be recognised and celebrated … and we need to do everything possible to assist them by promoting ever closer unity in Christ."

The churches recognise that, while broken-ness, separation and alienation are part of the world, there is a need to challenge this situation. To make a strong witness to Christ in the next century, Christians need to be prophetic. An ecumenical baptism may be such a prophetic act, which challenges our preconceptions and which allows the Spirit to create a wondrous diversity from our sinful division. Denominational tensions which may occur about baptism at the birth of a child are confronted by the triumphant assertion of the interchurch marriage, What God has joined together, let no one put asunder! (p.54)

Requests [for eucharistic hospitality] coming from interchurch families are recognised as in a special category. Should an individual repeat such a request frequently, it is a case for joint pastoral care by both churches. The pain of these people in their need for the eucharist calls for recognition and challenges both churches to do further work towards overcoming obstacles. There can be a serious crisis of conscience and pastors of both churches need to show sympathetic understanding. Pastoral approaches to eucharistic hospitality form part of a necessary overall joint pastoring for interchurch families. (p.63)