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This article was published in The Journal, January 1997. 

Bone of My Bone, Flesh of My Flesh: Interchurch Families as Symbol and Sign

Let me tell you about Lily and Mike back in Brooklyn where I went as pastor.  Mike was the Trustee everybody counted on to see to building repairs, keep the old boiler running, shovel the snow off the sidewalk. Mike was at every meeting, loved and respected, a powerful voice in that congregation. But I never saw him on Sunday morning. Lily was always there. President of the women's group and church treasurer, she'd been a Methodist all her life. It took me a year to figure out that Mike wasn't there on Sunday morning because he was Catholic. They'd been married for nearly 50 years, which meant they married in the late 1920s.

At the time, their families were appalled. Their churches were appalled. You didn't do that then. Somehow they made it viQrk despite all the dismay. They would be delighted to know that you all are here. I don't suppose they thought of themselves as an interehurch family, and there certainly wasn't anybody around to affirm what they did, nor to question the role their churches played in exacting the price they paid for marrying one another.

I know Mike got a lot of satisfaction from a pillar of that Methodist congregation which by our United Methodist Book of Discipline he wasn't eligible to be as a non-member. A lot of pastors through the years had looked the other way, and I was certainly not about to do otherwise.

Signs and symbols

I see you as an enormous source of hope for the church, and for the world as well. I suggest that, because you incarnate [Jutflesh 011 what is at the heart of our faith, you are both sign and symbol for church and world.

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language defines "sign" as a token or indication, an omen or portent, it names that which gives evidence of an event past, present or future. A sign signifies, means, points to ...

A "symbol", on the other hand, is something used for, or regarded as, representing something else. A material object representing something, often immaterial. A phrase, image or the like, having a complex of associated meanings and perceived as having inherent value separable from that which is symbolised. as being part of that which is symbolised.


It seems that between the energy of Vatican II and the convergence reflected in the World Council of Churches document on Baptisrn, Elicharist, Ministry, remarkable things began to happen. Once we agreed on baptism, we moved in a direction that is irreversible.

Remember your baptism. We wade into the Jordan with Jesus. We drown, we die, we rise with him. We descend into the water as the old human, with all our vices, all our seeking after status, all our divisions of race and class and gender -all of our "isms".

We sink to our watery grave, we are instructed by God's good news, we arise to newness of life -reclothed in the gift of God's Spirit. But we are gifted with more -much more. Unity replaces the old roles and divisions. Virtues replace vices. The new human is joined to the Body of Christ. Together we are the Body of Christ. You know that, as interchurch families. You take your baptism seriously, otherwise you would not have chosen this role. Otherwise you would say like generations before you: it's just too much, and it doesn't matter that much. We won't go to any church. Or, alternatively, [ will go to my church and you will go to yours, and we'll figure out something to do with the children.

Harbingers of a new paradigm

You, in the divide between the committed and the casual believers, come down in the committed camp, where "the simplest decisions in one's life are made in a sacred rather than a secular context" (Kathleen Housley). You are breaking the old mould, You are harbingers of a new paradigm living life outside the box, in some sense on the margins. What you are doing is a new thing, and I suspect a lot of church folks don't know what to do with you.

Gary Peluso says that "ecumenical organisations live at the boundary where the church meets the world, especially the world-that-is-coming-to-be". I think that is also true of the smallest ecumenical unit -the interchurch family.

There is a sense in which you live at the boundary -precisely that boundary where the church meets the world -and it is your day-to-day lived reality with which the churches must deal. It is what you know, what you are learning, that the churches need to know if they are to be of any usc to the world.

It is the lived reality of toothpaste all over the bathroom mirror and weeds threatening to choke out the tomatoes in the garden, of poopy diapers and "Where can we afford to go on vacation", of "Because I'm the parent, that's why", and "Honey, we've spent the last three Christmases with your family." It is being together through unutterable bliss and unspeakable sorrow, through crushing defeat and joy upon joy.

It is all of what it means to be a Christian family. It is to be family, with all the ups and downs and backbreaking labour that entails -to be family, in the face of the deterioration of the family as an institution. And it is to be Christian, in the face of cultural indifference, if not outright hostility from the culture - and lack of understanding from the churches. Surely it would be easier to walk away but you haven't done that; I hope you never will.

Hope for the church

Because you are a sign. You are that which gives evidence of an event, past, present or future; you point to what is happening now and will continue to happen. People will find one another, the right one another, and will marry and establish households and raise families. And they will do it across all kinds of lines. And they will weary of Iife in the box, of trying to please everyone and will opt, instead, to do what in their hearts they know is right - pleasing God is what matters most.

The world needs to see that sign. The church needs to see that sign.

And you are a symbol. You are who you are in yourselves, but you also represent something else - you represent the unity of the church for which Jesus prayed so long ago. You put flesh on that immaterial reality - the oneness of the Body of Christ. You are, in the words of Vatican II, the domestic church "the primary place in which unity will be fashioned or weakened each day through the encounter of persons who, though different in many ways, accept each other in a communion of love",

It is its Christian identity and mission that makes the family ready to be a community for others, a setting in which the Gospel is transmitted and which radiates the Gospel (Pope Paul VI, in Evangelii Nuntiandi. quoted in Familiaris Consortio, #52) and it is mixed marriage families that have the duty to proclaim Christ with the fullness implied in a common baptism, as well as having "the difficult task of becoming builders of unity".

You give me hope for the church, and I believe you deserve the church's support. That may require further conversion on the part of the churches. The book For the Conversion of the Churches. produced by Catholics and Protestants in France, challenges the churches to recognise that Christian identity rests on conversion "the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news". That conversion is required by the coming and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and its absolute nature opens on to a process which is never accomplished fully in this world. It is initiated and celebrated in baptism, it includes an "already there" but also a "not yet". It is - and this is such a wonderful phrase a grace which opens on a task.

And this conversion is ongoing, in all its diverse forms, in individuals and in churches, where collectively Christians come to recognise the sinful attitudes they share. Their conversion as churches is their constant effort to strive toward their identity as churches.

A United Methodist pastor, participant in an ongoing United Methodist/Roman Catholic dialogue, spoke of the intimacy that built within the group - in itself is something of a miracle. He tells a story about another participant, one of our bishops, who shared with the group in tears that his daughter had married a Catholic. "It doesn't bother me that she married a Catholic," he said. "'It doesn't bother me that my daughter will become a Catholic, and that their children will be raised Catholic. What bothers me is that in my lifetime I will never share the eucharist with my grandchildren."

Christ invites all to his table. Christ reaches out to include all - even the most unlikely in his love. Christ is not the problem. We arc the problem, because we forget that we have been empowered by our baptism to live in the unity of the Body of Christ. The sacrament of baptism, in the words of Ut Unum Sint, represents "a sacramental bond of unity linking all who have been reborn by means of it."

The glue that bonds us

Poet Adrienne Rich has written:

My heart is moved by all / cannot save. so much has been lost ... so much has been destroyed.  I must cast my lot with those who. age after age. perversely, with no extraordinary power ... reconstitute the world.

To reconstitute the world, one must begin at the beginning, with human relationship with the ability of one human being to bond with, commit to, care for another human being. The ability of two or more I's to look at each other and see we. Human relationship, indeed, divine-human relationship, begins for us, biblically speaking, in the Garden, with our ancestors, Adam and Eve.

The man names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.  So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man. and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman. for out of man this one was taken." Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his and they become one flesh.

I want to suggest that those words - you are bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh describe the "glue" that bonds us to one another at the most intimate level of our lives, and by extension, to the degree that we can say it to one another, it is also the "glue" that makes human community possible.

You have, through your marriage vows to one another before God and the church, promised to look into one another's eyes and say, we are so intimately bonded to one another that you are indeed bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.

And what is it that the church needs, but for fundamentalists and evangelicals, charismatics and liberals, Catholics and Presbyterians and Methodist and, yes, Metropolitan Community Churches, to look into each other's eyes and recognise therein a sister or brother in Christ - and to say, you are bone of my bone, nesh of my flesh.

And what is it that the world needs, but for each of us to be able to look into our neighbour's eyes and recognise there our common humanity, and to say - you, too, are bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.

To you who know the hard work and the deep joy of embodying the unity of the church, continue to be empowered by your baptism and surprised by God's grace, You are a sign of what is and what will be, and symbol of the love of our people-making God who yearns with us for community.

The world needs you the church needs you. May your tribe increase!

Judith FaGalde Bennett

This article was published in The Journal, January 1997. 



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