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This article was published in the 2002 Summer issue of The Journal.

Resources for Ecumenical Hope

A second national bilateral dialogue has now presented interchurch marriages as a positive resource for Christian unity by the title it has chosen for its report.  Interchurch Families: Resources for Ecumenical Hope (hereafter called Resources) is a fruit of the Catholic/Reformed Dialogue in the United States (ed. John C.Bush and Patrick R.Cooney, 92 pp, Westminster John Knox Press/United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2002).

The first bilateral report that presented the pastoral care of interchurch families as an ecumenical growth point came from the Roman Catholic/Uniting Church in Australia dialogue in 1999. (Interchurch Marriages: their Ecumenical Challenge and Significance for our Churches: see Interchurch Families 8,1 January 2000, p 13).

The two reports invite comparison. The Catholic/Reformed dialogue began in the USA in 1965 and produced a series of seven reports between 1967 and 1998. This latest comes from the sixth round of the dialogue, and represents three or four years' work, about half the time-scale of the Australian report. The purpose of this round was to consider marriage and the family, and the members decided to focus on Reformed/Catholic families. The Australian dialogue had produced a report on growing agreement on marriage even before the new team started work on interchurch marriages in 1993. It began by conducting a survey of Catholic and Uniting Church pastors, and by 'listening to interchurch couples, mostly young, who explained to us the joys, the satisfactions and the challenges of their relationships' (p.87).  So it is not surprising that the Australian report gives an impression of being more grounded in the actual experience of interchurch family life than the American one.

The two reports cover similar ground. Resources devotes chapters to pastoral care, baptism, church, marriage and eucharist.  It also includes two appendices, one on practical issues (marriage preparation, family planning, the Catholic promises and canon law, annulment), the other a useful glossary. A great deal of useful work has gone into this publication, and it is to be hoped that it will be taken seriously and put into practice by pastors of both churches in the USA.

There is no definition of an interchurch family, but it is clearly stated that the report envisages 'only those relationships that remain "interchurch” throughout marriage’.  Unless one partner feels particularly called to move to the tradition of their partner, 'what we discourage is that either partner cease to practice within his or her church. The ecumenical partnership would cease if one side gives way to the other.' However, it is assumed that 'it is usually best for the child to be identified as belonging in one tradition while knowing and valuing both’.  ‘Parents are encouraged to baptise children in the church in which they will be raised’.  Although representatives of the other church are encouraged to attend and ‘even to participate in the liturgy’ (p.8).  There is no hint of the assertion in the Australian report that an interchurch family baptism may be seen as a 'prophetic act which challenges our preconceptions and which allows the Spirit to create a wondrous diversity from our sinful division' (p.54).

Resources starts by saying that 'interchurch families are a gift both for our churches and for the whole Church of Jesus Christ. The creativity and longing for a unity that can be visibly manifest, often expressed by members of such families, can serve as a witness to the whole Church' (p.1). 'By their very relationship to each other and their presence to other Christians, they can become agents of change and promoters of Christian unity' (p. 10). But how? There seems to be a rather static approach here, compared with that of the Australian report. 'In their Baptism and at the Table, ecumenical families make visible in a unique and compelling fashion the reality that "we are one, and yet we are not one" ... Ecumenical families are members of one Body, reconciled in Christ, but as yet unable to express its unity.  They become for the wider community of faith a constant reminder, a gentle encourager, and a judge' (p.31). But do not interchurch families actually express and make visible the growing unity between their churches, even if only to a very limited degree?

When it comes to eucharistic sharing, Resources mentions the 'few occasions' when a Reformed Christian might be given episcopal permission to receive communion in the Catholic Church, although the other way round would be 'simply prohibited' (p.60). The Australian report speaks of the possibility of a 'serious crisis of conscience', of the 'sympathetic understanding' needed from pastors of both churches, since 'pastoral approaches to eucharistic hospitality form part of a necessary overall joint pastoring for interchurch families' (p.63). 'Recent progress in the area of eucharistic hospitality fills us with hope that further progress will continue in the future for the benefit of interchurch couples' (p.86).

Resources speaks mainly of the challenges facing interchurch couples (e.g. pp. 1, 30), whereas in the Australian report it is the churches that are challenged, both by the existence of interchurch families and by the need to witness to a world suffering from 'brokenness, separation and alienation' (p.53). However, Resources issues a challenge to the churches at all levels to 'be intentional in helping interchurch families to share as fully as possible in church life' (p. 17). This will require from pastors some knowledge of consensus and agreement documents produced by the churches. Congregations too should be offered opportunities to get to know each other and work together, and could jointly sponsor support groups for interchurch families; 'the American Association of Interchurch Families presents a model' (p. 19). May this be widely put into practice!