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

Parity of esteem

Fr Tom Layden SJ contributes the following reflections out of his pastoral experience with interchurch families in Northern Ireland. We are grateful for permission to use extracts from his longer article on ecumenical spirituality that appeared in The Way Supplement 200 I. He recounted a conversation with a boy who told him his parents 'were mixed. and he sometimes went to his mother's church and at other times to his father's. He asked how Tom Layden as a priest would feel about him going to his father’s Protestant church on a Sunday?  Would he ever go to such a church himself? Would he feel at home there? The writer reflects:

What a difference it would mean for this boy and for his parents if when they attend church they were to hear prayers recited for the bestowal of God's blessing on the people in the 'other' church. It would convey a sense of recognition that between these communities there is a bond of communion in the Spirit uniting them as children of God and disciples of Jesus Christ. They are not rivals in competition with each other. While not in any way denying the reality of difference in tradition and divergence in theological understanding, the very fact of praying for the 'other' church would signify a conviction that what unites them is infinitely greater than what divides them. When the boy goes to the other church, there is no need for my church to feel that it is losing out. He is going to pray and worship with a community with whom we are deeply (if not fully) connected in our common faith in Christ. Whenever he comes to the church of which I am a member, the other church does not lose out here either. That which unites us with them, namely belief in the Lord's paschal mystery, the gift of the Spirit in the community, and reverence for the Word of God, is greater than those areas in which our understanding and practice diverge.

What would convince this boy and his family more effectively of growing unity than to see me, an ordained Catholic priest, coming to his father's church simply to be there as part of the congregation, to join in the hearing of the Word and in the offering of prayer and supplication for the needs of all? And for the minister from his father's church to occasionally come to share in worship in the Catholic tradition in the measure allowed by conscience and church discipline? While the stated positions of the churches are quite ecumenical, the practice at ground level can be somewhat at variance with this. Ecumenism can be seen as something for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity but as an optional extra for those so inclined for the rest of the year.

In recent years 1 have in fact adopted the practice as far as possible to attend a service in a Protestant church once weekly. This serves to guard against any narrowing of one's ecumenical horizons. It would not be possible for everyone, but if we take ecumenism seriously some time needs to be invested in actually being with Christians from other traditions.

A 'winner takes all' mentality
The past two generations have seen a tremendous transformation in the manner in which the Christian churches relate one to another. But a certain awkwardness and uneasiness continue to characterise ecumenical relations in particular situations. Nowhere is this sometimes more apparent than in the area of the pastoral care of interchurch marriages.

While we have come a long way from the day of sacristy weddings in a distant city there is still a certain unevenness in the way in which couples entering an interchurch marriage (and their families) can experience the ministry of their respective churches. In some places the pastoral care is excellent and a spirit of collaboration and mutual respect marks the ministerial approach of the clergy and congregation from both churches. At times some couples encounter difficulties when they come across a 'winner takes all' kind of mentality on the part of certain clergy. Such a person wants everything 'done' in their own church and is none too anxious to facilitate the attendance or participation of clergy of the other tradition. In such a context it is sometimes said that it is better when 'the other side' do not practise their religion because then only one tradition has to be taken into account. This seems a rather lazy attitude revealing a less than fully convinced ecumenical outlook.

The churches can learn from civil society
In church life, we can learn from the political, social and cultural context in which we find ourselves. That context will determine the climate in which we exercise our discipleship and carry out ecclesial ministry. Living here in Northern Ireland, ecumenical ministry acquires its own resonance from the particular history we inherit and the ways in which our polity is currently undergoing change. This is a time of transition in which local politicians are assuming control of areas of government which have been controlled by London during the Troubles. The new style of government here, coming out of the Belfast Agreement of Good Friday, 1998, puts particular emphasis on the concept of parity of esteem. This refers to the need to ensure that the two main political/cultural traditions enjoy the recognition of equality of status at all levels of government. There must be no appearance of domination or subordination.

Both traditions are to be esteemed. The winner does not take all. Everything is to be shared. This concept represents a huge challenge to all participants in public life and to society here in general. Hcre is something that the nascent civil society can bring to the churches in our practice of ecumenism. In all that we do ecumenically we are called to practice parity of esteem in our dealings with churches of various traditions. What might this mean concretely?

An example: baptism in an interchurch context
I am quite frequently invited to participate in the baptism ceremony for children of an interchurch marriage. Where both partners are practising their faith, I always indicate my strong desire that clergy of the two traditions be present; also that participation be such that everyone will feel at home during the ceremony, feeling that representatives from each tradition have a significant role to play in it. What really helps is when the clergy concerned minister in a collaborative way, working as a team.

In the past year, I have assisted at baptismal ceremonies in two Anglican churches. On both occasions the Anglican priest and I got together prior to the ceremony to determine how we could best plan the rite so as to ensure appropriate participation in a way in which a proper parity of esteem for both traditions could be shown. Respecting the canonical requirements of both churches we were able to come up with a 'division of labour' so that nobody felt left out or overlooked. In one case the Anglican priest said the prayer of blessing over the baptismal water and presided at the baptism, while I proclaimed the Gospel and the prayer of the faithful. I came away from these experiences utterly convinced of the unsurpassable value of time spent in mutual preparation by both clergy in a spirit of co-operative partnership. Furthermore I am equally convinced of the value of putting a high premium on ensuring parity of esteem for both traditions in the way in which such liturgical rites are celebrated.

Not everyone might be comfortable with my taking my cue in this regard from a current value in civic society. It does not mean that it is always right for Christian churches to take the lead from norms in civil society. It is not to gloss over the reality of profound disagreement on matters where the truth is perceived to be at stake. In terms of actual pastoral practice it is a reminder to us that we can disagree without being disagreeable. We may believe a theological position to be untrue but the obligation to treat the holder of that position with respect remains. Is this not the way in which Jesus of Nazareth relates to all who come his way?  Was it not his way of giving the same dignity and respect to Samaritan and Roman as to those of his own tradition that marked him out from his contemporaries? Is there not something essentially very Christ-like in this notion of parity of esteem?

Respect for conscience
The principle of showing great respect for the sovereignty of each individual conscience is of paramount importance in the ministry to couples preparing for and involved in an interchurch marriage. Decisions about the church in which the wedding is to take place and about the religious upbringing of children are for the couple to discern and decide upon themselves, taking due cognisance of the expectations of their churches and of the sensitivities of their families, friends, community context etc. The role of clergy is a supportive one, respecting the integrity and judgement of the couple as to what is best for them in their particular circumstances. Respect and support in no way rules out the posing of challenging questions and the willingness to raise another perspective on how they might approach their situation.

A minister or priest in this context has a role comparable to that of the one who gives the Spiritual Exercises. One is called to be present in a discreet, unobtrusive way to the couple, at times pointing out what can lead to consolation and desolation and how to move forward when they find themselves in either position. Like the one who gives the Exercises, the minister/priest does not interfere or pry but realises that the Spirit of God is the real director, the ultimately reliable guide, and endeavours not to get in the way!

Joint pastoral support
As with the baptism of children the ministry of support is ideally and hopefully done in tandem with a minister of another tradition. Both work together to support the couple as they travel along their pilgrim way. The support ministry is a joint effort. One possible comparison might be with the way in which nowadays when involved in a directed retreat one is part of a team which meets daily and which is a support to the directors in their ministry of listening, responding and directing. Those of us who have experience of this know how enriching it can be and how it facilitates better quality direction. In a parallel way, clergy supporting a couple in a mixed marriage should function as a team and their shared ministry in this team should be of assistance to them in arriving at, and remaining in. that place of inner freedom which helps effective ministry to flourish.

If such interchurch ministry is possible against the background of the conflicted situation in Northern Ireland surely it is possible anywhere.

Tom Layden SJ