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Response by Fenella

- Award for Ecumenical Leadership

So who are these interchurch families? As we communicate on the world wide web, meet in each others homes, celebrate and share together the journey at conferences or in local groups, what draws us together? What is our common journey?

Firstly, not one of us chooses the ecumenical journey. It happens when two people from different churches fall in love, then discover a love for each other that is stronger than the divisions that divide the churches.

The choice or the call is in the decision to live the life of both churches in the one family, to celebrate in the "domestic church" (–the family,) the riches and traditions of both the churches.

There is no blue print for interchurch families any more than two marriages are the same. Yet, as we share together, we discover that whatever country, language, race, we share much in common, of the joys and pain of the path to Christian unity.

Some experiences remain unique, as I am not sure there are too many wives who go to bed with their husbands reading the 1983 Code of Canon Law. I deeply remember at the beginning of our marriage grappling with issues, divisions and the history of the church for the last 400 years as it was impacting on our lives. Would we EVER be able to receive eucharist together as family? What is happening here? What are we being called to? It was a life-giving struggle but we were realizing ours was a different journey, and at that stage, we were alone.

I remember the first time we discovered the Interchurch Families Journal. It was lunch time, we both stood in the kitchen reading it from cover to cover, weeping and coming to the realisation we were not alone. This was our story, repeated world wide. In fact now in North America, about 50% of marriages are interchurch.

I’d love to introduce you to some of these families whom we have grown to know and love as they live the reality in their lives.

We met William and Anne Odling Smee in Virginia in 1996.

They live in Belfast where the question of relationships between Catholic and Protestant is more than an academic exercise. The question is the very fabric of life over which people are fighting and dying. It cuts across the structures we take for granted. Where are you going to live, in the Catholic or the Protestant sector? Where can you find safe housing for a family? How are you going to educate your children? In the Catholic or the Protestant system.

William and Anne raised 6 children, choosing to baptise them alternately in the Catholic and Protestant church and raised them, like other interchurch families, to discover the different expressions of the same God in both traditions.

William is a retired surgeon. He spoke vividly of removing shrapnel from the knees of young people, and working with the dying, while his experience as an interchurch family took him beyond the divisions that people outside were fighting and dying over.

Anne is chairperson for the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association, and has worked tirelessly to support couples in mixed marriages. That work has taken her, as lecturer in social studies, to focus specifically in the field of education and of the development of integrated education for Catholics and Protestants together.

Much of their work has focused on education of priests and ministers, using a pastoral network to educate and change attitudes towards interchurch marriages. More recently they have developed the use of drama and television media.

Now I want to introduce you to another group - the sons and daughters of interchurch families, the children and youth in our churches.

As someone said publicly to the Archbishop of Canterbury some years ago "But won’t they be confused". Following his answer, Ellen Bard, then aged 15 stood up. "I am the daughter of an interchurch couple. Confused? No, I don’t believe so. I believe I have a broader view."

While we interchurch couples carry two traditions within one marriage, these children carry those traditions within one body. They do not see themselves as Catholic or Anglican, but Catholic AND Anglican. Their life of fidelity to both traditions calls their churches to recognize that their experience of lived unity is real, and opens the door to rich possibilities which have yet to be understood.

Many of these children, youth and young people were at the Interchurch Families conference in Edmonton last year, from all over the world. They produce their own journal, The Interdependent, also to be found on the web.

Many had been baptised into Christ in ceremonies that drew together the churches of both parents in a single celebration, a truly ecumenical event, each one unique. Stories of these events can be read in the journal, planning often taking months and years, dependent on priests, ministers and Bishops. But each one opening another door on the path to Christian Unity.

We have a few copies of the letter these young people wrote, but I want to read one paragraph of it to you.

As you can see, we are building our foundation on prayer.  We need to let God move within our churches to bring them together.  We remember that all our denominations are based on Jesus Christ.  We must break down the barriers that have been formed and live on the foundation of God's love.

We leave you with this:

"Love one another warmly as Christian brothers and be eager to show respect for one another" (Rom 12:10)

Finally, I want to introduce you to Gianni and Myriam. Living in Italy where 99% of marriages are between Roman Catholics, Gianni, a Catholic, always knew he would marry another Catholic. Not So! He fell deeply in love with Myriam, a Waldensian, who comes from just one percent of the population.

They spoke at the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 1996, the text being Here I stand, knocking at the door (Rev.3:14-22).

Their theme was the eagerness of our Lord to come in and eat with us all, if only we will open the door and invite him to the Table which is his own. They finished by speaking of the special need of interchurch families to share communion - a "special need which only emphasizes its urgency for all Christian people".

"Sometimes we are asked how we survive. We will make our confession, conscious of our hesitant faith, our weakness, not claiming to suggest a recipe. For years we have been questioning, confused, uncertain, involved in the exhausting conflict between love and law, desire and obedience, generous impulse and human respect. Some twenty years ago we read of a French child, son of an mterchurch couple, receiving his First Communion in his Catholic parish. He was perturbed by the thought that his mother, a Protestant, would not be able to share communion with him. Making a decision all by himself, he kept a fragment of the Host he received and brought it unobtrusively to his mother. In our communities we do not want to arouse gossip, criticism, scandal. So when we are together at Mass or the Lord's Supper, we act according to the teaching of that unknown child. The one of us who is a guest in the celebrating community will remain seated and receive a fragment of Bread from the other one who has free access to the Table.

We are still finding our way like a child. Christian initiation should never stop. Jesus himself suggested we should become like little children. He knows that this unobtrusive sharing does not mean a weaker witness. It is just that we are trying to find a frail, modest way forward in this time which is still separating us from the day of the common Table of all Christians.

"Lord, as the bread we break was formerly spread over the fields as wheat, and gathered together to become one, so may your Church be gathered from the ends of the earth around your one Table."



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