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

A spirituality for interchurch families

The Edmonton conference theme picked up the message of Pope John Paul II to interchurch families at York in 1982: ‘You live in your marriage the hopes and difficulties of the path to Christian unity. Express that hope in prayer together, in the unity of love. Together invite the Holy Spirit of love into your hearts and into your homes. He will help you to grow in trust and understanding.’ A number of distinguished ecumenists came to Edmonton to reflect on the theme and to share their experience with interchurch couples. We regret that all texts are abbreviated.

A homily for interchurch families

Fr Ernest Falardeau, SSS, Ecumenical Officer for the Catholic Archdiocese of Albuquerque, focused on the reading from Colossians (3:1-5, 9-11), which, he said, ‘puts us straight on the path to a spirituality for interchurch families’.

Paul reminds us that through baptism we have been buried with Christ and have risen with him to newness of life. Christ is at the center of our ecumenical spirituality. ‘The closer we draw to Christ, the closer we draw to each other’, the Second Vatican Council tells us.

Christian unity is not our doing. Christ prayed for it. He sent his Spirit to achieve it. It is God – Father, Son and Spirit – who will bring it about. Our task is to receive it, to prepare the ground for it. We must eliminate prejudice and stereotypes from our hearts and prepare the way for God’s grace to bring about a profound conversion. Then we will no longer see other Christians as ‘other’ but as ‘like’. In the words of the Council: ‘we will see and recognize other Christians as brothers and sisters in the Lord.’

If we see the Church as Paul does, we will see it as one in spite of divisions. It enjoys a communion ‘real but incomplete’. We are part of the body, members of Christ, brothers and sisters in the one family of God. The spirituality of the interchurch family is an ecclesial spirituality, profoundly affected by love for the Church. Not just the church or denomination in which we were born, but every expression of the Christian tradition has a right to our love. Our prayer is always ‘in Christ’, and his prayer is always ‘that all may be one … so that the world may believe’. We pray with Christ that our love for one another may continue to be – as in the early Church – a sign of the presence of the Risen Lord in our midst. Our communion is incomplete. It is being completed by every step we take together; every dialogue, prayer, action that advances the kingdom of God moves us inevitably toward unity.

Paul underscores that in the Church there is no Jew or Greek, free or slave. All are Christians, part of the family. By our baptism and faith we are in real communion. That is why eucharistic sharing is possible for us. Our ecclesial communion leads to eucharistic communion. Our baptism opens the door to our sharing in the life of the Church, the life of Christ, eternal life. We grow in our knowledge of God, that is why we are clothed with Christ. Our Christian spirituality is essentially a growth in the Risen Lord. We put on his mind, share his thoughts, live his life.

And we do this as a family, as domestic church. We are the church in miniature. At the heart of the Church we want to develop a spirituality of love. Love is the great commandment of Jesus, our families are to grow in the love of God and neighbor. If the world is to change it must change one family at a time. If the Church is to grow, it is to grow one family at a time. Let every family share deeply in the life of the Church, in the life of the Risen Lord.

We share the eucharist together. Christ draws us into one body and one Church. The eucharist is a sign of the unity we already share as baptized Christians who love God and one another. It is also a sign of the unity we hope to achieve with God’s grace. It is the means to that unity. Thomas Aquinas says unity is the ‘thing’ (res), the purpose and goal of the eucharist (Summa Theologica III, q.73).

The Risen Lord gives us his Spirit, the Giver of Life. The Spirit gives us life in Christ. The Holy Spirit is at the heart of our spirituality as interchurch families. Our task is to follow the Spirit’s lead. All spirituality is ultimately life in the Spirit, allowing the Spirit to live in us as in a temple. Worship must be in the Spirit and in truth.

The bread on the table of our homes is a sign and reminder of the bread we break together in the Church. The bread broken on our tables is a prayer that Christ will unite us in the bread broken in his memory. Christ was born in Bethlehem, house of bread. And the Word made flesh becomes our bread of life as we share the eucharist together. We pray that the Risen Lord will continue to draw us together and to himself, until he comes in glory. Amen.

Together in the power of the Spirit

Dr Eileen Scully (Anglican), until recently Associate Secretary for Faith and Order of the Canadian Council of Churches, addressed the conference on the theme of Baptism and Marriage. We give here a section from her address.

Baptism into the whole Body of Christ is baptism into a Body that is wounded. Some of the tissue has been severed in ways that seem irreparable. But it is a Body nonetheless. Interchurch families know and feel these realities deeply. You live the paradoxical, painful, conjunction of the realities of the brokenness of the Body of Christ, and your knowledge that wounds can be healed, reconciliation is possible, Christian unity can be lived out with integrity.

Baptismal membership is unlike any other kind of membership. Christian unity is unlike any other kind of ‘unity’, say of corporations, clubs, or nations. The Church embraces all manner of people who would not naturally find themselves together. Jesus’ prayer that his disciples be one was for unity so that the world – the whole world – may believe, and so be caught up in the unity of God’s Love through the Spirit. Christian unity – being together in and through the power of the Spirit, is a movement – and energy – that faces the brokenness – that’s the baptismal gift and call: reconciliation for the sake of the world.

Lately. I’ve been trying to explain ‘Full Communion’ (in the context of Anglican-Lutheran relations in Canada). It’s not a merger, like that of corporations or for pragmatic self-preserving institutional reasons – but a sharing of life together, in response to God’s gift of unity, for the sake of the world. I’ve been thinking of ‘Empire’ (whether of states or corporations), where the powerful unite with increasing strength in order to dominate, conquer and subjugate weakness (or perceived weakness) and any form of difference that gets in the way of the increase in power of the already-powerful. The unity of the Spirit is unity in a very different kind of power – one that seeks not to dominate, but to serve; one that is not concerned with institutional, cultural or personal survival (or even religious survival!), but is ready to lay down its life for friendship. We know only too well the tendencies of churches – because they are us, and we too are shaped by these cultural forces – to get caught up in patterns of relationship that look more like Empire than Reign of God. Particularly when we’re under the stress of a secular world, and threatened with the worst of contemporary threats – irrelevance. We might be tempted as individuals and as churches to try to present a unified front against those forces that seem to threaten us. We might be tempted to ignore voices that remind us of our own fragility, remind us that we haven’t got it all completely together.

But the fact of the ecumenical movement is that when we, as Christians from different traditions, walk together – and more, live together in covenant love and raise families together – we enter into a radically different experience of unity in the power of the Spirit. Sin has its roots in the desire to ‘lord over’, and shows itself in the use of power over others that subjugates, dominates, excludes, denies the personhood of another. ‘Lording over’ has many names: patriarchy, colonialism, abuse, racism. But something new is being born in our midst as these many – and other – faces of ‘lording over’ (kyriarchy) are named, turned over and transformed.

I see one of these new things in the celebration of Full Communion between the Anglican Church of Canada and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. This is not a merger, but a much deeper exchange of recognition of friends in Christ by friends in Christ – recognizing each other fully as church, with distinct gifts to offer and to be received by each other. Friendship exists and grows in the free-flowing of gifts of our deepest selves to each other, and it eschews the tendency of one to use power to dominate, assimilate or control the other. Rather, this is a growing under, through and in, the power of the Spirit.

I also see new things being born in the shifting patterns in marital relationships, in relationships between women and men. The emergence of married relationships where the passion, love, and shared life together, are grown from the soil of friendship that seeks the integrity of each person as the foundation of the integrity of the relationship. It’s something that interchurch families show me: in your faith lives, you are living in this power, not where one dominates the other, but where each beholds with deep joy and wonder, as gift, the integrity of the other’s faith life and faith tradition. This is, indeed, love in the power of the Spirit, and a new thing being done in our midst. I read a display in the hallway: ‘Many enter into "mixed" marriages believing that one tradition must dominate the other. We are living witnesses that this need not be the case.’ You are indeed witnesses of something new being done.

Unity in the power of the Spirit carries within itself an energy to reach beyond itself – whether we’re talking about interchurch families or Anglicans and Lutherans in Full Communion – that grace-filled energy to reach out into the world with the ripple-effect that real hope for transformation can have. How powerful can be the witness to this world of friends of Christ who have become friends in Christ!

‘One as We are One’

Brother Gilles Bourdeau, ofm is Director of the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism, Montreal. His rich address (much shortened here) was based on the words of Jesus as recorded in John 17: 20-26.

With an awareness of your spiritual experience as ‘domestic churches’, I would like to meditate on some questions raised by the last few verses of Jesus’ benediction. Our experiences shed light on Jesus’ words and actions. His presence, his actions and his final words reveal the depth and meaning of our human and evangelical journey, our sincere intentions as well as our ecclesiastical tensions. I believe that the presence you as couples and families are called to welcome and understand is encountered here in Jesus’ final wishes for the presence, communion and mission of Christ and the Church in the world.

1. ‘He deigned to pray to his Father for us’

Francis of Assisi marvelled at this prayer of Jesus for himself and for his own, saying: ‘He deigned to pray to his Father for us’ (1 Rule 22:41). If there is one thing a Christian home must be aware of, it is the spiritual presence of Jesus praying in each person and in the community we are called to form. It is easy to understand Francis’ ecstatic admiration when he realizes that he and his contemporaries are already held in God’s heart and in Christ’s love and prayer. Daily prayer is simply becoming aware of this presence which gives birth to, accompanies and fulfills all Love in our loves. In the tension of welcoming Christ and his words, and our ongoing experience of conversion, a strong and profound conviction is forged: He is present today, he was present yesterday, he will be present tomorrow. He prayed for us, he is still praying for us.

2. Those who believe in Jesus ‘through their word’

Jesus is looking ahead to disciples and communities that will receive him by hearing about him through the witness of others. This is our experience. We receive our knowledge of Jesus through others. If we are able to confess that Jesus is Lord, we are also affirming that we have been born in faith through the community, a father and mother, sisters and brothers, authentic representatives of Christian life. Being born again is itself a sign that we receive and have access to God through Christ and in the Church.

Passing on the faith through the ministry of the word is very relevant to us, when we understand that our experience as couples and families is a special place to seek out God and test him. Here we learn more about his actions and his weakness, to know and love his face and heart. Baptized in water and fire, we understand that the experience of love – our own and that of others – gives God and gives to God. Words may reveal this, yet language will never say it completely. We are a sign and word of God in fear and trust.

The word is to be passed on, from one spouse to the other, from one to another within the family and domestic church. Those who love each other are in a ministry situation that calls for discernment and commitment. Passing on the faith in our mixed marriages may become a stumbling block, or it may become the cornerstone of marital communion. What we experience and what gives us life, how can we not share and pass on to others, not only between parents and children, but also among those around us? Especially when our Christian roots give us life in and through various and similar experiences of church.

3. ‘As we are one’: source and end of all loves

It is obvious that the unity among his disciples that Jesus prays for is infinitely more than concord and tolerance, getting along with each other or even unity in the faith. It is a unity and communion of beings and persons in the image of the unity and communion of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit (17:22). How the divine persons are ‘one’ is a mystery that fascinates our intelligence, overwhelms and inspires it. To have an inkling of what it means, we must approach it from an existential perspective, with faith and simplicity, with the spiritual perception characteristic of those who live in intimate relationship with God.

Believers have always experienced the God of the Bible as a personal God. He creates and watches over creation, protects and preserves it, constantly at work. Because he is personal God cannot be in eternal solitude. Real people cannot exist without being in relationship with others. What makes us more and more human is growing into more and more perfect communion. The opposite, withdrawing into ourselves, leads to death. The absolute Person is absolute communion. Communion between persons is what ensures our unity. In God, the Persons in an eternal communion of love are ‘One’. Their single being, of which the Father is the source, is not divided up into Three. Each Person contains it and expresses it in relation with the other two in an absolutely unique manner. In God, there is absolute unity and absolute diversity.

Communion in God is their unity. Unity in God and of God is the source and end of all communion and all unity. The unity and love of the Father and the Son is what Jesus wants his followers to experience and in it to find a home. In every church, however humble – ‘wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am in the midst of them’ – brotherly love is the fruit and expression of divine love and divine communion. Mutual knowledge and mutual acceptance in love are pathways and conditions that lead to intimacy with God. Fraternal communion continues and reveals Jesus’ presence in the world. If the Love of the Father and the Son, the Spirit, is given to us, it is so that every experience of communion, permanent or occasional, becomes a venue for knowing love and growing in love.

4. Tested in communion

The verb ‘love’ is used only in the final verses (23-24). Yet this is the core of all prayer, of Christian existence. It is understood only at the very end as one of the great works of God and of life. As Jesus sees it, we constantly grow in our knowledge and experience of love (17:26). Communion and love grow unceasingly. To be fulfilled in love is to enter ever more deeply into the love that has no end and which is a gift rather than the result of our efforts, more a grace-filled Pentecost than a demanding Passion. Communion and love are offered and given. After much effort and attention, they can only be received, as a gift from God, and welcomed with joy.

Christian life is contemplation in action, committing ourselves without looking for anything in return, in fraternal love and the eternal love of God. There is a discipline of love and unity for people and communities that have made life commitments. The communion which is the being and action of God calls for our free participation and our co-operation. Like Jesus, his witnesses teach that we have to sacrifice our own inclinations if we want to advance in reconciliation and love. All communion and all unity make demands on us. They bring both joy and suffering. This discipline frees in us the action of the Holy Spirit so that the new creation, clothed at baptism, can manifest itself more and more. There is no way to test this new reality taking shape within us, except our ability and our willingness to love God and our neighbour more and more unconditionally. Especially the ‘neighbour’ who has chosen us and with whom we have chosen to obey the commandment to love.

5. Witnesses of unity

‘So that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (17:21); that is the issue: being recognized, just as I am, as a human being. John’s words are bold; they lead us into a fullness that challenges all commentaries. This is the context in which he places the humble reality of brotherly, sisterly communion in all ‘little churches’. John does not seem very interested in church structures. His thinking is as fully ecclesial and as little ecclesiastical it could be. If small communities have become more meaningful today, it is not because they have some superior status because of the integrity of their lives or because they have a monopoly on sacrifice or humility. Communities – including all Christian homes – are simply places where we pick up the basin but also allow ourselves to be served.

John’s morality, his thinking about the Church and his concept of human beings are inseparable. God is not without Jesus, Jesus without God or the Church without them, or they without the Church. Proclaiming and living the gospel is about relationships, because God is love. In the early Church ‘...the whole group of believers were of one heart and soul … everything they owned was held in common’ (Acts 4:32-33). That is why great power marked the apostles’ testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.

‘As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (17:21). It is to this test of communion, this demand for unity and this witness that we are called by our baptism, as we live out the Good News in our homes.

A family of love

Canon Alyson Barnett-Cowan, Director of Faith, Worship and Ministry of the Anglican Church of Canada, expressed her gratitude for being present at the conference.

I was moved to hear your stories. I heard not so much pain – although that’s a part of them – as perseverance and creativity and hope. I was asked why an ecumenical staff person would choose to come to be with this particular group. I replied: ‘Because you’re the ecumenical movement’. I got the response: ‘But we didn’t choose to be!’

No, when you chose each other you weren’t choosing to take on the overwhelming task of healing the body of Christ, wounded over countless generations. Yet any marriage brings together separated families, and yours have just been really big separated families. But you did more than choose each other. You have chosen, day by day, to honour each other, to be faithful to your tradition and to that of your partner. You have chosen to create a new reality, a family of love that demonstrates to the churches not only the scandal of our divisions, but the absurdity of them. You have chosen to let your love move mountains – to find ways through, beside, under, over and between the barriers thrown up by centuries of fear and mistrust and mutual condemnation. So God bless you, and your children, and your children’s children who may, God willing, inherit the one church you have helped to create.

To move beyond

Sr Thérèse Jasmin came from a retreat centre at Winnipeg to run a workshop on ‘Walking the spiritual journey’. Someone described it as an oasis in the conference, a place to which individuals or couples could come for refreshment on their own paths to God. In her comments at the end of the conference Sr Thérèse picked up the theme of the bridge: we had used a model bridge as a symbol of the pathway to unity, a ‘crossing over’. Joy Bédard, who co-ordinated conference worship, invited participants to contribute a ‘link’ to the bridge – a hope, a vision or a prayer. (The bridge has now found a home at the Prairie Centre for Ecumenism in Saskatoon.)

Bridges are passage-ways. Traffic must be kept moving: you don’t stop – or park, or get stuck, or stall – on a bridge. Bridges are for movement to the other side – to move beyond. Likewise religion, churches, doctrines, dogmas, canon law are bridges. They are a means to move into the Kingdom of God, a means to grow into Christ, a means to develop a life in the Spirit.

Even the Word of God is a bridge. As we cultivate the friendship of Christ, a point may come when we move beyond the particular Gospel words to the Person speaking through the text; we have reached the point of spiritual attentiveness. The purpose of any bridge – be it religion, church, Word of God – is to a person-to-person, being-to-being relationship with Christ. So may our bridges challenge us to move from inter-church to inter-Christian faith families. May we all so contemplate the light, love, life of Christ that we become transfigured into brothers and sisters of Christ.

Live in God’s love

The young people at Edmonton, interchurch children in their teens and beyond, put together their own letter addressed ‘to all clerical and lay members of the Church’. They took up the theme of John 17: 20-23, and wrote:

To realize this vision, we appreciate that many steps need to be taken. Some of the steps we feel will help are:

Prayer for fellowship in the churches

Prayer for reconciliation

Prayer for acceptance

Prayer for constant focus on God and only God

As you can see, we are building our foundation on prayer. We need to let God move within our churches to bring them together. We remember that all our denominations are based on Jesus Christ. We must break down the barriers that have been formed and live on the foundation of God’s love. We leave you with this: Love one another warmly as Christian brothers and sisters and be eager to show respect for one another (Rom.12:10).