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This article was published in the Summer 1996 issue of The Journal.

Interchurch Families: A Model for the LEP Community

Our family belongs to a Local Ecumenical Partnership (LEP), St Andrew's Shared Church in Cippenham, West Slough. We belong by choice, not only because it conveniently mirrors our church commitments, but also because it is a welcoming and loving community in which the sense of belonging is strong. There are a number of mixed and interchurch couples who worship at St Andrew's, but Paul and I are the only couple who have chosen to be active participators in both the Anglican and the Roman Catholic communities, practicing the double belonging that we feel as an interchurch couple. 

Recently, on the arrival of a new Anglican priest, some aspects of church publicity needed to be updated, including our entry on the county viewdatasystem. The vicar asked that Paul and I should be the contacts on the system, and in some other general publicity for St Andrew's. Her view was that we as an interchurch couple were the only members who truly represented the whole church, and who could provide accurate information about both the traditions involved. On the face of it this seems sensible, and of course we agreed. But somehow it suggested to us that as a community we at St Andrew's have missed out on a fulfiling and loving part of belonging to a shared Christian community, and I wonder how far other LEPs might share the same story. 

My question is: why is it only an interchurch family member who can be relied on to know and even understand the other partner in our church community? Should not all members of the LEP at least try to share in the life of, and understand the roots of, the partner church? But in a busy world, you may argue, that's a tall order! Yes, it is, but in our journey towards unity, a necessary one. And here the interchurch family members return, because they are, perhaps, a modelfor the LEP family.

Much of what I will say about an interchurch family applies, naturally, to any family, and therefore to the family of the church. But there are aspects of the relationship involving two churches that ask a little more of the interchurch couple and, by my reasoning, a little more of the LEP member. 

In preparing for marriage a couple eagerly find out as much as possible about one another, and about their hopes for the future. What is her favourite colour? Does he want children? What political party does she support? Why does he want to go pot-holing every weekend? When the two people involved belong to different churches it is important to explore that aspect of the relationship too. Why are you a Baptist? What is it about your church that attracts you? It may be important to affirm your own allegiance. As Paul and I prepared for marriage, I asked myself: why am I an Anglican, and what sort of Anglican am I? All sorts of things about Paul's church attracted and intrigued me, and helped deepen my own faith. My prayer life will always be the richer for my involvement with Roman Catholic spirituality. We shared and explored, and had to find out more about our own churches in order to answer the other's questions. I don't suppose many engaged couples spend an evening discussing what it means to ask the prayers of a saint, what incense is for, or what the word "priest" really means! We still share, and we are still growing in knowledge and respect for each other's churches. We now know why we belong to the churches we do; we also know where our beliefs differ (in a few, minor details) and where they are the same. The process strengthens us as a couple, and will help us as we raise our children towards being whole Christians in a two-church environment. 

Discussion, honest sharing, learning about each other, how to treasure the similarities and respect and value the differences should be a part of life for all LEP members. Through such a commitment members will be more bound to each other, more likely to be one community that happens to include two congregations than two congregations who happen to share a building. Some LEPs, particularly where all worship is shared, are nearer to this than others. A strong sharing might lead to a deeper love and to a greater awareness of actions that might cause pain or division, however unintentionally. 

For example, back at St Andrew's, Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve 1993 was an ecumenical failure. It was a Roman Catholic Mass; opportunities for Anglicans to be involved in the service were slight, and they felt excluded. So when Christmas 1994 approached, members of the Anglican church council said they wanted a service of their own. Perhaps it could be parallel, they suggested, happening at the same time in another part of the building - we could even coordinate the Christmas carols. I was a member of the council, and my vision of the service was quite different. I would be in one corner, Paul in another, and our daughter in a corridor in between, wondering where she belonged. Or would we choose one church to the exclusion of the other? This story has a happy ending - on my vision being tearfully explained to the other council members, a group was set up to share in the planning of the service. Soon Anglican members were saying, "Wasn't the sharing at Midnight Mass 1994 wonderful?" 

It shouldn't have needed the prospect of a real family being divided at Christmas for church members to understand the need to share, to give and to take. If the church community saw itself as a family, and practiced a family love, then such division would have been unthinkable, and unthought of. A family always wants to share its activities, both joyful and sorrowful, and would not consider leaving a family member out. So inviting sister Louise to Christmas dinner means making a vegetarian alternative, and having Uncle David there means making him promise to ration the blue jokes in front of the children - you still want them there, and make an effort to share together. Christian communities are the same, doubly so when they are interchurch communities. Effort and sacrifice is required all round, but with Christ's love to help us, every day is Christmas!

Beverley Hollins