Main Menu  

   

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

Interchurch Families: Ecumenically Liberating the Church

Paying dividends
If you are involved in pastoral ministry and are wondering what problems interchurch families will cause you, let me offer you a story to convert you to sceing how we underestimate the role of interchurch families. Jane is a Roman Catholic, a professional woman; her husband, Ronald, is a member of the United Methodist Church and a businessman. Jane describes a surprising conversion she experienced when she attended her husband's church one day. (They regularly attend services at one another's church.) At collection time she noticed his monetary gift to his church and remarked, "That's what you are giving for the month." He replied, "No, this is what I am going to give every week." Jane said, "\Ve can't afford that." "Yes, we can," he said. Jane added, "I don't give that much." "You should," Ronald replied. Jane said that not only her husband's financial support for his church, but also his involvement in the Methodist church in terms of time and talent had a surprising effect on her. "I said, if he is going to give that much to his church, I'm to give that to my church." It was not a competitive response. but rather a matter of her learning from her interchurch spouse about stewardship. The moral of this story is for Catholic pastors and pastoral ministers to recruit interchurch spouses 011 their building committees and appoint them to direct your next fund-raising effort. I know of instances where this happens. On the basis of research comparing Catholics' lower levels of financial support with the markedly higher levels of financial support in other churches, ecumenism promises unexpected "dividends"! So now, pastors, I have your attention about interchurch marriage.

Today in the United States 40 per cent of Roman Catholics are marrying persons either from other Christian traditions, or from other religions, or who claim no religious identity. We are probably at the point in most parts of the United States where Catholics are just as likely to marry someone who comes from a different religious heritage as to marry a Catholic mate.

Contrary to those who interpret this phenomenon as a sign of the further disintegration of Catholic faith, I ask whether God might not be doing something constructive. even revelatory, in these new patterns of intermatTiage. More succinctly, what does it mean when the "mixed marriages" which constitute a covenant between two Christians from now divided churches mature to become "interchurch marriages"?

Interchurch families and understanding church unity
Eighteen years ago I began serving a ten-year tenure as Research Director for the Office of Ecumenism in the Archdiocese of Louisville. We claimed a healthy Catholic involvement in a network of local bilateral dialogues among pastors and professional theologians. We proudly pointed to a chain of ecumenical community ministry centres that responded to serve the needs of neighbourhoods and residents with programmes like child or geriatric care, emergency food and shelter, and meals on wheels. But only as I began to discover the reality of Catholics married to partners from other Christian churches, or from nearby synagogues, did I awaken a sleeping giant. In 1984, I collaborated with a colleague from the Bellarmine's sociology department to survey the presbyterate and to examine chancery records about the numbers and patterns of "mixed marriages". The result became page one news in The Louisville Times. Forty per cent of local Catholics were marrying persons either from other churches, or other religions, or (a definite minority) of no religious practice.

With the assistance of the National Association of Diocesan Ecumenical Officers, I undertook a pilot study of local couples involved in religious intermarriages. Two groups of Catholic-Protestant couples met regularly. It became more and more apparent that a significant majority of these married couples (and their children) were conscientious at times, even heroic ­ about their faith lives. Their stories disarmed and alarmed me. They had met one obstacle after another. Pastors' indifference to their identity as "interchurch couples" often proved more damaging than outright rejection.

One young couple, Rachelle and Mike, who worked closely in a pilot group, described their search for both a parish and a church where they could feel comfortable. They were welcomed into a Catholic parish where the priest encouraged them. In searching for an evangelical church in Rachelle's tradition, they recounted the harrowing experience of identifying themselves as a interchurch couple to a pastor after the worship service, only to have the pastor put his arm around Mike and boast, "That's OK, we have lots of ex-Catholics here!" Rachelle lamented that she was more hurt than Mike because her husband's identity as a Catholic was not respected. I can relate other stories where the Catholic priest has been equally offensive.

We define an interchurch family as one in which both partners remain active in their own respective churches, they participate to varying degrees in one another's church, and both are actively involved in the religious education of children. In the interchurch family movement we speak of "double belonging". This sometimes provocative term does not mean that spouses are 50% Catholic and 50% Presbyterian, for example. It suggests that by virtue of marriage, they belong in "real but imperfect communion" with the church of their partner.  By virtue of baptism (mutually recognised by most of our churches) and what Catholics claim to be the sacramentality of their marriage, these couples already live more fully the unity that our institutional churches seek to restore. One of the interchurch children was asked by a reporter whether he belonged to his father's church or his mother's. Without a moment's hesitation or any coaching, he responded, "I belong to both!" He had instinctively refused to be confined to the categories of the reporter's question, or our churches' static ecclesiological paradigms. And he shows every evidence of a healthy resilient faith he has not dropped out of church, and he is not bored. Life in his authentical1y interchurch family has made faith part of the family's natural conversation.

Interchurch couples rightly resist any suggestion that there is something inherently wrong with their marriage. All too often in the past this is the message that the institutional church and its pastoral ministers have communicated. I conjecture that interchurch families have suffered unnecessarily from a mixed message: on the one hand, we tell them (albeit in reluctant syllables) that they can marry and that their exchange of vows as baptised Christians constitutes a sacrament; but on the other hand, we treat them as if they were a "problem" and confront them with one obstacle after another. Is it any wonder that so many "mixed marriage" couples never mature to the point of becoming interchurch families? Or that they haemorrhage away from the church?  They rightly resist anything that threatens to divide their marriage covenant, anything that cynically discredits the multifaceted love of spouses where they experience the transforming grace of Christ present. Their marriages are sacred, and rather than prejudge them we should be defenders of their bonds. No, the problem is the scandal of our living as separated churches. Once we more adequately relocate the source of the problem, we cannot but exercise a totally new pastoral response to these marriages.

Interchurch families and those who struggle to mature to such an identity refocus for us many of the questions of church unity.  Let me briefly identify two of their contributions: (1) a contextual theology of interchurch family life; and 2) an appreciation of how the churches might live an ecumenical future celebrating the “unity in diversity” of our churches.

(1) Contextual Theology. The question of "method" in theology has radically reoriented not only biblical, systematic, and fundamental theology but also ecumenics. Albert Nolan of South Africa is a prominent contextual theologian who can help orient us to the task. It seems appropriate to speak of interchurch families contributing a unique contextual theology to ecumenism. From their perspective, they bling new questions. And from that particular vantage of lived faith as interchurch families, they perceive and see what we look at with our sometimes blind eyes. Nolan reminds us that the introduction of new questions raises the more important issue about who does theology. Witness the controversy surrounding Liberation Theology in the Third World, where base communities implement such a contextual theology. Nolan alerts us that professional theologians (and church leaders, I would add) have a great deal to learn from the questions that people in different situations ask and from the answers they discover for themselves.

The predicament of interchurch families does not fit neatly into the categories or the structures of our scandalously divided churches. They are conscientiously pressing questions that lie even beyond the frontiers of current ecumenism. A twenty-two-year-old woman who is the daughter of a Catholic mother and an Anglican father refuses to be confirmed in either church unless she can be confirmed in both. She asks, "If the Holy Spirit creates unity in the church, then how can I celebrate a sacrament that forces me to decide between these two traditions which have and will continue to nurture my faith?" She questions the church in ways that remind me of Solomon. She asks the churches, as did Solomon the disputing women, whether they want to divide the child with a sword.

It occurs to me that we might expect that a contextual theology of interchurch families could give rise to a Kairos Document in some ways analogous to South Africa's famous liberation statement.  From their suffering as Christians who are denied fuller participation in the life of divided churches, interchurch spouses and their children are reclaiming theology and reappropriating it as an activity of the people.  The focus and intensity of interchurch families' questions challenge us to move away from the abstractions of our ecumenical statements and the ecumenical impasse and to discover what is actually happening in their predicaments and their unique circumstances.   Then we can come to recognize patterns of domination (indeed, of unnecessary oppression by the church) and patterns of salvation in interchurch family life.

(2) Unity in Diversity.

Raymond Brown's classic and brief New Testament study, The Churches the Apostles Left Behind, is a neglected ecumenical gem.  In surveying the distinctive local churches of the first and early second centuries, he dramatises their different ecclesiologies and yet celebrates their "unity in diversity". More recently, Jon Nilson of Loyola University in Chicago has built upon Karl Rahner’s ecclesiology that carefully reminded us how we cannot force more certain dogmatic claims upon other Christians that we Roman Catholics demand intramurally of ourselves. Nilson's book, Nothing Beyond the Necessary, is a meticulous reconstruction of Rahner's argument, his critics' rebuttals, and Rahner's replies. Nilson is a dialogue member on the United States Anglican-Roman Catholic Consultation, and he points to an important distinction they made four years ago in response to the Lambeth and Vatican Responses to the international ARC dialogues.

"One way of dealing with this puzzle of doctrinal language is to accept orthopraxis as the test of orthodoxy: that is, to recognize that doctrines are expressions of the communal life of the church and that shared life may make differing doctrinal formulations intelligible and reveal them to be compatible and even identical in intent.. .. Attempts to share life must precede or at least accompany attempts to compare doctrinal statements. It might even suggest that shared sacramental life must precede or at least accompany attempts to compare doctrines on sacraments.”

There is no better way to describe the witness and ministry of interchurch couples and families. Such is contextual theology - theology which is "a reflection upon real life in concrete circumstances from the point of view of faith". (Nolan)

Interchurch Families and the Broader Cultural Crisis
The churches' response to the needs and gifts of interchurch families does not happen in a vacuum. I propose that the broader cultural crisis in which we find ourselves makes it all the more urgent that the churches honestly and constructively address their needs and gifts. I want to situate the phenomenon of authentically interchurch families in terms of two larger cultural shifts: (1) signs of antisocial individualism; and (2) signs of a deeper appreciation of the nature and complexity of dialogue. The first of these proves dangerous, if not lethal to culture; the second offers perhaps a cultural antidote to the toxins of our time.

(1) Individualism. Since Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist, wrote his now famous "Bowling Alone" article a year ago, a cottage industry has burst forth with articles and commentary on the phenomenon he named in his wry metaphor. Putnam surveyed the serious decay of civic institutions and social trust in America, from the demise of parent-teacher associations, fraternal groups, and other organisations and institutions. Whether fuelled by technological distractions (witness the replacement of television viewing with hours before the computer screen "surfing the net"), or the widespread failure and cost of interpersonal relationships, Americans appear to prefer (metaphorically) "bowling alone" at one's own convenience. independently, without "team" connections or competition rather than in vesting themselves in communal activity. The rise in single person households suggests the same conclusion. Even prior to Putnam's provocative and contagious perception, sociologist Robert Bellah had written trenchant criticisms of the ideology of American individualism in his remarkably successful book entitled Habits of the Heart. His critique of "therapeutic relationships" and his identifying our reluctance to initiate authentic interpersonal commitments named a cultural malaise.

The reason I point to these works is twofold. First, the metaphor of "bowling alone" could also function to describe the loneliness of many partners in interchurch marriages. How many faith-filled couples have been mutually exiled to "go to church alone" and rarely - if ever! connect with one another's community of faith? How blindly have the churches or their pastoral ministers recommended such a model? How many marriages have found one partner abdicating any religious practice in order to "keep peace" in the family? Such an attitude not only impeded a full development of the spouses as marriage partners, but it has also robbed our churches of the witness and gifts of authentically interchurch families whose orthopraxis gives us the contextual theology that can model an ecumenical vision of "unity in diversity". But a second reason harbours in the same culture of individualism. The past decade's introspection within denominations impresses me as a subconscious retreat in the direction of individualism. The effect is to diminish either a need for, or an interest in. relating to those outside the religious tribe of the denomination. The churches' lack of interest in visible ecumenical collaboration on "faith and order" concerns (sacraments, worship, and theological reflection on ecumenical interests at popular levels) mirrors the dangers of a rampant individualism. We need to assess the cost of such forms of religious and spiritual isolationism, both in terms of our ecumenical commitments and to a wider view of social justice, inclusiveness, and pluralism.

(2) Dialogue. At the very time when we lament an epidemic of individualism, a strong counterforce has emerged in the form of a deeper and more complex appreciation of dialogue. The work of Georgetown University's Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor and sociologist, has captured the imagination of marriage counsellors. Her books, That's Not What I Meant! and You Just Don't Understand, have revolutionised our appreciation of interpersonal conversation. I suggest that her insights into gender differences and our communication across two distinct gender cultures deserves to be read more closely by theologians and, in particular, by ecumenists. If such insights can save marriages, could they even salvage the unity of divided churches? What would happen if we fe-examined the differing theologies of our Christian churches and traditions, using her advice: to listen more carefully to what others are saying, and to be more sensitive to what others are hearing. Could we not perhaps better decipher the miscommunication between the churches, our failure to listen and to hear what is being articulated in doctrine and at the level of faith experience? What if we could translate the language and customs of the different churches in a way that helps us to understand what our partners in ecumenical dialogue are saying? How might theologians utilise Deborah Tannen's original analysis to help us find a "metalanguage" such as George Lindbeck has suggested ecumenism so desperately needs? And who better to "speak the faith" of our religious traditions in this new phase of dialogue than wives and husbands in interchurch marriages? What if the churches allowed a truly contextual theology to transpire, enlightened by the dynamics of Tannen's linguistic theory?

While there is not time to develop these suggestions more thoroughly, I am reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr's classic study, The Social Sources of' Denominationalism. Let me add that the progress in a dialogue such as the United States Lutheran-Roman Catholic consultation deserves to be analysed along the lines of Tannen's theory. To what extent has the ability of a feminist theologian like Elizabeth Johnson, a member of that ecumenical tcam, enabled this dialogue to overcome obstacles that were intractable even a decade ago?

Conclusions:
Making visible the unity

Now to muse. What might the future promise as roles for interchurch families in the Catholic Church and by way of our ecumenical agenda? Since it is best to be modest, I offer two thoughts.

There is a danger that not only church officers but officially appointed ecumenists (ecumenicrats!) think and act predominantly in linear patterns. Their modernist perspective leads them to speak the language of "steps" and "increments" in implementing a masterplan of "stages" of unity. I am reminded that my teacher, Avery Dulles, in his now classic Models of the Church, cautioned that the only model of the church which cannot be primary is the "institutional" it must always be subordinated to the church as mystical communion, sacrament, herald, servant, and disciple. But the Holy Spirit has ways of disturbing our diagrams and paced schedules. Those surprises of the Spirit can be humbling. Without such a faith, there would not have been a Second Vatican Council. I propose that we reflect upon the role of interchurch families as a postmodem phenomenon: an unexpected, surprising, and even disruptive event that does not fit the rationalist, clearly conceived and proposition ally articulated norms of institutional ecumenism. Such is the contribution of a contextual theology, The role of interchurch families proves both a challenge and a gift as we go about reinventing the church.

A second thought is an insight which I have learned from Diana Eck's important book, Encountering God. In the broader inter-religious dialogue between Christianity and Eastern religions, particularly Hinduism, she has highlighted a learning experience that we need to apply to our ecumenical project. There is a danger that in our trendy quest for pluralism and multiculturalism we will overlook the distinction between remarking our differences and discovering our diversity. But she goes on to say that the goal is not diversity but the dialogue that follows our recognition of diversity. Such dialogue need not compromise or confuse the identity of partners in the dialogue. The effect will be not a melting pot, but a marbling of traditions - where each remains distinct, in its unique integrity, but now in intimate contact with the others.

The advent of interchurch spouses and their children in these two generations since the Second Vatican Council has given us a new perspective on "unity in diversity". Is it possible that we might see them not as a "problem", that we might make them more than a scapegoat? Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, retired president of the Vatican's Council on Christian Unity, once reminded us of an ecumenical axiom: "There are no vagrant baptised."

Let me tell you a story, my favourite from my book Double Belonging. Each Pentecost Sunday, the ecumenical covenant between two large suburban parishes, one Episcopal and the other Roman Catholic, is celebrated with a picnic. Hundreds of people gather for a potluck dinner under shady trees, passing the late spring afternoon in games, conversation and laughter. It is grassroots ecumenism, marking 20 years of life together in a broad spectrum of joint activities.  The climax of the afternoon comes with a tug-of-war game.  Members of the two churches stretch across the parking lot and compete, lined up behind their respective pastors. One interchurch mother narrated her experience on such a Pentecost.  Tommy, her six-year-old son, came racing up to her as the rope tautened. "Mummy, mummy," he pleaded, "which side am I on?"

His ordeal personifies the unconscious ways in which even the most ecumenically aetive churches have marginalised and excluded interchurch families. Now, the climax of the annual picnic is a dance - a dance in which members of both parishes mingle and hold hands in a giant circle. They whirl and sing in a new pattern, making visible the church's "unity in diversity". For they have come to believe more fully in the liberating promise of Christ to the church: "I make all things new!"

 

George Kilcourse
Professor of Theology,
Bellarmine College,
Louisville, USA