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

Past and future

Ruth and Martin Reardon were founder-members of the British Association of Interchurch Families. They spoke on the past (Ruth) and the future (Martin); shortened versions are given here.

The past

The interchurch family movement began in the new climate created by the Second Vatican Council and the official entry of the Roman Catholic Church into the ecumenical movement. In looking back I have picked out a few phrases that were important to us in earlier days, to tell the story around them.

Interchurch families

This phrase gave our identity. We coined the expression interchurch marriages at the first national meeting of ‘mixed marriage’ couples in England in 1968. We shared an amazing discovery. We were not alone; others too wanted to live the unity of their marriage in Christ, drawing their spiritual nourishment as couples from both the Roman Catholic Church and the church of the other partner.

The English and Welsh Bishops referred to the phrase in 1970 in their Directory on Mixed Marriages, their application of the 1970 papal motu proprio that transformed the Roman Catholic legislation on mixed marriages. No longer did both partners have to promise that all their children would be baptised and brought up in the Catholic Church; the Catholic partner only had to promise to do everything possible for this. The papal text even said that some mixed marriages could help in re-establishing unity among Christians. (It was said negatively: ‘do not … except in some cases’ – ‘exceptional cases’ were recognised back in 1970.) The Episcopal Conference agreed that the term ‘interchurch marriage’ could perhaps be accepted for a mixed marriage in which both partners are practising Christians, but this would only describe a small proportion of them, perhaps one in ten.

That linked up with our experience. Those of us who came together in 1968 and in subsequent annual meetings usually had the experience of being regarded as oddities. ‘I’ve never known a mixed marriage couple like you’, was the reported reaction of many Catholic priests in the early days. Priests seemed to expect (and prefer) the other partner in a mixed marriage to be a non-practising Christian. Some priests made unilateral demands with a pre-Vatican II mentality, and many couples seemed to accept this. We on the other hand wanted to establish the fact that, in the new post-Vatican II climate in which the Roman Catholic Church had recognised the ecclesial character of other churches and communities, interchurch couples could enter marriage on an equal footing. It could and should be recognised that the spiritual life of the family is a shared responsibility of the spouses, and so is the education of the children. So we were happy with the suggested limitation of the term ‘interchurch marriage’ – and pointed out that one in ten of all the marriages celebrated in English Catholic churches add up to a pretty big number each year.

For some years we talked about interchurch families and mixed marriages as if they were quite different. Since after a time it became obvious that there was no clear dividing line, we now use the term more widely. However, we have learned that it is important always to distinguish what kind of interchurch family we are talking about. Even among practising interchurch couples there are great differences. Many years ago someone in England suggested that church relationships go through five stages (the 5 C’s); they move from competition through co-existence, co-operation and commitment on the way to communion. There are interchurch families where both partners practise their faith, who would slot in to any point on that ecumenical scale. So I try not to generalise about interchurch families, but to qualify statements by ‘some’. The existence of all kinds of interchurch families, whether they practise or not, or wherever they stand on the ecumenical scale, is certainly relevant for the churches. But there are some couples who consciously assume their two-churchness as an ecumenical reality at the heart of their married life, as a gift and a call from God. We all live it differently – there is no blueprint. But it is something that we have recognised in one another, within the interchurch family movement, and we have learned together to be more explicit, more articulate about it.

Interchurch family is not an entirely satisfactory term. It has however gained currency quite widely in English-speaking countries. The 1993 Ecumenical Directory keeps ‘mixed marriages’, but has given us an alternative phrase: we are those who ‘share the sacraments of baptism and marriage’. It points us to a theological reality, the shared covenants of baptism and marriage. At the same time we know this is not always lived as a faith reality; many who still go to church for their baptism and their wedding are seldom seen there otherwise. It seems to me that this makes sense of the way the Directory speaks of ‘exceptional cases’ of need for eucharistic sharing, and that it is important when we talk of eucharistic sharing not to generalise, not to suggest that all mixed marriage couples want it. (The Southern African Directory expresses very well when the need may be felt: ‘when they are in church together’.)

Problems are opportunities

We repeated this phrase often. Yes, there are enormous difficulties in being a two-church family, it’s painful, it’s exhausting, but if we stick with it and face all the problems as they come, there are also great possibilities for growth as individuals and as couples. Our own Christian tradition becomes so much more alive to us when we have to explain it to someone who loves us. Entering into another tradition, lived by someone we love, becomes a great enrichment. We realise that to be different is not necessarily to be wrong; that when differences can be lived together in unity we discover a completely new dimension in our lives as Christians. Indeed that is what marriage is about – living difference in unity. And some of our children are now telling us they too have experienced interchurch family life as an enrichment.

The first difficulty we faced in 1968 was the pre-marital promise about the children. The whole mixed marriage situation was revolutionised in 1970 when this was changed. But was it just to mean that if the Catholic wasn’t strong enough to impose the Catholic upbringing of children, the other partner would bring them up in his or her church without the Catholic being penalised? Even in the latest official Roman texts the idea of competition between the parents is built in: ‘notwithstanding the Catholic’s best efforts’, says the 1993 Directory. But some of us wanted to go deeper than that, and see how we could live together and bring up children together in an equal partnership of love. What about sharing fully the riches of both our traditions with our children? Many people told us it was impossible.

Going beyond

Of course it is impossible at present to be a member of both churches according to Roman Catholic canon law, and the rules of many other churches. But the canonical is not the only – or indeed the most important – level of church life. One of the phrases we have repeated over and over to one another was first used by one of our English Catholic bishops to a group of interchurch families in the early ’eighties. He told them: Going beyond the rules is not the same thing as going against them. The area of ‘going beyond’ is the area of conscience, and we need to work hard on this question of conscience.

There is an imbalance in our marriages because of the Roman Catholic Church’s conviction that it is church with the fullness of the means of salvation in a way that none of the other churches and ecclesial communities of the west would claim. Roman Catholics who remain in solidarity with that church have to decide how to relate to the church communities of their partners. That spouse has to decide how to relate to the Roman Catholic Church and its requirements. But the marriage relationship itself is equal, reciprocal, and it creates its own unity. So the question also arises: how do we relate to our churches? It is very complex. It is the ecumenical movement in miniature, particularly where relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the other churches and ecclesial communities of the west are concerned. Many other Roman Catholics tend to look at these communities in terms of what they lack. Interchurch family spouses tend to look at their partners’ churches in terms of their positive values, their fruitfulness.

The impossible only becomes possible when it happens, and after that it is a long time before the possibility is recognised in church practice and law. But law does change; we can chart the progress since Vatican II. I am reminded of one of the stories from the Pope’s visit to England in 1982. At the meeting with British church leaders in Canterbury the Primus of the Episcopal Church of Scotland told us that he spoke to John Paul II about the needs of interchurch families for eucharistic sharing. The Pope listened with care, nodded his head, and said: ‘It is possible’. Later Cardinal Willebrands, President of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, commented: ‘If the Pope says it’s possible, it’s our job to make it possible.’ Making the impossible possible contributes to growing unity.

Double belonging

We have often used this phrase since the early ’eighties to sum up our lived experience in interchurch families. ‘Double belonging’ is experienced differently and to different degrees. But it is this experienced reality that underlies all our efforts for eucharistic sharing, for joint celebrations of baptism and indeed for sharing the whole process of Christian initiation. It is only a provisional stage on the path to full Christian unity, but it is one we experience here and now, on the very small scale of family life.

We live it

Very early on an interchurch couple wrote: ‘Some people play at ecumenism, but we live it.’ It was a phrase echoed by Pope John Paul II on his visit to England in 1982: ‘You live in your marriage the hopes and difficulties of the path to Christian unity.’ We have had a great opportunity because we are small and so freer than larger communities, and because we are bound together by our marriage covenant – deeply, strongly, for life. We have our own living experience – positive and negative. It is ours; very few share it. We can now draw it all together, from many parts of the world. We can have confidence in it, because God is in it. It is the most precious thing we have to offer to our churches.

Our future path

The one final solution to the problems of interchurch families is the full communion and unity of our two churches. So our future path will be alongside and in critical solidarity with our churches on their road to closer unity.

In England most of us are Roman Catholics married with Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists or United Reformed Christians. Other countries have many Roman Catholic-Lutheran couples also. These are the churches we walk with. Elsewhere different sorts of interchurch couples meet different problems and opportunities. Our future paths will vary according to the different paths that our various churches take.

The world context

The increasing mobility of populations has led to many more mixed marriages. Although the proportion of those who want to practise in one another’s churches while retaining their respective affiliations remains relatively small, we are now on the ecumenical world map. We know there are Roman Catholic-Anglican or -Protestant interchurch families not only in Europe, North America and Australia. They exist also in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Our future path will cover the globe. We are preparing a multilingual World Gathering of Interchurch Families near Rome in July 2003. But what of interchurch families from other countries and continents, and particularly from the third world, whose cultural experience may be very different, and most of whom will not have the material resources to travel to international conferences? This question was already raised by the Joint Working Group of the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church in 1989.

Our churches’ path to unity

The churches’ attempts to move forward towards unity have focused on four aspects:

structures through which they can meet, talk and co-operate internationally, nationally and locally (World, National and Local Councils of Churches)

theological dialogues on points of faith and order on which they have disagreed

engagement together, especially locally, in life, work and service to the community

Protestant and latterly also Anglican Churches have attempted union schemes of various sorts

For reasons I need not spell out the Roman Catholic Church has not shared in these union schemes, and has only recently joined national Councils of Churches. The priority has been tackling issues of faith and order that have proved obstacles to closer union between Roman Catholics and other Christians: justification, ministry, sacraments, authority.

In 1989 Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury and Pope John Paul II put out a very important joint statement. They said that Christian unity is not only about removing obstacles; it is also about sharing gifts. Of course it is vital to remove the obstacles in church structures and doctrines which have divided us, and we thank God for remarkable progress. But the enthusiasm and motivation of most ordinary folk for Christian unity is more likely to be aroused by the discovery of the positive gifts, values and resources which other churches possess, and the desire to share them. As Robert Runcie left Rome in 1989 John Paul II said to him: ‘Our affective ecumenism will lead to effective ecumenism’.

We witness by what we are

Marriage is about love, affection and sharing gifts and resources. Here interchurch families can make a unique contribution to our churches’ future path to unity if we examine our own experience and vocation, and bear witness to it by what we are, do and say. Our interchurch marriage is our Christian vocation. It is our spiritual path to God. We travel that path together. We come to our marriage with our two distinct Christian traditions and identities. We retain these, but as we grow together we develop in addition a new common Christian identity, in which the gifts and spiritual traditions of our two churches are shared.

The ascended Christ gives gifts to his church to enable the whole body to grow into unity in Christ (Eph.4:11-13). We learn about growing together into maturity in marriage, though we may never reach it in this life. In a good marriage we begin to catch a glimpse, as far as humans can, of co-inherence, of living in one another’s hearts and minds. And in interchurch families this is a healing experience of people from two Christian traditions. We can form a human bridge connecting two churches. It is because of our churchly, sacramental reality that the Roman Catholic Church has gone so far as to include some interchurch families among exceptional cases who may under certain conditions be permitted to share eucharistic communion at mass.

As early as 1974 the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, which already included Roman Catholics as full members, said in Accra: Mixed marriages, so often regarded as a ‘problem’, can rather be seen as the connective tissue par excellence between separate Christian communities. Thus the partners deserve to be given all possible pastoral help to share as fully as possible in the life of both communities in which they are involved, and to bring these together. Connective tissue grows over a wound enabling it to heal. Wherever our churches recognise and understand our experience of ‘double belonging’, there our very existence can prove an effective sign of unity between them. Of course the experience of ‘double belonging’ of some of our children is even greater, if they have been brought up since infancy to share as far as possible in the life of the two churches of their parents. Interchurch families ask of our churches to give continuing attention to who we are, to what our experience of ‘double belonging/ participation/ insertion/ solidarity’ in the life of two churches means, and our churchly significance for the development of Christian unity.

We witness by what we do

Just as marriage partners live in one another’s lives, so we can encourage our churches to live in one another’s lives, to pray for one another regularly, to celebrate major festivals together, to participate frequently in one another’s worship, and to engage together in the service of the local community. Churches Together in England, the national council of churches, is at present encouraging member churches to participate in a process called ‘Together in a common life’. They are beginning to discuss sharing resources. Interchurch families know about that, as did the early church.

Interchurch couples get involved in the ecumenical structure of their churches at local, diocesan/district, national and international levels; we could offer many examples. We need to press our churches gently but firmly to turn their professed commitment to unity, their remarkable discoveries of doctrinal agreement, into much more commensurate action. We would like to see many more shared celebrations of baptism – not only for interchurch family children. We want to see the churches working together in marriage preparation and support. Marriage and birth are times when many people are open to a sense of God, and call for great pastoral understanding. Sadly for too many mixed marriages these are the times when clergy clumsiness turns couples away from God.

We witness by what we say

We cannot just blame our ministers. They have to spend most of their time in their own churches; how can they have a complete pastoral understanding of interchurch families? We need to witness by what we say; we need to tell our story, to help our pastors and congregations to understand what it is like to be an interchurch family – our opportunities as well as our problems. If none of us talk about our experience, the contribution we can make to the unity of our churches will not be known. To do this effectively we need to learn to express our experience in words that our respective churches will understand. And as we progress in understanding the language of one another’s churches we can act as interpreter for others.