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This article was published in the January 2004 issue of The Journal.

A Spirituality for Interchurch Marriage

Extracted from an address by Fr Tom Layden SJ to the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association’s annual conference, April 2003

An interchurch marriage is a sign of the unity already there in the Body of Christ and is at the same time a means to assist the growth towards unity. It is a reminder of the unity already achieved and also a summons towards visible unity in its fullness that we do not yet have.

There is no blueprint for such a marriage. Each one is unique. Each couple follow their own path. But they do not travel alone. Their pilgrim way is in solidarity with other couples in similar situations and with others (lay and clerical) in the various Christian communions who are cheered by their witness and feel moved to offer support. What kind of spirituality would be supportive and workable for partners in an interchurch marriage who find themselves sharing a common heritage but coming to it with distinct denominational identities? This begs the question of what we mean by spirituality? Spirituality has to do with our experiencing of God and with the transformation of our awareness and of our lives as outcomes of that experience. Christian spirituality is life in the Holy Spirit who incorporates the Christian into the Body of Christ, through whom we have access to God the creator in a life of faith, hope, love and service.

A spirituality for those united in Baptism and Marriage would need a number of elements.

  1. An attitude of respect
    - for the tradition of the partner
    - for my own tradition.
  2. A willingness to put a good interpretation on the action/attitude of another Christian. As St Ignatius puts it in his Spiritual Exercises: ‘… it is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false’. (Exx.22)
  3. A capacity for discernment in choices that need to be made about many matters, including religious upbringing of offspring, key moments (baptism, first communion, confirmation and so on). A willingness to discuss, dialogue with the other and others on these.
  4. Patience for the long haul and a sense of humour to be able to face the adversities one will encounter and to enjoy the possibilities and moments of breakthrough which will also be part of the process.
  5. A gritty sense of determination. It won’t always be easy. You don’t need me to tell you that! There will be obstacles along the way. But they don’t have to overcome us. In our facing into them and coming through them we can and will grow.
  6. An understanding of how God works in the world and through history. God works through the others too. God can work through/in spite of our divisions. God is greater than our denominational realities (which is not to say that God does not work through particular denominations).
  7. An awareness of being on pilgrimage. Here we have no abiding city. We cannot just settle down in our little self-contained denominational ghettos. We must take the others seriously. Nor can we accept as either normal or permanent the state of division and disunity our churches find themselves in. We must be on the move, but we can only start from where we are.
  8. An ability to dream about how things could be otherwise. Change is possible by the grace of God and our being willing to work along with that grace. An openness to being part of the expression of God’s prophetic voice in history calling us to leave the familiar territory of the land of slavery of our divisions. That same voice summons us to the promised land of deeper unity, but we go by way of a desert.
  9. A new beginning! The kingdom comes in a new way through the life of each interchurch family. You have the opportunity and the responsibility to fuse together in creative ways in your own household the traditions of the church communities you both come from. There is something exciting about this.
  10. A sense of opportunity. Let’s not let it pass us by! In the past interchurch marriages were sometimes regarded as a problem. A problem for the couple, their families, their churches, their friends. ‘Why can’t you stay among your own?’ ‘One of your own not good enough for you?’ Do some forms of positive thinking not persuade us to see in any socalled difficulty an opportunity? Are interchurch marriages not an opportunity for partners to grow in faith through direct personal contact with another tradition in the Christian family? Is it not the case that sometimes children in an interchurch family feel a little sorry for their same-church cousins who seem to lack some of the ecclesial variety that is part and parcel of their everyday experience?

Every marriage starts with two persons who become one couple. They have to remain two persons, each with his/her own identity, if they are to blend healthily as a couple. Similarly partners in an interchurch marriage have to remain true to their own identities and involved in their own church tradition so that there can be a genuine equality of partnership between them. But they are more than the sum total of two individuals. They forge something new in and through their partnership. Their household is one domestic church with two streams in it. In faith we believe that the Spirit of God is at work in this new creation, the Spirit who inspires and enthuses, who comforts and consoles, who teaches and guides.