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LOCAL ECUMENICAL PARTNERSHIPS & Interchurch Marriage 

After sixteen years of working in the ecumenical environment of Milton Keynes, Fr James Cassidy moved to a smaller parish in Essex. This presented him with an opportunity to reelect on the theology of Local Ecumenical Projects (now called Local Ecumenical Partnerships), a neglected area, and to write a doctoral thesis for the University of Birmingham on Membership of the Church, with reference to Local Ecumenical Projects in England. Out of this experience. he contributes the article below.

One of the more interesting developments in British church life in recent years is the growth of Local Ecumenical Partnerships (LEPs). They are specific areas (or special ministries) in which the denominations agree to work together, sharing worship, congregational life, mission, and not infrequently buildings. Their roots can be traced back to the 1964 Faith and Order Conference of the British Council of Churches held in Nottingham. Note that LEPs began slowly and expanded gradually. All the major Christian denominations (except the Orthodox) are involved. Roman Catholic participation is less full than that of other denominations because of the present regulations on sharing the eucharist, but in spite of this there are a number of LEPs with Catholic participation. 

This co-operation has grown as the members of the various denominations recognise each other as fully Christian and work out what this is to mean in practice. In theological terms, they see that they are part of the one Church of Christ, united in the fundamental sacrament which is baptism. It is the source of unity. The LEPs bear witness to this unity. They show that the Church as one fellowship of believers is both of the local community and also of the wider Christian community. There are now over 700 of these LEPs in England. 

Note that LEPs are not set up by wayward maverick clergy; they are officially authorised and approved. They are linked to the participating denominations as if they were normal parishes or communities. They are now an integral part of the ecclesiastical scene, and thus bring their insights into all areas of church life. 

Theological reflection and the calming of tribal fears 

In LEPs we have denominations which used to be totally distinct but which are now united in prayer and mission. One can quote all sorts of anecdotes which highlight how different the relationships between the churches used to he. Two come to mind: brick-throwing in Liverpool on St Patrick's Day and King Billy's Day, and the episode in the Midlands when all the members of a factory workshop, and their families, changed denomination when a new foreman, who was church, not chapel, was appointed. The growth of collaboration comes not through any change in doctrine by the denominations, but as a result of theological reflection and the calming of tribal fears. It is not a recent development to recognise the one baptism. From the third century, the Christian church had decided to recognise baptism by whomsoever it was administered. With the exception of the Anabaptists, the Reformers made no change; indeed, the Diet of Spiers in 1529 made rebaptism a capital offence, confirmed at the Diet of Augsberg in 1530. 

Denominations have changed their rules to cope with ecumenical developments; for example, Anglicans now have various Ecumenical Canons, and Methodists recognise other clergy as authorised to celebrate in their chapels and in LEPs where Methodists are participants. It must be clear that these are changes of rules, not of doctrine. We can see a similar development in the Catholic Church from the 1928 encyclical Mortalium Animos of Pius XI, which forbade ecumenical contacts to Catholics, to the openness of Ut Unum Sint of l99S. These developments have all come from theological reflection, not from a change of faith. There has been a growing together as hostility has diminished, and an awareness of what the unity of baptism means for church life, both locally and centrally. 

LEPs and marriage: unity in diversity 

We can see a parallel between the LEPs and marriage. There is a development from the meeting of two strangers to the growth of the total unity of persons which is true marriage: they become one unity from diversity. The common humanity of the persons is transformed in the unique personal relationship which reflects the unity of Christ and his Church. This is given an additional dimension in interchurch marriages. It was noted by the American George Kilcourse in his book on interchurch marriages, when he wrote: "The phenomenon of interchurch families affords a new paradigm in the sense that the rules and boundaries which segregated the divided churches can no longer be persuasively applied when evaluating their unique needs or gifts." (Double Belonging, Paulist Press, 1992, p. 129) His thesis is that the practices have changed, and that the regulations need to change to take into account the actions of the faithful, who are one in worship. 

A couple of points can be mentioned regarding problems (or opportunities) which can arise in a Local Ecumenical Partnership. When there is a wedding, questions need to be asked as to the form and style of the wedding, and also the denomination of the minister concerned; those being married may not be members of the minister's denomination. At a baptism in a LEP the baptised person is known as a member of the LEP congregation, the Christian church at X, but if the family moves to a non-LEP area, to which denomination does that baptised person belong? (An interesting theological question arises here: how can denominations which are united in a LEP be un-united a few miles away?) More positively, we can use interchurch marriage as a metaphor. and say that it is through the LEPs (a sort of marriage of the denominations) that the denominations have grown together in the manner of married couples. Fr John Coventry, in the "Conclusions" to a book of experiences from interchurch families, wrote of the unifying power of such marriages. "Parents begin apart ... They learn to develop their own personal Christian unity within their marriage, and in the course of this process the differences move to the margin and the deep realities of their common inheritance become central. It is the unity which Christ gives ... which they pass on to their children." (Sharing Communion, ed. Ruth Reardon and Melanie Finch, London, 1983, p. 99) The denominations have moved together, not because of pressure from above, but because of the strength of local personal relationships. Partners in marriage must work at their marriage at their own pace, nobody else's. The LEPs were encouraged and supported in a very "hands-off" way by the Consultative Committee for Local Ecumenical Projects in England (CCLEPE) of the British Council of Churches, which worked at a distance through local structures. (This Committee, it should be noted, also included a Catholic member, and used various Catholics as resource people.) Now, of course, Catholics are full members of the Group for Local Unity (GLU), successor to CCLEPE and one of the co-ordinating groups of Churches Together in England. 

I am somewhat handicapped in pushing the analogy, for as a Catholic priest once involved in LEPs I do not have any personal experience of an interchurch marriage, although of course I do know interchurch families. However, from my own experience I can see the similarities as described by Fr Coventry. For those who are in interchurch marriages, I can see tensions which are similar to those of LEPs. First of all, there is an awareness that there is one Church, one Lord, one Spirit, one Baptism. There is also the denominational division which is the result of sin in the past, which endures and affects us all; and as with all sin, it has untold effects in time. Those who are working against these effects of sin, without any responsibility for the sin itself, feel frustrated. The mission of the Church (or the fully Christian life of the family) can seem thwarted. 

But there must be hope. AS the Consultation on the future of LEPs, held in 1994 under the auspices of Churches Together in England declared, perhaps in an idealistic way: "LEPs are grit in the system, irritants capable of producing pearls of reconciliation and renewal. Reconciliation will express the mutual acceptance of all members, ministries and sacraments in a form we cannot yet see in detail, but we are conscious that, as they are reconciled, the traditions of the churches will be reshaped by the Kingdom to come, and unite the Church in mission." (Pilgrim Post, May-June 1994) A family is called to be a sign of acceptance of differences, of complementarily, of a life-long reconciliation in the sacrament of marriage. Interchurch families show this unity in diversity in another dimension, and transform it by their common faith, which can overcome denominational division. 

The prophetic dimension of the local church 

The fact that LEPs grew from the local church, without being imposed from above, is important. It shows that normal members of the church are not blind to the dissonance between theology and the “real world”. They seek unity between the churches, and, like good families, are tolerant of legitimate diversity rather than accepting either division or enforced conformity. This tolerance draws them together even more closely. The unity between the denominations in a LEP can be striking. This centripetal force in ecclesiology was observed by Pope John Paul II who said, while Cardinal Wojtyla, Archbishop of Cracow, at the 1969 Roman Synod: "Communion in fact designates unity in its dynamic aspect. It is this kind of unity that is obtained between diverse members by a communication that tends always to be more profound and abundant. Consequently, plurality, even diversity itself, is to be understood in relation to communion, with the tendency towards unity." (Cited by H. de Lubac in The Motherhood of the Church, San Francisco, 1982, p. 223) The sharing of the life of the denominations in LEPs is part of the process of the acceptance of plurality which leads inexorably to the desire for further unity, as indicated by the then Cardinal Wojtyla. The members of an interchurch family have their own contribution to make to this force for unity. 

Local Ecumenical Partnerships are now part of the tradition of the Church in England. They show that the Church, the one fellowship of believers, is both of the locality and of the wider communion of the Church. Any division within any level of "Church" is a counter-witness to the unity of the Spirit, which is shared, and acknowledged to be shared, by all Christians. I would venture to say that both interchurch families and LEPs demonstrate the prophetic dimension of the local church in pointing towards the final unity of the eternal celebration in heaven, the marriage supper of the Lamb. 

James M. Cassidy

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