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This article was published in the January 1999 issue of The Jounal.

INTERCHURCH FAMILIES FROM AROUND THE WORLD

They came to Geneva in July 1998 from Austria and Australia, from Canada and Croatia, from Ireland and Italy, from Sweden, Germany and the USA. Our francophone hosts formed the largest group, especially those from France (the main organising centre for the conference was in Lyon), although the number of Swiss participants was matched by those from England. This coming together from such diverse national and cultural backgrounds had never been attempted before, and it offered an amazingly enriching experience. The mutual exchanges between interchurch couples and families was at its heart. I made lots of new friends and really enjoyed myself, wrote a teenage participant from England, and spoke for many. These exchanges took place in the context of worship. The multilingual Lord’s Prayer was a little glimpse of heaven, wrote an older couple. 

It was even possible to be linked by email to some of those who would have liked to be there but were unable to come. Greetings came beforehand and daily reports were sent out by Canadian Ray Temmerman, who is responsible for the Interchurch Families web site and for the AIFWorld list service.

An important element in the World Gathering was the five-minute reports from the national groups. We cannot do justice to them all here, and we shall return again to some of their content in later issues. 

We are not alone

In a report published in the News and Notes of AIFEngland, Rosy and Martyn Baker wrote: "It wasn’t until one of our small children had a slight accident at Graz last year that we met the Austrian interchurch family group and realised that there were other families in the same situation." The speaker was Boris, who with his wife Marina and four children came from Zagreb to represent Croatian interchurch families. The sense of not being on our own that so many of us felt on first discovering AIF was reinforced in Geneva by meeting so many different families in so many different situations all linked in their interchurch commitment. Exchanging experiences and getting to know one another across the boundaries of language and culture as well as church tradition will be one of the more lasting memories of the occasion."

Similarities and differences

A questionnaire sent out by Eric Lombard in preparation for Geneva brought out some differences. For example, about the same proportion of couples alternate their Sunday worship between the two churches of the partners in France, Switzerland and England, but in England, Ireland and the USA some families attend both churches every week – a practice unknown in France. A higher proportion of respondents shared communion in both churches in France and Switzerland than in English-speaking countries, but a higher proportion took part in the life and activities of both churches in England than in any other country. Organising family life seemed more of a priority in England and Ireland, while being a catalyst for unity seemed more important in Canada, France and Switzerland. It was considered more difficult to be an interchurch family child in England, Ireland and America than in France or Switzerland.

Some striking similarities came out of the presentations at Geneva. For example, in both Croatia and Northern Ireland interchurch families cross dividing lines in the community, not only church dividing lines; they can become victims of community conflicts in a way unknown to most others. From Australia, Canada and the USA we heard of the difficulties which vast distances present to the formation and running of national associations. In both Canada and England interchurch families have been working hard at holding their pastoral needs before their bishops. Some interchurch family movements have a long history – the French were the first, but the Germans and the English both celebrate their thirty years next year; others are only a few years old. All have their stories to tell, however. The Brisbane interchurch family group have recently published a collection of their experiences; more on this later. One English comment was that in the workshops it was cheering to find that experiences could be so depressingly the same. A Free Church participant wrote that it was great to be amongst other Protestants, not just Anglicans. Another wrote that it was stimulating, exhausting, culturally fascinating, exciting … very French!

Looking ahead

Fr René Beaupère, OP, has worked tirelessly for the pastoral care of interchurch families since the early nineteen-sixties, and has devoted much energy to persuading the churches that interchurch families have an ecumenical contribution to offer. He gave the opening address at Geneva and preached at the final service. Reflecting afterwards on the World Gathering, he wrote:

It was very symbolic that interchurch families were welcomed to Geneva for four days, with gratitude and friendship, at the headquarters of the World Council of Churches which brings together Anglicans, Orthodox and Protestants. Now we have to explore how we can effectively collaborate with the WCC – it won’t happen by itself – as well as with the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity in Rome which is called to mobilise the Catholic world "so that all may be one". The future belongs to God. We cannot look ahead very far. But it is certain that this gathering has been an important step forward; we hope it will contribute to the renewal of the pilgrimage of the disciples of Christ towards visible unity.