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This article was published in the January 1997 issue of The Journal.

Interchurch Families and Christian Unity: An English Perspective

A popular cartoon of Christian unity and interchurch families might look like this: Christian unity is about three things - first, about practical co-operation between churches (denominations), second, about doctrinal agreement between churches, and ultimately (when that is reached), about institutional union.

When people marry across denominational frontiers, they present a problem and an irritant to the movement for Christian unity, because they bring personal and pastoral complications which spoil the careful and painstaking progress towards unity.

Like all cartoons, such a sketch is instantly recognisable, but it distorts the truth.

The witness of four ecumenical pioneers
The search for Christian unity includes practical co-operation and painstaking work for doctrinal agreement leading to the institutional merger of separated denominations, but it is far deeper than that. Listen to the witness of four ecumenical pioneers.

(The four witnesses called and quoted at this point were Bishop Azariah of Dornakal in South India, speaking at the Edinhurgh 1910 missionary conference. Cardinal Desire A1ercier 'who hosted the Malines Conversations in the 1920's, Abhe Paul Couturier who founded the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in the 1930's, and William Temple. Archbishop Canterbury, who chaired the preparatory committee /(1/' the World Council ol Churches until his death in 1944 and presided over the formation oj"the British Council of Churches in 1942.)

These four witnesses remind us of the depth of the mystery of Christian unity - the divine depth, since it is rooted in nothing less than the love between the persons of the Holy Trinity, and the human depth, since it is about real and persistent human love and friendship - the divine-human depth, since the human Jove is nothing unless we are incorporated into divine/human Jesus Christ, the true Vine. Because the movement for Christian unity is so profound, there can be only one movement, fundamentally the same everywhere in the world.

The experience of interchurch families is also fundamentally one and the same wherever we are in the world, as we have been discovering in these few days of mutual exchange.

An English perspective
But there is a third element to the title I have been given - not only 'Christian Unity' and 'Interchurch Families', but also ‘An English perspective', so let me give you a very brief and simplified history of ecumenism in England during the past century. The subject is the same, but the context is particular.

An American friend spent a year in Europe studying ecumenism, and he returned to the United States convinced that the Germans had provided the theology for ecumenism, the French had provided the spirituality, and the English the pragmatism. I am not certain that any of those three nations would be entirely happy with that caricature, but I cannot deny that the English have been very pragmatic.

For simplicity, let me divide the period into three phases.

(The first two phases described were 1910-1942, the period ()l the enthusiasts, and 1942 - Churches - to 1982.)

1982-present

The year 1982 not only saw the end of thirty-five years of negotiations about national schemes of union in England, really significant international theological dialogues Eucharist and Ministry and the Final Report of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. It saw the visit of Pope John Paul II to England. His visit was consciously and intentionally ecumenical. He met leaders of all thc British Churches in Canterbury and enquired of them and of the Roman Catholic bishops about ecumenical relations.

The juxtaposition of these three events led to a rethinking and redirection of ecumenism in Britain and especially in England. Church leaders consulted one another about the way ahead, and decided also to consult local churches. In 1986 about one million churchgoers of all denominations discussed together in small groups the nature and purpose of the Church. They found the experience rejuvenating. They affirmed their desire for closer Christian unity in diversity. They valued one another's gifts and traditions. They discovered that to be different was not necessarily to be wrong.

In 1990 therefore the British Council of Churches gave way to new ecumenical instruments in Britain, including Churches Together in England, and to new ways of working ecumenically. There is not time to spell them out in detail, but I will mention five of their characteristics.

  1. All work for unity must be undergirded by prayer and worship, since it is God's unity that is sought. Of course, this emphasis had never been lost, but it had sometimes seemed overlaid amidst the union negotiations of the previous decades.
  2. Work for unity is the concern of all persons at all levels, locally as well as nationally and internationally and especially (a new emphasis in many parts of England) at diocesan level. England was divided into about 50 areas or counties in which ecumenical councils were established, an ecumenical officer appointed, and in many of which church leaders covenanted to work together. Underlying this is the conviction that Christian unity concerns persons and groups «/ persons in relationship with one another and with God.
  3. Christian unity requires a mutual covenant or commitment between churches (denominations). The decision-making bodies of all member churches of Churches Together in England were consulted beforehand and asked to commit themselves. Their representatives signed that commitment at the inaugural act of worship which brought Churches Together in England into being. Moreover, the Enabling Group, the central council of Churches Together in England. never makes its own decisions on major issues. It has to consult the decision-making bodies of the member churches each time. since the}' alone carry the authority. This is very different from the way the old British Council of Churches worked. and very much slower, but we t111st that it means that our actions and statements are really those of the churches together.
  4. As Archbishop Robert Runcie and Pope John Paul II said in L989. 'Christian unity is not just about the removal of obstacles but about the exchange of gifts.'
  5. Fifthly, Christian unity is for the sake of mission - "that they may be one that the world may believe". We are not concerned for the unity of the church only, but for the reconciliation of the whole world to God.

This new way of working has forced us to focus much more carefully than before on what we actually mean by the visible unity of the Church. We have established a five-year process, which we have entitled Called To Be One, in which our member churches are explaining to one another what they understand by the words "church", "unity" and "visible unity"; and in the light of those answers we hope to be able not only to understand one another better, but also to begin to see what further steps we might take together on the road to closer visible unity.

Interchurch families
We come at last to consider how interchurch families, past, present and future, relate to Christian unity.

As far as the past - with considerable pain and difficulty! The denominations, with their myopic views, regarded them as a problem, and tried to prevent them. Dr Geoffrey Wainwright, at a conference organised by Fr Michael Hurley in Dublin in 1974, pointed out that it was not mixed marriages that were the problem and anomaly, but the fact that the churches had become divided (Michael Hurley, ed., Beyond Tolerance, Chapman, 1975).

Nevertheless. whichever way we look at it and however far we have come in trying to alleviate it, you do not need me to tell you that there is still a problem. You would not be here otherwise! All the same, we should recognise that some people in the churches are beginning to see interchurch families as an opportunity. Here are people who have married for other reasons, but. now they are married. they are highly motivated to work for Christian unity. That is certainly true. When we have asked interchurch families in England how many of them are deeply involved in ecumenical work, the answer is a very high proportion indeed, much higher than that for the majority of church members. So it is not surprising that the 50 ecumenical officers I mentioned earlier are eager to make their acquaintance.

Interchurch families present both a problem and an opportunity for the churches. I want to suggest, however, that for the future we should explore our role (to use the words of the letter to the Ephesians) as a mystery. In the fifth chapter of that letter the author appeals to Christians to love one another and so to imitate Christ who gave himself up for us as a sacrifice \0 God (1, 2). He appeals to husbands and wives to love and be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ (21-30). He then quotes Genesis 2: 24: For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh, and goes on to say: This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband (31-33). If we can overlook for the moment the relationship of subordination of women to men common in the author's time, and very convenient to his argument about Christ and the church, let us focus on the central theme. The relationship of husband and wife is a mystery of unity in love which is worthy 10 be used to describe the self-sacrificing love of Christ for his church. The mystery can then be reversed, so that the author can appeal to Christians to love one another as Christ first loved them. This three-fold relationship - marriage - Christ - church - is a 'mystery', the Greek word which the Orthodox use for 'sacrament'. When the church spread throughout the Mediterranean in the first three centuries, it settled in 'households' or families long before it was free to meet in specially dedicated buildings (e.g. Colossians 4: 15). We are told that the Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference in the United States has recently commissioned a study of the family as the 'domestic church'. There is a mysterious sacramental depth of relationship here worthy of further theological and spiritual exploration.

What does this have to say about mixed marriages, interchurch families? Remember that the context in which the author of the letter to the Ephesians used the word 'mystery' of the relationship of husband and wife as of Christ and the church was an appeal for Christian unity. Has the experience of interchurch families, their desire to participate as fully as they can in the life of two yet distinct denominational churches not much to teach the churches in their search for Christian unity? Fr Rene Beaupere and I were invited to join a small working party on the Pastoral Care of Interchurch Families set up by the Joint Working Group of the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches in the 1980s. The working party's report asked that the churches should explore further the theological and ecclesiological significance of the experience of interchurch families. This work is still to be done.

Look again at the five characteristics of our new ecumenical ways of working in England:

1 The undergirding of prayer and worship
Interchurch families are united in the sacraments of baptism and marriage, and often have a deep longing to share the eucharist together. I am sure that many of the families here will testify not only to their desire to pray and worship together. but also to the need to do so in order to sustain and build up their marriage and family life. They will also testify to the enrichment they frequently receive by being able to worship in two different spiritual traditions, especially when they are penniued to receive the eucharist together.

2 Christian unity concerns person and groups of persons in relationship
What human relationship is closer than that of husband and wife, parent and child? The letter to the Ephesians quotes Genesis and speaks of "one flesh". We must be careful not to overemphasise and oversimplify a mystery, but is there not some analogy between the co-inherence of the three divine persons of the Trinity and the "one flesh" relationship of a Christian sacramental marriage?

3 Christian unity requires a mutual commitment or covenant between the churches
In all our traditions the theology of marriage is moving away from a basis in the old Roman concept of a legal contract and into the Judaeo-Christian understanding of a covenant.  I was struck during the week before I left England for this conference that two church leaders quite separately used the analogy of a marriage covenant when talking of the need for closer relationships between the churches.

4 Christian unity is about the exchange of gifts
What marriage is not deepened by the exchange of gifts? What marriage can survive without them?

5 Christian unity is for mission
Parents are the first teachers of their children. They have a ministry and message of reconciliation. In order to convey to their children the gospel of God's reconciliation through Christ, the parents have to be reconciled.

A contribution
This remarkable coherence between interchurch families and the work for Christian unity has not gone unnoticed by the Association of Interchurch Families in England. In 1988 it made its own contribution to the establishment of Churches Together in England in the following words:

Interchurch families rejoice that the churches of which they are members have committed themselves to one another to grow into unity. 

We are couples in which the partners are members of different churches. We have committed ourselves to one another in Christian marriage.  Because we belong to different churches, our married unity in Christ has to be expressed within those divided churches.  It may be, therefore, that our experience of growing together will be ready useful to our churches at this stage.

Most of us started with no ecumenical experience. We were quite ordinary Christians. But then we met one another, got to know one another, and we fell in love with one another.  Because we loved one another, we wanted to commit ourselves to each other for life. The English churches are now at this stage of committing themselves to one another in the love of Christ who first loved us. Some members of our churches, however, have not yet reached this stage, and need to be encouraged to meet and get to know one another.

Once we had made our commitment to one another in Christian marriage, we had to learn to live together.  A shared building helped - what would our marriages be like if we lived in separate houses? We shared our resources, material and spiritual. We undertook common tasks. and agreed on individual areas of responsibility. We were ready to say sorry to one another when we made mistakes and hurt each other. Is this how our churches may be helped to grow together?

We found it very important to worship together in one another's churches. We found it especially important to be together at the eucharist, even though this is a painful of experience when we do not share communion. When we churches can receive communion together we find this strengthens our unity as a couple and as a family. Increasingly, we feel it wrong to be separated at the table of the Lord. Maybe it is only as more members of our churches come to feel more sharply the pain and wrongness of separation at the eucharist that they will be motivated to seek more urgently the unity of the Body of Christ.  In particular, it seems to us that many of our clergy by the nature of their work are insulated from this vital experience.

Another motivating force for us has been the shared responsibility we have for our children. since we need as parents together to nurture them in Christian faith and life by our words and our example. How can we speak to them effectively of the Christian gospel of reconciliation if we ourselves are divided? How can the churches speak effectively to the world if they are divided?

We have learned in our marriages that unity does not mean uniformity. Differences enrich our common life. There are, however, some differences between us which threaten the unity of our marriage. In these cases we have to be prepared to discard what is not essential to us, to give up certain things which we enjoy as individuals, for the sake of our life together. If we were not prepared for this 'giving up', and adapting ourselves each to the other. we our marriages would not work. Equally, the churches need to be prepared to change certain aspects of their life for the sake of unity, if they are really committed to becoming one church.

In our marriages, we share all kinds of experiences and activities - a whole network which holds our life together. Equally, our churches need the threads of practical experience and activities to tie them together. We ourselves have found that there are all kinds of practical ways in which we can take part ill the life of our partner's church:  for example, by leading intercessions, joining the choir, teaching the children. becoming a member of the parish council. Could it not become normal for Christians to take up a particular job within another church community? It would help to bind the churches together in their day to day life.

Celebrating family landmarks is important in contributing to family unity. We have found that when we celebrate weddings and baptisms jointly. involving both our ministers and church communities, this often has a positive effect on the relationships a/the local churches as well as those our families. Could not this be extended by the working together much more closely in marriage preparation and support? Could they not sometimes find opportunities to celebrate together the one baptism into Christ which we all profess?

In our families, we have our ups and downs, but we are the committed 10 making our marriages work, and this commitment by the grace of God keeps us together in a developing relationship which passes through many stages as our unity is forged and grows and deepens. Can it be that our churches need to come together in the kind of way that married people come together to receive and create their unity in living it together?

Marlin Reardon 

This article was published in the January 1997 issue of The Journal.