Main Menu  

Open menu

Living the Path to Christian Unity

Edmonton, 4 August 2001

(The past is reviewed by Ruth Reardon, a look at a possible future will be provided by Rev. Canon Martin Reardon.)

Martin Reardon, an Anglican priest, was sent in 1960 by the Church of England for a year to Louvain University, Belgium, to make contact with Roman Catholic theology following the calling of the Second Vatican Council by Pope John XXIII. There he met Ruth, a Roman Catholic; they married in Louvain in 1964. They lived for seven years in Sheffield, where Martin was Secretary of the Council of Churches. Ruth edited the Catholic ecumenical quarterly One in Christ, and became a member of the Roman Catholic Ecumenical Commission for England and Wales. 

In 1968 they were founder-members of the Association of Interchurch Families. Martin became co-chair together with Fr John Coventry SJ, and Ruth honorary secretary .In the 1970s Martin was Sub-Warden of Lincoln Theological College, and their two children spent their early years there. In the 1980s Martin was General Secretary of the Board for Mission and Unity of the Church of England, and Ruth was Sussex Churches Ecumenical Officer. From 1990 until he retired in 1997 Martin was General Secretary of Churches Together in England. He remains AIF’s Anglican co-chair. Ruth was elected one of AIF’s presidents when she retired as honorary secretary in 2000, and continues to edit the journal and co-ordinate the work of education and representation. 

They were recently honoured with the "Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice" award for their work with interchurch families.  They now live at Turvey in Bedfordshire.

When did our journey begin? In the 1960’s, in the new climate created by the Second Vatican Council. Before then it would have been very difficult to for Roman Catholics married to Christians of other communions to conceive of contributing to the coming together of their two church communities. Unity meant the return of separated Christians to the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed Catholics who married other Christians had to promise they would pray and work for the conversion of their spouses to Rome. But Vatican II marked the official entry of the Roman Catholic Church into the ecumenical movement. Looking back over the path travelled, it is hard to know what to select to offer in the short time available. I decided to pick out a few phrases, words that were important to us in the early days, words we repeated often to one another, and to tell the story around them. I am speaking out of the English context, although France was before us in gathering together groups of foyers mixtes – mixed families.

Interchurch families

My first phrase is the one that has given us our identity: interchurch families. We coined the phrase interchurch marriages at the very first national meeting of mixed marriage couples in England in 1968. We all felt overwhelmed by an amazing discovery. There were other couples like us; we were not alone; there were others who wanted to live, as fully as they could, their marriage as Christians, while drawing their spiritual nourishment as couples from both the Roman Catholic Church and from the church of the other partner. (Most of us in that small gathering were Roman Catholic-Anglican couples, but some were Roman Catholic-Free Church, that is, Baptist, Methodist, Reformed.) We shared our stories. There were actually other couples who could understand our difficulties and our aspirations, because they had been there too. I remember the big smile of Fr John Coventry, the Jesuit priest who did so much to support us in England over 30 years, as he said: ‘They’re so pleased to meet one another; we must do this again.’

We were known then as ‘mixed marriages’, a term applied to all Roman Catholic-other marriages. Someone said they didn’t like it; outside Roman Catholic circles it usually referred to inter-racial marriages. We rejected various possible alternatives in favour of interchurch marriages.

What happened to this expression? First of all, the English and Welsh Bishops referred to it in their Directory on Mixed Marriages in 1970. This Directory was their application of the papal motu proprio of 1970. This was what transformed the Roman Catholic legislation on mixed marriages. No longer did both partners have to promise that all the children would be baptised and brought up in the Catholic Church; the Catholic partner only was asked to promise to do everything possible for this. The papal text even said that in some cases 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.) In their presentation the Episcopal Conference of England and Wales said that the term ‘interchurch marriage’ could perhaps be accepted for a mixed marriage in which both partners are practising Christians. However, this would only describe a small proportion of mixed marriages, they said, perhaps one in ten.

Actually that linked up with our experience. Those of us who came together in 1968 and in subsequent annual meetings had usually had the experience of being regarded as oddities. ‘I’ve never known a mixed marriage couple like you’, was the reported reaction of so many Catholic priests to couples in the early days. Priests seemed to expect (and prefer) the other partner in a mixed marriage to be a non-practising Christian. Priests were used to laying down 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 era in which the Roman Catholic Church had recognised the ecclesial character of other churches and communities, mixed 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. Equally, decisions about the education of the children would be a shared responsibility. We knew we were different. So we were quite happy with the suggested limitation of the term – and pointed out that one in ten of all the marriages that took place in Catholic churches add up to a pretty big number each year.

For some years we used to talk about interchurch families and mixed marriages as if they were quite different. It gradually became obvious however that there was no clear dividing line, and we would now use the term much more widely. We have also learned, however, 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 we call them); they move from competition through co-existence, co-operation and commitment on the way to communion. Well, there are interchurch families where both partners practise their faith, who would slot in to any point on that ecumenical scale. I myself try never to generalise about interchurch families, but always to qualify statements by ‘some’. Of course I don’t always manage it! The existence of all kinds of interchurch families, whether they practise or not, or wherever they stand on the ecumenical scale, is certainly highly 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 which comes to them 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. We have recognised it wherever Roman Catholics are married to other Christians – Anglican, Methodist, Reformed, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Waldensian – and whatever the country or situation in which they live. That 1968 experience – ‘we are not alone’ – has been repeated over and over again, and it has led to the growth of the interchurch family movement at world level (helped by Ray and the internet). And whereas as couples alone we could do little, together as groups and associations we could become signs of unity.

Interchurch family has become a commonly used term in Britain, Australia, Southern Africa and many parts of Canada and the United States. Northern Ireland has stuck to ‘mixed marriage’; Catholic/Protestant is its only possible meaning in a community divided by those categories. Interchurch family is not an entirely satisfactory term; it uses ‘church’ in an imprecise sense, as in ‘Council of Churches’ or ‘Churches Together’. It doesn’t allow for our being in some sense intra-church marriages. It is limited to the English-speaking world, but many English-speaking episcopal conferences have now used it. At world level the 1993 Ecumenical Directory sticks to ‘mixed marriages’, but has given us an alternative phrase: we are those who ‘share the sacraments of baptism and marriage’. I like this because of its sacramental focus, but also because it shows clearly the breadth of what is meant. We are concerned with 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; very many of those who still go to church for their baptism and their wedding are seldom seen there at other times. 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 talking of eucharistic sharing not to generalise about interchurch families, and 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.)

In England a few years ago we expressed what we mean by interchurch families in visual terms, in a triptych painted for us by a Benedictine sister. The first panel shows an interchurch couple; the partners come from two different church communities, but they share baptism and marriage. The second panel shows an interchurch family, one domestic church, but nourished by the two church communities of the partners. The third panel represents the marriage supper of the Lamb, as glimpsed through Roublev’s icon of the Trinity, with an ordinary interchurch family at table, sharing in their daily life and their meals together in that communion to which we are all called, in the life of God, Father, Son and Spirit. The more we look at this picture, the more we discover in it about interchurch family life, about living the path to Christian unity.

Problems are opportunities

I must deal even more briefly with the other phrases I have chosen. Our problems are our opportunities; this is a phrase vividly remembered by those who came new to interchurch family conferences in the early years because it was repeated to them so 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 and explained 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 have experienced interchurch family life as an enrichment, just as we have done.

The first great difficulty we faced in 1968 was the pre-marital promise about the children. Of course 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? I have to say that 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 a two-church upbringing? What about sharing fully the riches of both our traditions with our children? Many people told us it was impossible. The problems were too great.

Going beyond

Of course it is impossible at present to be a member of both churches according to Roman Catholic canon law, and according to the rules of many other churches. But the canonical is not the only level, or indeed the most important level, of church life. One of the phrases that we have repeated over and over again 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. ‘Going beyond.’ That we have quoted often, together with the phrase anticipatory obedience, that is,obeying the rules not as they are now but as they will be in 10, 20, 50 years’ time. It was discovered in his reading by Fr John Coventry and passed on as very relevant to interchurch families. The area of ‘going beyond’ is the area of conscience, and I think we need to do a lot of work 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. Often the church of the other spouse seems less demanding (although this is not always so in practice). 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 insofar as 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, the fruitfulness they show. We live today in a situation that is changing and developing all the time, and interchurch families of their nature are pushing at the boundaries.

The impossible only becomes possible when it happens, and after that it is a very long time before the possibility becomes recognised in church practice and in church law. In the meantime there is a tremendous tension between what is possible in one place and what is possible in another, what is possible at one time and what is possible at another, if the consciences of others are to be respected. Interchurch families have lived within this tension, some more aware of it than others, and we have learned a great deal about how to live with uncertainty, and how to bring other people along with us, even if they cannot entirely approve what we are doing. And in the process the law actually does change; we can chart the progress since Vatican II. I am reminded of one of the stories told of 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 carefully, nodded his head, and said: ‘It is possible’. Later Cardinal Willebrands, speaking for the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity, commented: ‘If the Pope says it’s possible, then it’s our job to make it possible.’ The process is carried on at many different levels in the church. It is a process that contributes to growing unity.

Double belonging

Our part in the process is to live our interchurch family experience to the full, and to work towards the expression of our lived experience in theology, church practice and discipline. A phrase we have often used since the early ’eighties to sum up our lived experience in interchurch families is double belonging. (For myself I feel a great sense of belonging in my church-in-law, the Church of England – I want to be a Roman Catholic and an Anglican as far as I can.) Double belonging – we use the phrase for want of a better – 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 for us only a provisional stage on the path to full Christian unity, but it is one that we experience here and now, on the very small scale of family life. And through groups and associations of interchurch families we have been able to pool our experience and to reflect upon it together; it is something we are able now to offer to our churches. (I will not say much about this, because Martin will come back to it.)

We live it

So to our final phrase: 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.’ It has been used as the overall theme of this conference. In living this path have we really contributed to Christian unity over the years? Certainly things have got better for interchurch families; it was unheard of forty years ago for a wedding to be celebrated in the church of the Catholic or the other partner, with the participation of ministers of both churches, but now it is quite common. It was startlingly new thirty years ago to have a joint celebration of baptism. Twenty years ago a shared celebration of confirmation seemed out of the question between Roman Catholics and other Christians, but now the young adults of interchurch families are asking for it. There may be a long way to go yet, but there has been real movement on joint pastoral care for interchurch families in some places, and on eucharistic sharing.

Have these things made any difference to the coming together of church communities across the Reformation divide? At local level shared celebrations of baptism or wedding anniversaries have brought two church communities together in remarkable ways. The Roman Catholic Church has had to address new questions because they were urgent pastoral issues for us, and other church communities are realising that if they can adapt themselves, the Roman Catholic Church can change. Things that have happened for and in interchurch families have shown what could happen more widely if the churches were more committed to growing together, and took more seriously their common responsibilities for Christian nurture and mission. What has become possible on a small scale could become possible on a much wider scale. The French have talked of interchurch families as ‘laboratories for unity’. Recently in the Ukraine the Pope used the phrase ‘ecclesial workshop’ to describe a place where eastern and western Christian traditions could build unity in diversity. It could be a phrase to describe interchurch families.

We live it. We have had a great opportunity because we are small and therefore freer than larger communities, and because we are bound together by our marriage covenant – deeply, strongly, fundamentally. We have our own living experience – both 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. We have come a long way since the 1960’s, but there’s a very long way to go still. So I’ll hand over to Martin, to suggest how we can move forward on the path to Christian unity, in solidarity with our church communities.

Ruth Reardon



Articles View Hits