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

Pastoral Understanding

An adapted version of an article that appeared inPriests and People, London, January 2002.

The international conference of interchurch families held in Edmonton, Canada in July 2001 (see Interchurch Families, 10, 1, January 2002) appealed for a 'pastoral understanding' for such families that goes beyond 'pastoral care'. This appeal seems to be clarified by the identification of three phases or paradigms in our understanding of pastoral care quoted in Priests and PeopleAugust-September 2001, an identification taken from John Patten's Pastoral Care in Context (Westminster Press, 1993). 

The first phase identified, the classical phase, is an entirely clerical model, which stresses pastoral eare as direction and guidance given by the Christian minister to a recipient. The second phase is the clinical pastoral paradigm. and stresses counselling skills and the interaction between the minister and the recipient of pastoral care. The third paradigm stresses the communal context; both minister and recipient are members of a community and are operating in an ecclesial and social context. Pastoral care is offered collaboratively, and those who give care are also those who receive care. Not only can the recipients be transformed, but the church too can be transformed by its experience of working with people in particular situations. It is not suggested that each model has been replaced or superseded by the one that follows; they are complementary, and ideally elements from each paradigm should be included when pastoral care is offered. 

Interviewer:Do you think that clergy and ministers giving joint pastoral care to interchurch couples is a good idea? 

lnterchurch family wife:Well, it's a good idea. But what often happens in practice is that the couples give joint pastoral care to the clergy. From a radio interview In the Irish Republic, 1972.

Commenting on the use of the phrase 'pastoral understanding' rather than 'pastoral care' following Edmonton, Ray Temmerman called it 'a major shift'. It is 'one that enables us very quietly but very confidently to say that we have something to offer. That we wish to be seen not primarily as needy people looking for care, but as full partners in the work for Christian unity (and at times needing care within that partnership, even as our partners, both churches and pastors, equally need our care from time to time).' 

1. Pastoral care as direction and guidance by a priest 
Interchurch families have asked for 'pastoral care' adapted to their specific needs for over thirty years. In response the booklet The Joint Pastoral Care of Interchurch Marriageswas produced by the Joint Working Group of the British Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church in England, Wales and Scotland as early as 1970. It was updated and expanded in 1994 as Churches Together in Marriage: Pastoral Care of 1nterchurch Familiesby Churches Together in England and CYTUN (Churches Together in Wales). 

These and similar guidelines frt)m other parts of world can help clergy to offer pastoral care adapted to the needs of interchurch families, in line with church norms. They encourage Catholic priests to work together with other Christian ministers, where appropriate, in shared celebrations of marriage and baptism. Church norms are, of course, progressively developing and changing, so that pastors need to keep up to date with these changes. For example, in England many couples will not yet know that they can ask the bishop or his delegate for permission for the other Christian parent at a baptism, a first communion or a confirmation to receive communion with their spouse and child. If they are not told, how can they know? Such permission can transform a fraught occasion to an immensely joyful one for some families.

There may of course be times when for all kinds of pastoral reasons -- which may not concern only the particular couple who have come - ministers cannot encourage a request They need then to remember that it may take a lot of courage for some couples to get as far as asking. The way in which a negative response is given can make all the difference. Many couples have said that if a priest shows he really cares about their needs, even though he has to say 'no', they are much readier to accept his decision. 

2. A counselling approach to pastoral care 
But 'pastoral understanding' goes further than this. It is not just the application of the current rules and attitudes of the churches, in as caring a spirit as possible. It implies dialogue, listening to interchurch families as they try to express their experience and helping them to make decisions that authentically reflect that experience. It implies an understanding and respect for the conscientious convictions and actions of those couples and families who may feel themselves constrained to go beyond those rules. 'Going beyond' has become a much-used phrase by some interchurch families, ever since the late Bishop Francis Thomas of Northampton told a group of them, with reference to eucharistic sharing, that 'going beyond the rules is not the same thing as going against them'. It is the kind of pastoral care and understanding that couples are able to give to other couples in offering support. 

Many couples have of course received such pastoral understanding from Roman Catholic clergy, and it has made all the difference to them. 1 think of the young north American Lutheran, quietly allowed by a Catholic parish priest to receive communion with his Catholic wife on an on-going basis; he told us at Edmonton that it had 'lifted a heavy stone off my back'. I think of the English Catholic spouse who was asked by her parish priest whether she received communion in the church of her Anglican partner. When she replied that she did, to her relief the response was not a brusque 'You shouldn't do that', but a gentle 'I can understand that'. I think of the Australian Catholic wife who in a particular context thought she should tell her bishop that she received communion in her husband's Anglican church; the response came: 'I can't in conscience try to change your conscientious decision'. 

Of course pastoral understanding is not only on the Roman Catholic side. I think of Anglican priests and churchwardens who have been willing for a Catholic priest to celebrate the baptism of an interchurch child in their church building. I think of the Anglican bishop who some months ago was willing to act as a sponsor in a Catholic celebration of confirmation for interchurch children. In such cases Anglican clergy can take a large part in the celebration (reading, homily, prayers etc.), but it is the Catholic who is the chief celebrant. Anglican clergy who have recognised that they cannot expect reciprocity from the Roman Catholic Church at present, but who have nevertheless been willing to do all they can for the pastoral good of interchurch families, have earned the undying gratitude of such families. It isn't easy to act without reciprocity. Members of the Free Churches in England have of course been giving an example of this to Anglicans for many years. 

3. The communal context: chllenge and transformation 
'Pastoral understanding' goes even further than individual pastoral responses to particular couples, however. The theme of the Edmonton conference was 'Living the Path to Christian Unity'; this picked up the words of Pope John Paul II to interchurch families in York in 1982: 'You live in your marriage the hopes and difficulties of the path to Christian unity'. Some interchurch couples, bound together sacramentally by their marriage covenant, are enriched by their experience of living within two church communities in a way that can lead them to feel that in some sense they belong to both. We are not talking here of canonically recognised membership, but of a real affective bond that links a married partner to the church community of their spouse. How can this 'affective ecumenism' become 'effective ecumenism', as Pope John Paul II put it to the former Archbishop of Canterbury in Rome in 1989? 

'Pastoral understanding' of this experience lived by some interchurch families requires a willingness by their churches to listen to it, to be challenged by it, and to consider its wider implications. For until we actually feel we belong to one another in a very real way aeross denominational boundaries, what hope is there for Christian unity? All the doctrinal agreements in the world won't get us there by themselves. There is thus a responsibility, shared both by interchurch families and by their communities, to see what this feeling and experience of 'double belonging' might mean for church relationships. How can whole church communities put themselves into situations where they might share this sense of belonging together in a more real way than they do at present? 

Pastoral understanding implies a two-way process. Interchurch families have to find the eourage to share their experience more widely with their pastors and communities, to find ways to explain how each partner has developed a relationship with the church of the other that goes way beyond what most people in their churches have enjoyed. The experience of interchurch children who have been brought up within the life of two church communities goes even further, of course. If we can manage to share this experience in a way that can be understood, and if our churches can listen and respond to this genuine Christian experience, then we shall all move further forward on the path to unity. 

Ruth Reardon