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Divided We Stand: How "Mixed Marriages" Can Teach Ecumenism

Rebecca and Anthony Spellacy

Receptive ecumenism in a nutshell, according to David Carter (in a paper from 2007 titled Receptive Ecumenism- An Overview), calls us to “‘accept one another as Christ accepted us’, not at the minimal level of simple tolerance, but at the level of true reception in love, preferring one another in honor”. That is a very tall order. It is also a very practical order. We’re still in graduate school, and that means that there is a great deal of talk about subjects that most people, even the ones talking about them, will tell you have no practical application at all, and some of those people  are “ecumenists”. This is not the place for those sorts of discussions-receptive ecumenism is a practical and pastoral endeavor.  Perhaps this is why it appeals to the two of us-neither one of us are trained in ecumenism, we are both liturgists who have found a home, for reasons that will become clear, in the ecumenical world.

The problem with liturgists is that we are forever asking that question that drives most other people batty “how”? How does the liturgy express the theology you say it does? How do we get the liturgy and the theology to work together? How do we get people to understand? This constant refrain has found its way into our work on ecumenism and notably this idea of accepting one another-how do we go about doing that? How do we know if it has happened?  It is these questions that we are going to attempt to answer-albeit in a very targeted and specific way.

Before we go any further, we both feel like this is the moment to put all our cards on the table-in the interest of ecumenical honesty. Anthony is a cradle Latin Rite Catholic who has spent his academic life trying to figure out what makes Episcopalians tick. I am a cradle Episcopalian who has gone to Catholic Colleges for undergrad and my Masters and only for my doctorate come back to an Anglican College. The point of us telling you this is so that you know where we are coming from as the paper progresses and so that what follows might make a bit more sense.

The 1993 Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism[1] lays out that “marriage between persons of the same ecclesial Community remains the objective to be recommended and encouraged.” (§144) I personally encourage my university to fully fund me and for immigration to not require so much paperwork, sometimes encouragement just does not work. According to CARA (The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) in a study done in 2007, 72% of Catholics in the United States were married to Catholics, for the math challenged, like Rebecca that means 28% of Catholics are married to non-Catholics. This gets even more significant when the study continues that younger Catholics are more likely to be married to non-Catholics. In short, marriage has become an ecumenical reality and it looks as if it is going to stay that way.

Now, this might not seem like a terribly significant statistic, 28% of Catholics in the U.S, that isn’t even a significant minority. Further, not all of them are practicing or married to a practicing member of another denomination. That trend however is also reversing as more and more mixed marriages are between two people of strong religious backgrounds. You might be wondering what on earth this has to do with receptive ecumenism-more than you might think.

The Catholic Church rightly calls the family the domestic church-and many Protestant denominations, while not using the same language, tend to agree. Faith starts at home, faith is nurtured at home, if a family has a strong faith life it can and does go far in helping children carry on that faith, more than just with children however, the family, no matter the size, is called to live as a Christian witness in the world-and married people have a special vocation within that context. If then a married couple is in a “mixed marriage” it stands to reason that there are some ecumenical lessons and implications when it comes to accepting people as Christ accepts them based on the living out of this vocation in a unique context. We in no way want you to view this list as comprehensive; it is a starting point for discussion. Nevertheless, we do feel that it hits all the high points in this area.  

 1: The Art of the Compromise-Or not (Anthony)

Compromise is a great skill in marriage-as in most of life.  Every person, clerical or lay, that has ever done any marriage counseling or marriage prep class, or even just been married, will tell you how important compromise is to a healthy marriage.  This is especially important when a large part of your life is in direct conflict with your spouse. 

David Archard, in his article “Moral Compromise” defines compromise as the “making of mutual concessions by two or more parties who disagree.”[2]  He also asserts that it will only be achieved if both parties are willing to give away something, and agree at an inferior position.[3]  This leads to an agreement of disagreement where both parties feel it is better that they come together in a mutual understanding and resolving of tension, than to continue in disunity.[4]

However, virtue is a mean between extremes, and that does mean that not all ought to be compromised. How does one compromise with their spouse when to compromise may very well be a betrayal of faith or cause thoughts of damnation and separation from their own faith traditions?  At the very least the compromise might be a barrier to ones own faith journey.  Being married to someone that does not share our denominational affiliations, we learned quickly that some things are just non-starters.

2: Not Everything is as important as you think (Rebecca)

That being said, not everything is something to live and die by. I once heard someone ask the question, “is this really the ditch you want to die in?” when talking about picking your battles. There are some things that just are not as important as we would like to make them out to be.  This requires both self-reflection and some knowledge.  One needs to know what the rules of their denomination are, what the tradition says must be and must not be, so that they are not going against their faith.  This requires a little more than just an 8th grade education in their faith, something Catholics and Anglicans often have trouble with achieving.  One also needs to do some self-reflection upon this knowledge to determine what unessentials they are willing to give up when needed.

Perhaps the best example of this for the two of us is Holy Week. As the Triduum is not essential but important for the proper liturgical understanding and celebration of Easter, we feel it is necessary to attend the entire liturgy, and therefore must decide how it will be split up between our two Churches.  We, on the regular Sundays of the year, normally attend Church at both a Catholic and Anglican church each week (one after the other) and most of the time that works. It gets a bit more challenging during Holy Week when both churches want to do Holy Thursday at 7pm and the Easter Vigils within an hour start time of each other. At some point we had to decide that it is more important for us to be together than for us to be going to our respective churches during all of Holy Week.  How did we solve this problem, we rotate each year.

3: Understanding is Key (Anthony)

 By that we mean it isn’t enough just to know what the other person does but it is important to understand why they do it. If all Rebecca knows about Catholic observances of Lent is that it means she can’t have a steak on Friday, well that isn’t going to get either of us very far theologically or as a couple. It really is the only way to ensure that Rebecca knows that I am not just trying to save some money on a steak, that there is actually a theological underpinning for the Catholic observance of Lent and it might be beneficial practice for her to take up as well.   This again requires some work.  It might not be to the extent that either of us have researched (graduate school), but some investigation of each other’s faith tradition is needed.  It should also go without saying that for this system to work it is important to know your own tradition.  It is also important that you give correct answers and are not afraid to say “I don’t know” as long as it is followed by attempting to discover the correct answer.  Asking clergy is always an appropriate recourse but don’t be surprised if/when they also say “I don’t know”.  The questions of outsiders are often more inquiring then those questions asked by lifelong adherents (just ask any RCIA facilitator).

Because we are both constantly around each other’s respective churches and theologies, there are inevitably questions about why things are done the way they are: “Becca, why do Anglicans cross themselves when they pray for the dead?” “Anthony, why do Catholics bow for the whole of the Gloria Patri?”  New questions come up all the time.  This is our attempt to figure out what makes the other tick.

4: Not everything is as different as it seems...but some things really are (Rebecca)

Having grown in understanding it becomes clear that there are some similarities that might not be as readily apparent as one might think.  This may be historical interpretations of  an action that convey the same thought or idea but have appeared in different manners down the centuries.  A good example of this is the Liturgical prayer that occurs at the end of the work day.  In the Catholic Church we have Evening Prayer with one Gospel canticle, while Anglicans have Evensong with two Gospel canticles.  This prayer has the same purpose, to glorify God at the end of the day, and ask his protection through the night, it just occurs in a slightly different format.  Just because it is not the same doesn’t really mean it is different.

(Anthony) However, it is not all agreement. Let us ask you a question: What happens on November 2? For whom do you pray? Catholics and Anglicans (currently, not necessarily historically) call this day All Souls Day. Same title, different theology. Catholics pray for the dead, Anglicans will tell you they pray with the dead, remembering specific loved ones, but will not (a few high Anglo-Catholics and Rebecca excepted) say that they are praying for the dead. Same title, different theology.

Moving to the Big Ecumenical Picture (Rebecca)

You might now be wondering what on earth this has to do with anything that comes to receptive ecumenism.  We want to now apply what we have learned on a small scale and show how those lessons can be used/received on a larger scale.

Lesson Number One (Anthony): This is not a zero-sum game. By that we mean that ecumenism cannot be viewed as a system of “I’ll give up X and you give up Y” Yes, compromise is a key component of all of these discussions, but that does not mean that everything equals out in the end.  In practice this means we might be uncomfortable. Roman Catholics will not “give up” the idea of the Immaculate Conception and Episcopalians will not comfortable sayingone must believe in the Immaculate Conception.

We have to learn that acceptance means there are things that there are things that will not change about the other and that that is alright. Perhaps one of the clearest examples of this comes into light with the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church. For the Catholic Church this is a non-starter, it isn’t going to happen. For most Episcopalians women not being ordained is a non-starter. It is just the way it is.

Lesson Number Two (Rebecca): Sometimes you have let things go. If this truly is not a zero sum game then we have to be open to the idea that some people may “come out ahead” and that is alright too. It does mean however that there are times where something is more important to the “other side” and we have to be alright with that. For example: My academic work is on death and dying and if you want to see a place where Anglicans and Catholics can really get into it, come talk to me. That being said, and you may just have to trust me on this, Anglicans do not have to be allergic to the idea of prayers for the dead, but it is of fundamental import to Catholics.  Anglicans need to give up/get over Reformation prejudices and move to accept the Roman Catholic concept around prayers for the dead  is not going anywhere and Anglicans might be able to learn something theologically from the practice.

It also means that Catholics need to actually understand what the Catholic Church thinks about Protestants, particularly Anglicans. Yes, most every Catholic document on Ecumenism stresses a desire for full unity with Rome; that is not to say that the Catholic Church does not value the role of Protestants. It is not to say that the Catholic Church views all Protestants as going to hell and having nothing to contribute to society and religion. This is perhaps even more important when it comes to Anglicans. Anglicans are not “Catholic Lite”, they are not just viewed as a schismatic sext, there is a tradition, a theology and a value in Anglicanism, officially recognized by the Church in Rome. The moral of this lesson seems to be: let go of historical prejudices.  

Lesson Number Three (Anthony): Rebecca calls this one the “Mantillas really are nifty” rule. The rest of us might say it is something more like “adaptation and cooption is at times necessary for survival” and even when it isn’t, sometimes it is still a nice thing. For example, we have seen a Catholic embracing of Biblical criticism that was often the realm of the Protestant World.  On the other hand, the Protestant world is starting to embrace traditions like the Liturgy of the Hours, vestments, prayers for the dead and yes, even mantillas.

(Rebecca) Given all of this you might now be wondering what in God’s holy name has this to do with liturgy and perhaps more to the point what does this have to do with receptive ecumenism? The answer is at once beautifully simple and painfully complex: It has everything do to with both of them.  So often it seems that we are quick to point out where others fail and we succeed and liturgy is no different. Looking over the lessons we have learned from marriage however we can apply them not just ecumenism in general, but liturgical ecumenism in particular.  

1: Some change is good and some isn’t (Anthony)

Of course we can learn from various traditions. A great example of this is the liturgical changes that have been taking place from the Oxford movement on (and perhaps even in the Anglican Church from its very foundation).  Both the Anglican Churches and the Catholic Church have a history of changing the liturgy both significantly and insignificantly, and sometimes, as with the changes due to the Oxford movement, those changes come in the form of “copying” the other.

We have already seen movements embracing preaching, vestments, prayers for the dead and many other things that we’re sure almost everyone can agree are good examples of this kind of sharing. However, there are also some examples where it did not work so well. Trying to import wholesale the Catholic devotions to Mary for example tended not to work in Anglican Churches. Protestant theology around the priesthood is very different than the Catholic Church and when clergy attempt to join the “other side” there are often re-entry problems because the theology is so different.  Importing liturgical colors into a church that does not have a theology that  clearly differentiates liturgical seasons might not be the best course of action, and yet it has happened.

2: Sometimes the “other” has a good idea (Rebecca)

That leads quite naturally into this point; sometimes the “other” really has a good idea. Sometimes those ideas are a simple as “hey vestments, good idea”. It could also be something much more significant like bringing the epiclesis back in the Eucharistic Prayer, or including a reading from the Old Testament in the Liturgy of the Word.  The other might have a good point, and organic growth in Theology is not only the realm of the “us” whomever we are.

3: Sometimes the “other” has really bad ideas  (Anthony)

This is not to say that everything is good or bad, but that sometimes it is not for every place and time.  This means it might not be right to co-opt a historical practice, or a current practice.  One example of this is the use of Sarum blue during Advent.  Originally used for the Feast of St. Michael, these vestments have been co-opted by the Episcopal Church as the proper liturgical color for the season of Advent to denote a lack of penance in preparation for Christmas.  This co-option would not be appropriate in the Catholic Church because the season of Advent for us does have a slight penitential nature.  The ringing of bells at the Sanctus is a Catholic practice that makes no real theological sense in the Anglican world, nor does Adoration and yet, at times it has happened. Really, there some liturgical actions that require a theological context that is not shared.  We have already been over this idea and so we won’t repeat it much here, but it warrant repeating-JUST BECAUSE IT WORKS IN ONE PLACE AND IN ONE TRADITION DOES NOT MEAN THAT IT WILL WORK IN OTHER PLACES AND TRADITIONS.

4: Sometimes you just won’t agree. (Rebecca)

This has nothing to do with correctness, or even with practicality. Sometimes we, as married or as churches, just won’t agree and to try and force agreement leads to resentment and failure.

So, what does all of this mean? For those who strive for full visible unity, the prognosis is not good. For those, like you gathered here, who are striving for receptive ecumenism, the prognosis is much better. Catholics and Anglicans, Catholics and other Protestants, are not the same and we never will be, any more then Rebecca is not Anthony and trust us, it would look strange if she tried to be. It does mean that we have much to learn from each other and can grow in that relationship. It is a relationship that seeks the mutual good of the other, allowing for compromise when prudent and stands firm when essential, all the while acting in the love of Christ and seeking to bring the other to know Christ more fully. Hey, that sounds like a marriage!


[2] David Archard, Moral Compromise, Philosophy 87, no.3 (2012), 403, (accessed March 3, 2014).

[3] Archard Compromise, 403.

[4] Archard Compromise, 403.



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