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Interchurch Families: Hope for the churches

Presented at the Ninth Biannual International of Interchurch Families, Virginia Beach, USA, July 24-28/96, by Nicola Kontzi, of the Centre St. Irenee, Lyon, France


Once upon a time Ruth, a woman from Moab, a region at the east side of the Dead Sea, married Boas, a man from Juda, one of the tribes of Israel. It was an interreligious marriage, even if in this time there was not the same conception of dialogue and communion between two different and equal-valued partners. But one fact is evident:

Women and men of all time are found together, coming from all parts of the world, from different religions and confessions.

Henry Navarra in Spain married Queen Margot in France. In the 16th century this was a political marriage, to attempt reconciliation between two bloody enemies: the Protestant Huguenots and the Roman Catholics. But there was no love, and the marriage failed.

Three centuries later, at the beginning of the 19th century, Albertine de Stael married the duke Victor de Broglie. She was Protestant, he was catholic. The celebrated two religious marriages, they agreed to baptize their girls as protestants and the boys as catholics. Both went to protestant and catholic worship, both were aware and respectful of their partner's confession.

And now, today, here, we are nearly all partners in interchurch marriages or concerned with the dynamics of living together within different faiths, experimenting and experiencing the challenge and the richness, living it out in small cells or in larger communities.

Yesterday we heard from Judy Bennett about the situation here in the United States of America. Thank you very much, Judy.

Today, I come here to tell you about France and French-speaking Switzerland. I'll tell you how Interchurch Families began 35 years ago, how little by little they achieved greater communion, and finally what they are living and struggling for today.

First, I'll tell you something about the religious situation in France, in order to explain the dynamics of this region of the world.

Situation in France

In France most of the population is nominally Roman-Catholic. There are a few other religions such as Islam (3%), and Judaism (1.1%) being the most important. The Christian denominations other than Catholic have a very low percentage: Protestants (most of them Reformed/Calvinists) 2-2.5%; Orthodox 0.8%

This means that a great deal of the population doesn't even know that Protestants are Christians - and on the other hand Protestants, like most minorities, defend their numerically weak position and look on marriages with Catholics as treason.

Of course, French history is full of tragedy: mutual massacres affected Protestants and Catholics. Protestants were persecuted by the Catholic kings and their armies during more than 200 years (persecution finished only with the French Revolution in 1789), and you still notice a certain reticence until now in the Protestant being. It is understandable that Protestants are distrustful at the slightest sign of recuperation by the Roman-Catholic church when it began its ecumenical work for unity.

The Roman-Catholic church, on the other hand, emphasized the sole salvation within her fold and made sure to transmit this salvation to her members; this meant Catholic marriage and also Catholic baptism for mixed couples and their children.

All this explains the tension of a couple who comes from different churches, but wants to overcome these obvious and psychological barriers by love.

And that is the great gift that interchurch couples - which become in a further time interchurch families - can bring to our separated churches.

Let's first have a look at some history.


Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) the situation of interchurch (Roman-Catholic / Protestant, reflecting French reality) couples was quite painful. Either Catholic partners, who didn't marry in the Catholic church, were excommunicated, or Protestant partners had to put in writing, that they would baptize and educate their children in the Roman-Catholic church. Also the Catholic partner had to work for the conversion of his/her Protestant partner.

In the early sixties the first interchurch couples began to meet. This was in Lyon in France. They met because none of the churches was prepared to recognize the specificity of interchurch couples, that is, that each of the partners stays as close as possible to her/his own church and in the meantime wants to share the spiritual richnesses of her/his partner's community to enhance communion. They were accompanied by the pastor Henry Bruston and the Dominican priest Rene Beaupere, who above all listened to what the couples had to say and learned a lot.

During one year the interchurch couples shared their difficulties and the joys they knew and still know. Over all, three themes converged:

  • the spiritual life of the couple
  • relations with the parish, and
  • the christian education of the children.

At the end of 1964 they decided to share their experiences with others and wrote a document, which they named somewhat pompously: "the Lyon Charter". Several groups of interchurch couples and families were born in France and in French Switzerland.

Also, the text was translated into english by the World Council of Churches, who used the document for a consultation concerning the theme of interchurch marriages in 1966. Later, the text was translated into other languages.

At the same time, the Second Vatican Council took place in Rome. For the first time, interest in mixed marriages was expressed at this level, which opened the way to the document Matrimonia Mixta of 1970, which we will speak about later.

But we have to mention the first interconfessional documents, one from Switzerland in July 1967 between the Protestant, the Catholic, and the Old-Catholic churches. In France, in 1966, the Catholic Committee for Unity (with the priests Beaupere, Lefevre, and Le Guillou), inspired by the documents of the interchurch couples written in Lyon, and the Protestant Commission for the Relations with Catholicism (with pastor Roux) elaborated practical directories on how to deal with interconfessional couples. Soon they decided to work together and to edit one common text, which appeared in June 1968, "Pastoral Care for Mixed Couples".

Revised in detail, this text was published as the "Official Recommendations of the Roman-Catholic church and Reformed and Lutheran churches in France". It contributed to the extension of the first pastoral care experiences.

On the international level, the World Council of Churches, which represents many Orthodox and Protestant churches (but not the Roman-Catholic church) published the document "Marriage and the Division Among the Churches", which, as we have seen, had been directly inspired by the interchurch couples' document. In the WCC's document, several theological questions are examined, which are points of contention between the churches:

Marriage as a universal institution and marriage between Christians; marriage as sacrament; marriage and the Church; divorce and remarriage; civil marriage. Other themes dealt with the problems of legislation concerning mixed marriages and the churches' pastoral care.

This important document was part of another consultation, held in Nemi/Italy in March 1967, between representatives of the Roman-Catholic church and the World Council of Churches.

 Let's return to basics...

Interchurch couples and families, which had met in small groups for some years, wished more and more to put their experiences together, to coordinate their actions and express their desire to be catalysts of ecumenism and stimulators of church communion, precisely in the church communities themselves.

So they met from 1967 onwards between France and French Switzerland, in different regions in France.

Since they wanted to extend their experiences and to share them with other interchurch groups or isolated couples, from October 1968 onwards the trimestrial bulletin "Foyers Mixtes" made its appearance, now standing at number 112.

It was also in 1968 that in Great Britain the "Interchurch Families Association" was founded. (We have Ruth and Martin Reardon here with us, who will tell us about that tomorrow.)

I simply want to say that from them sprang up interchurch groups in Ireland, in Scotland, in Australia, in New Zealand, and in the United States. on the other hand, the groups in France and Switzerland extended to Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands.

A very important step in the history of interchurch couples is the decree ("motu proprio") "Matrimonia Mixta" of Pope Paul VI, in March 1970. It constitutes a framework of canon law and asks each bishopric to edit application documents.

First, the dispensation of the bishop, concerning mixed marriages in the Catholic church, remains a requirement. If you don't have this dispensation, marriage with a non-christian is invalid; with a christian from a denomination other than Roman Catholic is illicit/unlawful, but valid.

This dispensation is given for a "reasonable cause" under two conditions: that the Catholic partner declares that he/she is able to resist the dangers of losing his faith; and that he/she sincerely promises to do everything possible to baptize and to educate his/her children in the Catholic church. 

This is a step forward: the Catholic no longer has to give the guarantee to educate his children as Catholics, but do everything possible to insure it. The Protestant partner must be informed of the obligation of his Catholic partner (and vice versa! even if it's not written in the decree).

One disappointing point: besides marriages which are celebrated in oriental non-catholic churches, marriages outside of the Catholic church are not acknowledged. They are only acknowledged if you require an authorization (the original term "dispensation" was changed in 1983 because of confusion with the dispensation mentioned at point 1) from the bishop of your diocese - and not, as before, from the pope.

Also, the bishop is allowed to recognize a marriage, which hasn't been celebrated in the Catholic church, a posteriori ("sanatio in radice"). That means that the local bishop took a more important part in the decisions vis a vis the pope. Since the situations throughout the world are too diverse, the pope cannot give a general rule. It is on the local level that things have to move.

(We must note that, as before, "joint" marriage celebrations remain forbidden. Neither one minister celebrating beside the other, nor one minister after the other, such as in a successive blessing. Nevertheless it is not forbidden for the pastor and the priest to participate in an active way in the celebration of marriage. It is clear that the practice must proceed in clarity and with the agreement of both authorities.)

The decree also insists on pastoral care responsibilities, which implies that the priests are invited to have honest and trustworthy relationships with ministers of other christian churches.

Compared with the canon law of 1917, several steps forward can be noted:

  • All excommunications pronounced because of marriage before a non-Catholic minister, and because of the noncatholic education of their children, were retrospectively abolished.
  • The Catholic partner is no longer invited to work assiduously for the conversion of the non-Catholic partner, but to be aware of their specific gift of faith and to bear witness to it with "sweetness and respect".
  • The Catholic church does not prohibit interchurch marriage any more, but discourages the practice.

It is important to say, that this decree constitutes a framework of canon law, and asks the episcopates to edit documents of application. You can see this as a form of decentralization and giving opportunities to local initiative. So, in France in 1970, we received the "New Dispositions for the bishoprics in France", which are a big step in ecumenical questions. - And soon afterwards we got "New Recommendations", edited by the Protestant delegation of the Mixed Committee. Other documents were written in Switzerland, Belgium, and Germany, etc.

These are the texts which are still authoritative today. the new canon law of 1983 didn't change anything about the dispositions of the Matrimonia Mixta, with the only exception that now it is no longer a dispensation which is required from the bishop, but an episcopal authorization, if you want to marry your non-catholic partner outside of the Catholic church.

Let us now take some concrete examples.

1) Baptism

Since 1970 the interchurch couples question has not been discussed in a global sense. but several important steps forward have been made. In many regions or countries, churches convened to mutually recognize the sacrament of baptism, concretely for example in developing certificates of baptism with identical forms for several churches.

In France besides the pioneer ministers, the motor for ecumenical celebrations of baptism were interchurch couples: their experience and realization played an important role in the note from 1975 from the "mixed committee" (Catholics and Protestants): "Note on Ecumenical Celebration of Infant Baptism". this puts in writing practices, already carried out particularly in Lyon and Paris, and proposes to extend them throughout France. It confirms an ecumenical celebration of baptism like that of interchurch marriage, which is celebrated with the active participation of both christian communities, and both ministers, the Catholic and the Protestant. It's not as such a concelebration, in the sense that the ministers do not concelebrate the pure act of baptism; but several options are suggested in sharing the readings, the sermon, prayers, etc.

The committee admits that these baptisms are recorded in the registers of both parishes, the Catholic and Protestant. Further, for pedagogical and for theological reasons, the child is incorporated in one community (Catholic or Protestant), but is helped to find his or her place in the community of her choice, when he or she is older.

Obviously, theologically speaking, there is only one baptism which is ecumenical in the sense that it is valid for all christians, and only one minister is necessary. but for many interchurch couples, the visible signs of double belonging are important.

For the catechesis or religious education, orientations are given, especially to know both spiritual families of the children's parents.

Most of the time it deals with biblical initiation (for children until 12), and sometimes doctrinal classes for the teenagers. It is interesting to know, that in French Switzerland over ten years, teenagers after an ecumenical education celebrated their confirmation in the same church building, but each confession with his own pastor or bishop. Today they have stopped the initiative, but we don't have to forget it!

Since 1975 a meeting is organized by the Centre St. Irenee in Lyon, to exchange the experiences of catechumens, interchurch families, pastors, and priests.

In 1992 they could state that some points are definitively established:

  • the results of the principle interconfessional dialogues are considered
  • ecumenical education wants to be inserted in the parishes
  • there are no longer differences of the confessions concerning education
  • special weight is laid on religious celebrations.

But what remains to do is:

  • sacramental religious education
  • religious education for adults
  • extend the ecumenical viewpoint to monoconfessional religious education
  • reproducing the ecumenical centres of Geneva and Neuchatel.

One point of discussion which remains is the age of the first communion / confirmation. It doesn't exist uniformly. but this plurality can be very fruitful!

2) Eucharistic Hospitality

The most ardent ecumenical question is the possibility of common participation at the eucharist. Father Ladislas Orsy will speak particularly about this theme the day after tomorrow, so I will only make a few remarks.

As we all know, difficulties concerning the eucharist are felt more strongly on the Catholic side (and the Orthodox) than on the Protestant side.

Of course, nowadays Protestant partners are in many cases allowed by the relevant authorities to receive the Catholic eucharist, if their beliefs about the eucharist is essentially shared by the Protestant. But the inverse case is a problem, because of the difficulties about the total mutual recognition of ministries.

One very courageous position of bishop Elchinger of Strasbourg, France in 1972 expresses the possibility of eucharistic hospitality above all for interchurch couples, arguing that the spiritual unity of the couple is more important than ecclesiastical differences.

The local Reformed and Lutheran authorities answered in a positive way, but within catholicism, even in France there was not unanimity. However, in 1983 the French episcopal commission for the unity of christians published a note about eucharistic hospitality with two main points:

  • eucharistic hospitality may not be usual, and
  • it can be considered in exceptional cases, as in the case of interchurch couples.

These tow principles are valid for the admission of Protestants to Catholic communion and, in a more concealed way, for the participation of Catholics at the celebration of the Lord's Supper.

Today, in practice, many couples take their own responsibility on this question - often after having searched, hesitated, asked for advice, suffered. We can observe amongst them two positions: the ones who say (and among them you find couples and ministers) that there isn't really any problem, while others say this situation is only provisional, in which they simultaneously experience the joy of a real advance and the suffering of real division.

3) Marriage

The ecumenical celebration of marriage is ulteriorly mentioned in the Directory in Ecumenism of the Vatican from 1993 and is celebrated in several countries.

As we have seen above, the dispensation from the canonical form remains necessary. The promise to do everything possible to baptize and educate the children in the Catholic church has to be given to the bishop.

But in 1980 the French Catholic directory wrote that this means not "to do the impossible, but to decide in any particular case what will be best, without bringing into danger other essential values such as the respect of the other's conscience, the chances to awaken the faith of the child and, over all, the unity of the couple. nevertheless the difficulty still remains, because the one who requests the dispensation is in a certain way humiliated, and this cannot be palliated by such theological acrobatics.

In France a way has been found to soften this rather strong declaration. there was a very special initiative of the Catholic church, saying that each couple, monocatholic or mixed, after having discussed with the priest, fixes in writing a "declaration of intent", which contains the main orientations the young couple wants to give to their family and conjugal life. The aim of this was a more spontaneous and spiritually richer expression of the betrothed, ideally written by them. This "declaration of intent" also includes the special promise, that interchurch couples have to give (normally given during the dispensation). In this way, the dioceses finally accept declarations without the ritual expression "to do all possible".

4) Double Belonging

The Catholic tradition always has recognized married families a little family church. Interchurch families are building a similar family church, but with a double belonging to both of their churches. So they are anticipating the communion of the different churches by their love. They live already reconciled, and they ask their churches to draw better ecclesiological and canonical conclusions in consequence and to renew pastoral care.

At this stage of development, after 35 years of accompaniment of interchurch couples and families, we can ascertain with joy that interchurch couples are no more the assisted abnormal families which are full of problems (as they used to be seen by the ecclesiastical authorities) - no: they are aware of their continually renewed specificity, the chance they represent for the churches. They are active pioneers of renewal and of the communion of the churches.


In this part of my presentation, I will speak about interchurch couples and families, their interest in organizing themselves, and their impact on the churches.

1) Let us first state why it is important to meet each other, and to organize groups and conferences like today:

  • Firstly, it is very encouraging to share experiences, to raise awareness, and to learn from each other (here in this conference we have all the advantage of learning from foreign experiences, too).
  • Second, when we become more confident and conscious of our uniqueness, the groups can name that uniqueness and the "gift" interchurch families can bring to the churches. We can express those gifts, and we are thus encouraged to contribute to the lives of our churches.

2) Interchurch Families Message / What the interchurch families bring to the churches.

a) Interchurch families are living communion across differences.

  • They show how the churches can live this communion, because the key is love.
  • Love makes you want to hear, to really listen to the other. It makes you want to understand him or her and his/her attitudes. You want to understand one another's feelings, why he or she takes certain things as important. This deep capacity of dialogue is only possible by real/truelove, not by a "defensive" attitude.
  • In the interchurch family every partner has learnt to defend the elements which are very close to his/her faith (we'll speak about this in the next point), but in a way the other is able to understand. through knowing the other, wanting to understand him/her and to make oneself understood, they are able to speak a language that is comprehensible by the other.
  • This ability to hear, to explain, and to speak the other's language is important for our churches. Often they use languages or words or symbols that cannot be understood by another church.

b) Because they want to live together, interchurch families have developed an "ear" to hear and to separate the essential of faith from the less important.

  • By the confrontation with the foreign attitudes of the partner, every partner learns a lot about his own church and faith. This self-consciousness enables both partners to take positions and to dialogue.
  • One the one hand, every partner is forced by his/her partner to reflect on many customs and convictions (for example, if you are standing or sitting during prayer; the role of Mary;...). This forced reflection is a permanent disturbing element, which can be uncomfortable, but develops the search for the deeper sense and authenticity of christian faith.
  • On the other hand, these reflections lead to a continual correction of the way of celebrating, and of the faith of one confession. In the course of centuries it happened that each confession put an unbalanced weight on elements in our Christian churches, and forgot or even fought against practices which are important too, but were represented by the adversary church. (For example, the exaggeration or the neglect of the place of Mary; the use of the Bible; the meditation/prayers/litanies, etc.)
  • Interchurch families help the churches to restore the balance of these elements and to be able to value christian faith authenticity.

c) In searching together the authenticity of the respective confessions, interchurch families are able and have the chance to live the authenticity of christian faith.

  • This search enables an awareness of what is christian, it enables a christian identity, a christian identity in an open sense, with the capacity for dialogue, for mutual respect, asking for and hearing that which is different. and with the capacity to represent in an open, explaining way, what is christian.
  • In our world of meeting of different faiths, religious or atheist, integrists or full of hopelessness, this ability to represent a christian faith, willing to transmit christian values and in the same time to respect the other, is of essential importance.
  • We want our churches to have this attitude, and interchurch families, who have this experience permanently in their daily life, can also be catalysts for the churches in this way of representing christian being and respect for the other.

d) Interchurch families, because of hearing the other, really hearing him/her, are able to recognize the richness which the other brings.

  • They don't need to preserve the frontiers by fear that the other will "devour" them, because of trust. So they are able to integrate new elements, to enrich their own faith, to transform frozen structures.
  • This means: Interchurch families are a very important element for the conversion of the churches; conversion in the sense the "groupe des Dombes" speaks about. (This is a group of Catholic and Protestant theologians who emphasize the importance of renewing our churches.)
  • One church accepts to be interrogated by its "concurrent" or partner-church, and so growth within structures and convictions becomes possible.

Interchurch families are very well prepared in this process, "bringing new breath".

Real Achievements and where we have to go forward!

To close my presentation about the history of the interchurch Families Movement and impact Interchurch families have on our churches, I want to visualize achievements on out way to a communion between our churches.


History and Perspectives

Achievements (fixed by written documents)

1) freedom of choice

It is not well looked upon, but also not forbidden by the churches, to marry a partner who is not from your own church.

On the Catholic side you need

  • a dispensation from the bishop to marry a non-Catholic partner. (Matrimonia Mixta)
  • an authorization from the bishop if you marry outside of the Catholic church. (Matrimonia mixta)

In France you can formulate your own declaration of intent. (Nouvelles dispositions pour les dioceses de France, Episcopat francais)

2) the ecumenical celebration of marriage (Directory for the Application of Principles and norms on Ecumenism)

3) the ecumenical celebration of baptism (Note sur la celebration oecumenique du bapteme, Comite mixte catholique-protestant de France)

This is documentally guaranteed only in France, but practised in many countries.

4) pastoral care of interchurch couples and families 

In reality, unfortunately, this doesn't work well everywhere.

Achievements with nuances and reservations

1) Eucharistic hospitality (Note sure l'hospitalite eucharistique, Commission episcopale pour l'unite des chretiens)

What remains to struggle for

1) the consciousness of the existence of communion within the couple.

That is why we meet in conferences at 

  • Versailles 1995
  • Norfolk 1996
  • Lyon 1997
  • and many more.

We make ourselves know to the christians and the church authorities.

There are letters written like the "call to our churches" (R. Beaupere and J. Maury, 'Appel a nos Eglises') which was sent to the catholic-protestant committee in France and the World Council of Churches, insisting on interchurch couples communion and asking for heed to be paid by both churches.

Every individual witness in his/her own parish

  • in common festivals, meals, trips, week-ends
  • in ecumenical religious education
  • telling pastors and priests about your life
  • participation in the partner's church council
  • visiting the ill of the other parish.

At the end of this chapter (and my speech), where I have tried to show the values, the richness and the dynamics that interchurch families are able to bring to the churches, I want to focus also on our spiritual capacities:

Interchurch families have strong spiritual capacities, because of their daily life and experience, which they are willing to bring to our churches and to our world.

Living the FAITH, together, daily, in common prayer and singing, in teaching the children, ... all this is a daily communion between the two churches.

Sharing LOVE, which is the motor, the facilitator of all shared life. It overcomes barriers, helps us to forgive wounds we do to each other; holds its hands and hearts open; even if the barricades seem too high.

Living TRUST and HOPE. Trust in the impossible, in the union of the separated, in the promise that life together is possible. This little cell may show that we are asked to bring this hope into the churches, with the help of God.



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