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This article was published in IFIR Voume 5.3, November 2006.

Interchurch Families in New Zealand

John and Sally Faisandier were sent by their diocese, the Archdiocese of Wellington in New Zealand, to the Interchurch Families International Conference held in Newcastle, Australia, in 2005. On their return they contributed a series of three articles to the Archdiocesan newspaper Wel-com. The Editor entered them for an Australasian Catholic Newspaper competition, in which they won the best feature award.

The judge’s citation said: I was particularly impressed by the use of up-to-date figures which added context, by saying 68 percent of Catholics in New Zealand marry non-Catholics, with similar numbers in Australia.

The series outlined the latest church thinking on the issue. But most importantly, the series examined how the issue affected real people, telling the stories of how they balance their faith and their lives together. This gave the series a real human impact. My only criticism is that I would have liked more direct quotes. But I was also impressed that the series pointed readers to support services for people going through the same struggles.

We are grateful for permission to give below the text of the three articles, which appeared in Wel-com in September and October 2005, and in April 2006.

1 Interchurch Families – growing in number – how do they cope?

Conference an uplifting experience
The 11th International Interchurch Families conference in Newcastle Australia opened the day Brother Roger Schutz of Taizé was buried. At his funeral Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said that from his youth Br Roger had united himself to Christ’s prayer “that all may be one”. He wanted to live the faith of the undivided Church, without breaking with anybody, in a great brotherhood. A day later at the World Youth Day, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged the huge role that Br Roger had played in church unity. He referred to the importance of dialogue between the churches: As a result of this commitment [to dialogue], the journey can move forward, step-by-step, until at last we will all “attain to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Ephesians 4:13). Now let us all go along this path in the awareness that walking together is a form of unity.

There was something significant for the conference about this focus on unity happening at the same time in Europe. We immediately felt comfortable and welcomed by the people at the conference. Although overall numbers were small, there were lay people and clergy from the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican, Presbyterian and Uniting Churches. Two Uniting Church ministers were there with their Catholic husbands. The retired president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Cassidy, joined us for most of the sessions. Several church scholars contributed theological reflections.

What struck us most were the stories the interchurch couples told. Some had been a part of the interchurch family movement for many years. Working with their local priest and bishop, they had found creative ways of living with their differences. They sought ways to truly belong to two communities and bring their children up in both. Several, with the knowledge of their bishop, priest and minister, shared the Eucharist together at both their churches. 

Theological concerns
There are ongoing theological issues that need to be resolved before true Christian unity can be reached. The sacraments of marriage and baptism are more easily shared, but there remain difficulties with the Roman Catholic Church around Communion and Confirmation.

While these theological statements have their place, what is seen as more important is the way interchurch families actually live their lives together and work out ways of sharing their beliefs and practices. Pope John Paul II in 1982 said to interchurch families: You live in your marriage the hopes and difficulties of the path to Christian unity. Express that hope in prayer together, in the unity of love. Together invite the Holy Spirit of love into your hearts and into your homes.

A striking statement in the 1999 Roman Catholic and Uniting Church in Australia document Interchurch MarriagesTheir ecumenical challenge and significance for our churches gives us great hope. This result of intensive dialogue over six years by scholars and lay people says:
As divided churches, we acknowledge that we have departed from the will of Jesus that all his followers should be one. When couples from different Christian traditions are uncertain in which church they should raise their children, they deserve to be received with compassion, because the fault is not theirs but the consequence of our division. The pain which this causes is not their fault, but that of our churches, which have placed them in that situation. It is a case not of the church having to forgive them, but of asking them to forgive the church. It is with this attitude that our churches should welcome candidates for marriage and, where appropriate, encourage - not impede – interchurch marriages.

The document acknowledges the importance of guidelines for pastoral care of interchurch families: If pastoral care of ‘mixed marriage’ families – on an ecumenical basis – were given a greater priority in our churches, the partners in such marriages might well choose to maintain their commitment to their own church, instead of simply ‘dropping out’, as so many do.

Majority marry non-Catholics
Sixty-eight percent of Catholics in New Zealand marry non-Catholics, and Australia has a similar percentage. Where are they all? Sister Trish Madigan reported to the conference results of a survey of Sydney Catholic priests. Few could easily identify the interchurch couples in their parishes. Many, it seems drift away because the churches do not welcome them as interchurch couples.

The Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in 1993 strongly recommended that bishops’ conferences establish local norms for interchurch families. Accordingly, in January 2003 the Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle in New South Wales published Real Yet Imperfect: Pastoral Guidelines for Sacramental Sharing. The following significant passage outlines the Maitland-Newcastle approach to interchurch marriages sharing the Eucharist in the Catholic Church together:
Those who attend Mass together in a Catholic Church, present a unique case in that their baptismal unity has been further sealed by the sacrament of marriage. Conscious of the pain of the present division within the body of Christ, both may experience a real need to express their unity by receiving the Eucharist whenever they attend Mass together. … If this occurs frequently, the non-Catholic spouse may request permission to receive the Eucharist every time s/he attends Mass with his/her spouse, but joint pastoral care by the clergy of both denominations should be offered to help the person understand the significance of such requests.

On those occasions when Christians of other denominations are attending Mass, Real Yet Imperfect makes the following suggestions:
 No invitation to receive Eucharist will be issued.
• There will be no public prohibition against receiving.
• There will be no refusal should someone present themselves for communion.

And something magic is happening in Newcastle! We were moved by these stories:
• When Pat’s Catholic father died, her husband, an Anglican priest, was invited up to the altar to participate in distributing communion to the congregation;
• When Christine first shared communion with her husband in the Catholic Church in Newcastle, the priest announced this to the congregation and explained that the bishop had given his permission for Christine to have ongoing communion with her husband. All who knew her in the parish warmly received this announcement.
We were warmed by this story, too, and we have come back from the conference with a great enthusiasm to share our new knowledge with others. Thank you to the Catholic Church for supporting our attendance at this important event. 

Communion time when the division hits home
David and Gillian’s story

For Gill Ryrie, the joy of being able to go to Communion with her husband has not come often in their 30 years of married life, but when it does, she treasures the moment. Most of the time though, left behind in the pew, she prayed for those receiving Communion and also for non-Catholics like her, who could not participate in this liturgical commemoration of Jesus’ sharing of his body and blood. 

Some 68 percent of Catholics are married to non-Catholics. For some of these non-Catholic partners there is conflict between their wanting to share fully in their partner’s faith tradition and maintain an equally strong presence in their own Church community. For the past eight years some interchurch couples have come together periodically to share their stories and to try to find a way around the obstacles that exclude one partner in the marriage. Gill says a major breakthrough came when she and David were at a Marriage Encounter weekend 20 years ago and, for the first time, she was invited to come forward for a blessing at Communion time. Many parish priests do not know how to treat non-Catholic partners in their parishes. Ten years later, blessings for non-Catholic partners started to become more common. At first, David found the step of the non-Catholic receiving a blessing difficult, but after a few Sundays, found that, because there was no comment from other parishioners, his concern was unfounded. Now there is no problem receiving a blessing from Eucharistic ministers, the parish priest or visiting priests. Gill has found acceptance in her present parish and helps with a number of parish initiatives while also actively participating in her own, Anglican, parish.

‘Most people seem surprised to find that I am not a Catholic,’ she says. For David the frustration is in the fact that he feels ready to move on. He feels that the time is right for the Church to remove some of the obstacles to sharing Communion between faiths. But he has been knocked back by official Church statements contradicting this sense of timeliness. He says there is nothing to stop the different faiths getting together and he would like to see more interchurch discussion about the obstacles. Couples have been waiting some 15 years for some movement on this.

When they first talked of marriage, they reached a mutual agreement that David would remain Catholic and Gill would remain Anglican, with the children being brought up as Catholics. David says it has taken a long time for him to feel comfortable in any non-Catholic Church, due to early Catholic instruction, and to arrive at a point where he wants to learn about Gill’s faith and hear about how she feels about it. Gill thinks every non-Catholic married to a practising Catholic has found it extremely painful not to be able receive Eucharist. She also feels pain that David isn’t free to receive Eucharist, in an Anglican Church, even though it is offered, although he is welcome to have a blessing.

Lynette and Paul’s story
When it comes to Communion time, the fact that other Christians are not included makes it feel very divisive and isolating. Lynette prefers to stay in the pew rather than go up for a blessing because she feels it is second rate. Lynette has been worshipping in the Catholic Church with her husband Paul and their children since the family moved to Wellington several years ago. She has sat in on children’s liturgy, particularly when her younger child needed her support and she has taught in Catholic schools. Lynette and Paul celebrated their wedding 11 years ago in the Oamaru Presbyterian church. It was a wonderful example of how the churches can be unified. Lynette’s minister and Paul’s uncle who is a Catholic priest, shared the wedding service equally. The only difference was when Fr Paul read the gospel and asked everyone to stand, which is not usual in the Presbyterian tradition. 

The issue of whether the children should have godparents has become a thorny one for Lynette and Paul. With the older two children, now seven and five, they followed the Presbyterian tradition of not having godparents, but with a different priest about to baptise their third baby the issue of whether to have godparents has arisen again. While Lynette agreed to have the children baptised into the catholic faith, it was not without a lot of questioning and soul-searching. ‘I guess not having godparents was a small concession towards my tradition.’ 

Lynette’s mother was a staunch Presbyterian, taking Lynette and her siblings to weekly Sunday worship. Lynette says the younger children would remain in the main part of the church for the first 20 minutes of the service then go to Sunday school. There would also be a regular family service pitched at the children’s level. The older children went to bible class. Lynette says her family had no problem accepting her marriage to Paul but there was some concern that Lynette might have to turn her back on her Presbyterian upbringing. 

Eleanor and Peter’s story
For Eleanor and Peter the exclusion from the Eucharist was more painful because it took place in the relatively small confines of the choir loft at their local church. A minister of the Eucharist would take Communion to the choir members in the loft but Peter, being Anglican, had to miss out. When they were married, Eleanor did not want a nuptial Mass because Peter would not be able to receive Communion but it took the family a while to get used to the idea of not having one. 

For the children’s baptisms Peter and Eleanor mixed the two traditions and an Anglican clergyman took part in the ceremonies alongside the Catholic priest. The challenge of honouring both traditions will present itself again soon when their eldest child becomes eligible to make his first Holy Communion. Currently Eleanor and Peter go to different churches but their big dream would be to worship as a family and be able to receive communion in the same rite. ‘It is very easy to feel alone and that you are the only one dealing with this,’ Eleanor says. But the Interchurch Families group has given them a sense that they are not as isolated as they feel.

2 Interchurch families and baptism

When interchurch couples are preparing for marriage, the Roman Catholic partner is required to make the following promise: …I sincerely undertake that I will do all that I can within the unity of our partnership to have all the children of our marriage baptised and brought up in the Catholic Church. The 1993 Roman Catholic Ecumenical Directory states: At the same time, it should be recognised that the non-Catholic partner may feel a like obligation because of his or her own Christian commitment.

In a pamphlet the British Association of Interchurch Families has produced, interchurch couples are encouraged to work out the issues surrounding the baptism and Christian upbringing of their children together. The pamphlet also recommends: ‘It is wise to discuss this before marriage, but not to make a final decision until a child is born, as your attitudes may well develop after marriage.’

We found this out for ourselves! When our son was still an infant, we asked the priest to welcome him into the Catholic Church as a catechumen – which was a way that we could ask for him to be welcomed into God’s church without specifically saying that he was a fully baptised Roman Catholic. However, it was another eight years before we really addressed the problem again – and it wasn’t because we were ready to! Rather, it was because our hand was forced when our son asked if he could make his first communion in the Roman Catholic Church along with all the other children in his class at the Catholic school. At that point we had long, painful discussions about our respective traditions, our concerns if he was baptised into the other’s church, and our difficulties with him growing up in one church to the possible detriment of the other. Eventually, we arrived at a compromise that also met our son’s approval.

Unknowingly, we had stumbled on a way forward that other interchurch families in other countries had already come to: it is based on the fact that most Christian churches state, ‘We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins’. We therefore agreed to have our son baptised in the Anglican Church and then went ahead with his entry to first communion and confirmation into the Roman Catholic Church. We are pleased that we did this, because our son now tells people that he is Anglican and Roman Catholic, and he feels that he belongs in both of those churches. This painful process eventually allowed us all to make an important breakthrough in our ability to combine the two denominational traditions in our family.

In 1999 the Uniting Church of Australia and the Roman Catholic Church published a report on the national dialogue between the two churches which outlines their agreed position on interchurch marriages. In that document, they acknowledged that they were able to recognise each other’s baptism, and outlined a number of possibilities for the interchurch family when dealing with this significant event in their lives:

• The baptismal rite in one church could make reference to the other church and their shared fellowship in Christ.
• One church could borrow elements from the rite of the other church in its celebration of baptism for an interchurch family.
• Each church could develop and celebrate a rite to welcome / recognise / bless a child and an interchurch family when the baptism has taken place in the other church.
• Representatives of the other church could be present at the baptismal celebration.
• Representatives of each church could be present at the baptismal celebration.
• Representatives of each church could participate officially in the baptismal celebrations of the other church.
• Each church could baptise its own candidates in a single common ecumenical ceremony.

The report concludes this section strongly, by stating: ‘Denominational tensions which may occur about baptism at the birth of a child are confronted by the triumphant assertion of the interchurch marriage, What God has joined together, let no one put asunder!’(p53-54). 

In 2003 the Second World Gathering of interchurch families was held near Rome. A paper was adopted by the 11 countries represented at that gathering which is called ‘Interchurch Families and Christian Unity’. In that paper, similar approaches to the Australian document were listed, but the paper also suggested the following: 

Sometimes the fact of the baptism is recorded in the registers of the two churches of the parents. In some countries a Certificate of Christian Baptism has been produced listing the churches that have agreed to accept it as evidence of Christian baptism. Because the mutual recognition of baptism is so fundamental to the ecumenical movement, interchurch families would like to see the churches build on this foundation. Despite the obvious practical problems, could not churches of different traditions share more frequent celebrations in which they baptise others beside interchurch families? Could these celebrations also be occasions when all Christians re-affirm their baptismal promises together? (p13).

We offer these thoughts to readers who themselves are grappling with such issues. We encourage you to explore with your priest and pastor creative ways of addressing the baptism of your child that does not have to mean a loss of either parent’s religious traditions.

3 Interchurch marriages – some surprising truths

We have noticed that a number of our Catholic friends are puzzled by our comments about inter-church issues. It is not easy for them to understand what all the fuss is about. It seems fairly straightforward: if the religious differences are significant enough, then the couple are not an ideal match, and shouldn’t get married. The converse may also be true: if religious beliefs are not an important part of the relationship, then why do people make a problem out of their differing church backgrounds? Finally, some people suggest that inter-church couples should just ignore the Catholic Church’s teachings, and believe the non-Catholic partner should participate in communion along with everybody else – in the knowledge that their relationship is with God, and not with the bishop or the priest of that parish.

So why don’t the couple resolve their inter-church issues before they get married? For some, this is not an easy question, and we know of some couples who have met, got engaged, and then decided against marriage because of the difficulties raised by their differing denominational backgrounds. The majority, however, are like Fran and Ben [all names in this article have been changed to protect identity]. They were delighted to meet each other, had many interests in common, shared the same values and beliefs, were attracted to each other, and were pleased that they had found a partner who was a committed Christian. You will not be surprised to hear that Fran and Ben are happily married. In the end, they saw their religious beliefs as highlighting how close their values were, rather than being divisive. Their strong belief is that God didn’t think the difference in Christian denomination was an important factor, either! 

It is not well-known that 68 percent of Catholics living in New Zealand (and also in Australia) marry non-Catholics. In other words, it is normal and common in New Zealand for Catholics to marry non-Catholics. However, Fran did have some insight into some of the difficulties marrying a Catholic might bring and she now faces these difficulties every Sunday. Unfortunately, interchurch couples generally don’t feel ‘normal’ at a Catholic Mass, and the non-Catholic partner is treated differently. When the priest welcomes everybody with the words, ‘Welcome to this celebration of the Eucharist’ it feels to Fran as though he is actually only welcoming Ben, because she is not permitted to receive the Eucharist. She finds this hurtful. It is difficult for her to willingly attend a Catholic Mass week after week with Ben, but she does it to support him, and to express their ‘domestic church’ together. 

However, they both attend her church, too, where they are both welcomed and where Fran knows that the Eucharist (the most significant event for any Christian in a church service) is freely available. However, Ben knows that the Catholic Church frowns on him taking Communion in a non-Catholic service, so it is difficult for him there.

It is important to remember that the difficulties are imposed by the Catholic Church, not by the couple themselves. When Pope John Paul II addressed the interchurch family group in York in 1982 he said: You live in your marriage the hopes and difficulties of the path to Christian unity. Express that hope in prayer together, in the unity of love. Together invite the Holy Spirit of love into your hearts and into your homes.

We appreciate the acknowledgement of the difficulties the Pope alluded to. We celebrate the Pope’s indication in other speeches that Christian unity is a goal we are all hopefully praying for and moving towards. But it is dangerous to ever hope or imagine that the answer is for Protestants to all become Catholics one day. Unity must represent a creative solution that acknowledges the value of all Christian denominations, and the Catholic Church cannot afford to dictate to the others.

If religion wasn’t important when they got married, then why do couples subsequently make a problem out of their differing church backgrounds? Susan and James can answer this. Getting married was easy. James was quite happy to go along with Susan to Catholic Mass (somehow it was always more ‘important’ to her that she go to her own church) – until they had children. Then, suddenly, a whole set of emotions kicked in for James, and he realised that he wanted his children to know his traditions, his background, his culture as much as Susan’s. When his son was born, James realised that his religious traditions were about his identity. It wasn’t just about going to Susan’s church because he loved her, it was now about bringing their child up in a community of faith that represented both parents. We believe that this scenario is very typical – and potentially a very divisive moment for an inter-church couple. We have written about the baptism of our own child in an earlier article – but our key recommendation is that both partners should make sure that whatever they decide about their child’s spiritual upbringing – it must be a mutually agreeable one. 

So why don’t inter-church couples just ignore the Catholic church’s teachings, and work out their own relationship with God? We know that many take their own path by no longer attending church. We have also heard stories overseas where a number of Catholics have simply surrounded a non-Catholic family member, or close friend, and taken them up for communion – as an expression of their own support for that person, and their beliefs. Sometimes, a priest takes their own authority to give communion because of some special conditions that have been met (such as a significant occasion for the couple).

However, the large majority of us desperately want the church (especially the Catholic Church) to welcome the non-Catholic partner in a significant way that acknowledges the Christian unity that the couple live within their marriage. We are heartened by developments overseas where some Catholic bishops have given permission for their priests to offer communion to inter-church couples. Where this has occurred, the couples themselves have experienced support and encouragement in their spiritual journey, and found it much easier to both attend church, and express their faith to their children.

Our conclusions
The interchurch family movement is made up of many couples like Fran and Ben, Susan and James, and others who want to maintain both their religious traditions, but find it extremely challenging. The support we gain from each other keeps us going – we remind ourselves that we are normal, and encourage each other not to give up on church altogether. We know that many do, in fact, find it too hard, and don’t attend church anymore.

We were hugely grateful to learn that Archbishop John Dew acknowledged the difficulties faced by interchurch couples at the synod of Bishops in Rome last year. He said, “We acknowledge them to be baptized in Christ in the sacrament of marriage, but not in the reception of the Eucharist.” We are sustained by the knowledge that our difficulties are at least recognised, and discussed by our church leaders. We pray for the day that it may be possible for all Christians to worship together in one church – as we are sure God intended.



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