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The First Assembly: February 1992

The Conference of Associations of Interchurch Families in Britain and Ireland (AIF, Scottish AIF, the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association and AIF in the Irish Republic) is now a 'Body in Association' with the Council of Churches for Britain and Ireland. John Crossman was present at its first Assembly as our representative.

Here is a personal look at what I found to be a most inspiring week. What sticks out in my mind is the worship, and the meeting with so many interesting, varied and committed Christians.

Worship

The worship was very important to me. The Wild Goose Group from the Iona Community provided a framework and showed how real and meaningful interdenominational worship can be. We were all asked to bring a stone with us to the opening service; this was added to the cairn which remained at the centre of our worship for the week until we each took a different stone home.

I felt at several points that this was where I belonged - not back at St. Aidan's or St. Patrick's, but worshipping together with such a wide diversity of God's people.

The warmth of welcome at the Catholic mass was striking, even though the invitation to others had to be for a blessing not communion. I remember the lovely Eastern Orthodox priest and his sense of humour: "We do regularly review our liturgy, in fact there was a full revision as recently as the fifteenth century!"

I remember how I felt when the Russian Orthodox lady next to me felt unable to go up even for a blessing at the Anglican communion - but you know of those feelings.

I remember every delegate lighting a candle for their special intention - mine was for an interchurch family now sadly separated.

Meeting

At the welcome session everybody welcomed everybody! A message from the Vatican was delivered by an apologetic Cardinal Hume, who had left the actual text on his desk! We heard from Churches Together in England (Martin Reardon), Action for Churches Together in Scotland (ACTS), CYTUN (Together - Wales) and the Irish Council of Churches (the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland is not a member, and only has observer status with CCBI - a real loss to us all). John Reardon, Secretary of CCBI, gave us our brief - to set the agenda for what the churches should be doing together during the next two years until the next Assembly. For one from outside the formal structures of the churches and who has worked ecumenically 'between the edges' it was wonderful to see ecumenism at the centre of so representative a body with so many churches committed to working together.

Each morning we met around the Bible (Micah 6 - What does the Lord require of you/); studies led by Mary Tanner, who combined scholarship, inspiration and common sense, were followed by group discussion.

Then we met in five Section (and sub-section) groups to work on the agenda, a very open task. Concerns ranged from visible unity, evangelism evangelisation and spirituality to racism, green issues and political themes. Those used to more rigid and formal agendas found it difficult and there was little in the way of briefing papers, but despite problems of duplication it was very valuable to work in small groups to discuss and set out the issues facing the churches. No imposed agenda would have generated the interest and involvement of people in the same way.

We met in other ways too - in a light-hearted barn dance, over meals, where I shared with Quakers and Independent Methodists. An unfortunate remark led one group to think of leaving, but they courageously spoke out their hurt and concern, and a spirit of reconciliation flowed out to them (with the happy result that our barn dance caller was still available two nights later).

One evening we had a very moving and serious appeal for Africa from our 'extended family' brothers and sisters, presented as an epistle from the African Council of Churches by Anglican bishop Tilewa Johnson of the Gambia and Josphat Mulyungi, Roman Catholic layman from Kenya. They told us of the aim for 'dignified poverty', of the need for the church to 'legitimise the aspirations of people', or it is not bringing Good News. The evening had been prepared by Christian Aid, CAFOD and SCIAF, now recognised as agencies of CCBI, concerned that the desperate needs of Africa are in danger of being overlooked. By the end of the week the Assembly had not only responded in its agenda, but also prepared and sent an epistle back to Africa assuring them of our support.

AIF Input

We told the AIF story many times, and it was well-received. We had a well-placed permanent stall (with a wall behind where we could display the large exhibition originally made for the National Pastoral Congress in 1980) and sold a good deal of literature. One afternoon we ran a workshop (there were a number of optional workshops each day) which was small but very worthwhile. The majority of participants came from Ireland, and included two Church of Ireland bishops and an observer sent by the Irish Catholic hierarchy. They were particularly eager to question Sarah Reardon on her experience of 'double belonging' (Sarah was there as an extra AIF representative, among the youth delegates). There was a reference to the need for special pastoral care for interchurch families in the report of section 4 ('One Church for One World').

And Now...

The Archbishop of York summed up the week, which he believed had been a remarkable gathering of different people growing in their understanding of the true nature of Christ's church; he asked us to take back into our churches and into our consciences what it means to belong to the extended christian family. He asked us to pray for the Steering Committee and the Church Representatives Meeting and to enable a groundswell of opinion within the churches to support the work of the next two years.

I don't know where the piece of Lancashire gritstone from my garden has gone. The piece of flint I now have reminds me of the church. It has a surface of different colours and textures and they do not blend totally harmoniously, it is smooth in parts and sharp in others, but I can see clearly that through the middle runs a pure vein of rock of deep colour and consistent texture.

I have been disappointed in Assembly press reports; it is always the doubts and reservations which are expressed. I have tried to give you a flavour of a diversity of people meeting under God and in prayer, study and worship getting to know and understand each other and each other's traditions better. If those present take their new understandings into their local, regional and national work, is that not a great triumph for Christ's church?

John Crossman