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Being One at Home: Interchurch Families as Domestic Churches, Thomas Knieps-Port le Roi, Ray Temmerman (eds.) (Zurich: Lit Verlag, 2015), 224 pages.

This collection of talks and articles is a product of what has come to be known in international interchurch family circles as the ‘domestic church project’. The idea came out of an informal visit by a number of representatives of interchurch family groups to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome in 2005. This was a follow-up visit to one that took place on the occasion of the Second World Gathering of Interchurch Families, Rome 2003. The Pontifical Council staff said that they would like to be informed of the outcome of that Gathering, and the return visit duly took place two years later. 


The two appendices to the book indicate the chronological parameters of the ‘domestic church project’ to date. The first is Interchurch Families and Christian Unity: a Paper adopted by the Second World Gathering of Interchurch Families from eleven countries held in Rome in July 2003 (London, 15 pp). This still stands as the best statement in summary form of the way in which interchurch families see themselves, the contribution that they hope to be able to make to their churches as these seek to respond to their calling to be one, and the pastoral care and understanding that they hope to receive from those churches if they are to fulfil this role. The second appendix is a document also put together in consultation by interchurch families world-wide: a ‘Response to the 2015 Synod on the Family from the Interchurch Families International Network’ (15 pp). This second document is addressed specifically to the Roman Catholic Church, within the context of preparatory papers contributing to the topics on the agenda of the 2015 Synod.


The joint editors, Thomas Knieps-Port le Roi, holder of the INTAMS Chair for the study of Marriage and Spirituality at Leuven University, Belgium, and co-ordinator of the Interchurch Families International Network (IFIN), and Ray Temmerman from Canada, who administers the interchurch families website and the (English-speaking) international discussion group of IFIN, together contribute an introductory essay ‘From Rome to Jerusalem’, explaining the development of the domestic church project since the 2005 meeting with the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. It began with an international consultation initiated by Thomas Knieps in late 2006, which got members of national interchurch family associations exploring how their experience could feed in to the project. There are lively quotations from the reports sent in from Britain, North America and Austria. At the same time IFIN identified a small working group to set the theological agenda of the project, identifying issues and problems related both to the ecclesiological category of domestic church in general and to its application in the context of interchurch families in particular.


This is followed by the two main sections of the book: ‘Experiential Approaches’ and ‘Theological Approaches’ – presented in that order since theology flows out of experience. Many of the contributions have been presented in seminars and conferences and previously published as the project proceeded; it is most valuable now to have them collected together in one volume. In particular, the international conference on ‘The Household of God and Local Households: Revisiting the Domestic Church’, held in March 2010 at the Faculty of Theology of the Catholic University of Leuven, was a landmark in the domestic church project. Within the wider body made up both of theologians specialising in ecclesiology, and practitioners in ministry to marriage and family life, a little group of interchurch families profited both from the wider perspective and from the opportunity to get together to reflect on their own particular concerns, and four of the contributions in the book originated at Leuven 2010. The intention of the book is to ‘provide sound evidence of the reality of interchurch families as domestic churches, and enhance the nourishment and contribution of their gift of unity to and within the churches of which they are members, and through those churches the wider Church’.


The first three of the five ‘experiential approaches’ were presented at Leuven 2010. The first, Ray Temmerman’s ‘Interchurch Families as Domestic Church: Familial Experiences and Ecclesial Opportunities’, was based on part of his preparatory work for a Master’s thesis required for a degree in Sacred Theology (University of Winnipeg, Canada, 2011). This studied how far the ‘marks’ (one, holy, catholic, apostolic) of the Church can be applied to interchurch families. His 2008 survey of American and British interchurch couples in the course of this work shows a growing sense of unity at home that is not matched by their church-going experience. This raises questions of how interchurch spouses and their children can be welcomed, heard and nourished by their communities, and thus enabled to better fulfil their calling to be ‘one’ in their domestic churches.

Mary Marrocco, associate secretary of the Canadian Council of Churches, both theologian and marriage therapist, writes on ‘The Interchurch Couple: Witness to Communion within Division’. She had done a small survey of ten couples in preparation, and began by picking out two cases in which an Orthodox husband had not received communion himself on Holy Saturday because his Catholic wife was refused, and a Catholic fiancé similarly for the same reason when the priest who was to marry them met his fiancée and her family for the first time. What are these couples carrying in such moments of silent tragedy? she asks. Why does their desire to remain together trump their desire to receive communion? Using the findings of couple-dynamic studies in the work of David Schnarch, and the communion ecclesiology of Walter Kasper and Jean-Marie Tillard, as well as extracts from the survey, Mary Morrocco points to the differences between couples. In some cases it was hard to see whether the churches’ disconnect was pulling them apart, or simply highlighting a gap already existing between them. For others it was the strength of their relationship that helped them to carry the church division – implicitly asking the churches what they are doing to help couples carry a burden they did not seek. Sometimes it is therapists in the secular world who help couples to live in communion, rather than the churches. But, ‘if Christian marriage opens the couple to the ultimate horizon of participation in the divine life as the real meaning of communion, cannot our Christian churches ever more deeply find ways to assist couples in healing where they have broken, and learn from couples who are working out communion in the most intimate aspects of human life? Can our imperfect communion be made fuller and more complete by receiving the lived witness of interchurch couples?’

George Kilcourse, Professor of Theology at Bellarmine University, Louisville, KY, who has undertaken pastoral work with interchurch couples for many years, contributes ‘Interchurch Families as Domestic Church: the Improbable Grace’. He points out that conscientious interchurch married couples and their children pioneer an ecumenical way-of-life that coincides – perhaps unexpectedly – with Catholic teaching on the ‘domestic church’. He shows how in the USA there had been a failure to distinguish authentically interchurch marriages and families from nominally interchurch relationships. This led to the ‘regrettable absence of pastoral care for interchurch families’ shown in the 2009 pastoral letter on marriage issued by the Conference of Catholic Bishops, particularly the omission of any direct mention or discussion of the pastoral possibility by way of ‘exception’ for other baptized Christians to participate in Eucharistic communion. Yet ‘if we can progress with the ecumenical trust and faith found in the homes of interchurch families who live as domestic churches, then the renewal of a broader marriage ministry may give rise to a transforming common witness among our divided churches’.

Dan Olsen, Assistant Director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Archdiocese of Chicago, considers ‘Educating Ecumenically: Interchurch Families as Unique Pedagogical Models’. Vatican II identified the Christian family as a ‘school’ for deeper humanity, as well as a domestic ‘church’. Interchurch families, living out their baptismal calling in relation to two distinctive Christian communities, can model ecumenical formation within the home, within their respective faith communities, and within their wider cultural milieu. The author explores with concrete examples how this can happen in the relationships between: 1) interchurch spouses, 2) interchurch families and their pastoral ministers, 3) interchurch families and their extended families and local communities, and 4) interchurch parents and children. Attending to the distinctive ways in which these families teach each other, their friends and families, and their church communities how to grow as disciples committed to spread the good news of Christ in the midst of Christian division, can become a valuable resource for the ecumenical movement.

Jean-Baptiste Lipp, a Swiss Reformed pastor married to a Catholic, contributes ‘Loving the Universal Church through a Spouse’s Church’, a paper originally presented in the context of a hearing at the Third European Ecumenical Assembly in Sibiu, Romania, in 2006. He had been deeply impressed by his future wife’s words, ‘I love my church’. As they travelled together, little by little the other’s church became their own too. He quoted a conclusion from a group that had recently met at a Swiss interconfessional families conference: ‘We love one another, but we belong to churches that do not love one another’. Yet is there not a strong link between the love of committed mixed couples and the mutual love of the churches for one another? Between the macrocosm of ecumenism (local, national, international), and the microcosm of interchurch families? We have often been told that the experience of interchurch families is valuable for the churches – but are they really interested in it? Are ‘footbridges’ used? Are ‘islands of reconciliation’ left isolated? Do ‘explorers’ have their maps studied and used? It may be that working on the theme of ‘domestic church’ will encourage a better recognition of who interchurch families actually are.

The five ‘Experiential Approaches’ are followed by six ‘Theological Approaches’, deepening theological reflection on interchurch families as domestic churches. Three of these are presentations by Thomas Knieps. ‘Family as “Domestic Church” – Opportunities and Shortcomings of a Theological Concept’ gives a historical overview of the term and the way it has come into use again since Vatican II. Interestingly, he suggests that interchurch families can be helpful to theological reflection on the concept of domestic church, since the partners are not limited to a particular set of assumptions as to church structures and life. This gives them a freedom and openness to work out together what being church at home means for them, in a way that may turn out to be a stimulus for the churches as they come together. Indeed, he points out that the British contribution to the domestic church survey had begun to work out a kind of ‘road map’ for this process. 

Then in ‘Interchurch Marriage: Conjugal and Ecclesial Communion in the Domestic Church’, he explores how conjugal and ecclesial communion are related in the case of interchurch marriage. Just as Vatican II characterized the communion of other churches and ecclesial communities with the Catholic Church as ‘real but imperfect’, so an institutionally oriented approach appears to limit the reality of interchurch marriage to the imperfect ecclesial communion of the respective communities of the partners. Ray Temmerman makes a similar point in his contribution on ‘Interchurch Families as Domestic Church: More Real than Imperfect?’. These authors agree that the Catholic Church has not yet come to grips with the fact that their very real conjugal and family communion (only an ‘imperfect’ communion, in the way that a same-church couple’s unity is imperfect) is the basis of an interchurch marriage, not the imperfect communion of the ecclesial bodies. When this is recognised, it will be more possible for interchurch families to be seen and appreciated as ‘laboratories of Christian unity’, to quote Pope Benedict XVI.

Thomas Knieps’ third presentation ‘Interchurch Families – a Test Case for the “Domestic Church”’ focuses on the tension between loyalty of an interchurch spouse to his/her partner and that to his/her church of origin. In order to harmonize their allegiances, interchurch couples need to develop specific hermeneutical skills. He uncovers central elements of such skills from the experiential evidence presented in the 2003 Rome document Interchurch Families and Christian Unity. Inevitably these ecumenical households are not always in line with the prevailing understanding of ecclesial communion and therefore continually question these standard models. There is constant mutual interaction between the small unit of the interchurch family and the larger church community. ‘In this way, it becomes clear once more that interchurch families can serve as an exemplary model also for same-church families to understand and live their domestic life as an ecclesial reality and likewise as a roadmap for the divided churches on their search for forms of church unity.’

The last two articles study the possibilities for Eucharistic sharing in interchurch families. Bernard Prusak, Professor of Historical and Systematic theology at Villanova University, PA, contributed ‘The Ecumenical Household as Domestic Church: Ecclesial Threat or Pastoral Challenge and even Resource?’ to the 2010 Leuven conference. He asks whether the love and unity in an interchurch family, built upon a sacramental marriage, must necessarily be deemed secondary to wider ecclesial unity, whether the ‘mindset in which ecclesial disunity simply trumps and disregards the unitive love of spouses in an ecumenical, sacramental marriage’ must continue to prevail. He examines in detail how since Vatican II various guidelines on Eucharistic sharing issued by Vatican authorities, episcopal conferences and individual bishops have affected interchurch families – a very useful overview of this documentation. There has been pastoral progress. But he concludes that a thoroughly new mindset is needed, in which interchurch family life should be a ‘a contributing, integral component of ecumenical dialogue’.

Ernest Falardeau, SSS, Director of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, NM for twenty-four years, with long experience of pastoral work with interchurch families, contributes a final article on ‘Eucharistic Hunger in the Domestic Church: a View from Interchurch Families’ – a ‘theological and pastoral reflection on the spiritual reality of interchurch families, and how they share in the “great mystery” which is God’s love for his people and the love of Jesus Christ for his Church’. The bond between husband and wife established through baptism and marriage is a special experience of Christian love, forgiveness and compassion, and can begin to point the way to a full communion between the churches that is more than institutional or canonical, ‘but rather based on spiritual, ascetical, ecclesial and theological principles and the experience of Christian love that grows by God’s grace and power’. Interchurch families have a hunger for the Eucharist, because the Eucharist is profoundly rooted at the heart of the sacrament of marriage and of the conjugal union that comes from it. They are in real communion. They are domestic churches.

It seems providential that this book has been published just at the time when Pope Francis has written his post-synodal apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. In saying nothing negative about mixed marriages between Christians, and in describing the domestic church in a way that includes interchurch marriages on the level of same-church marriages, he has moved beyond previous authoritative documents that have implied they are second-class. Yes indeed, they are in a complex situation, but that very complexity is full of hope. It offers the possibility that by their existence and faithfulness within that situation, they may be able to make their own small contribution both to the study of the ‘domestic church’ which is being undertaken at present, and also to the way in which the churches and ecclesial communities to which they belong are walking together in their journey towards fuller visible unity.

Of course there are many different kinds of interchurch families – just as there are many different kinds of same-church families. Several of the contributors to this book stress these differences, and would like to be able to distinguish more clearly between them, in order to make it clearer that interchurch families are indeed domestic churches. Attempts at this have been made, but it is never possible to draw a hard and fast line. It is unwise to generalise about interchurch families, but we do know that there is always a potential for growth, growth in that love which is at the heart of family life and of the Church at every level. Couples and families do what they can, where they are; some need a helping hand, others can offer it. There is the same acknowledgement in Amoris Laetitia. All are imperfect; all need to grow into God’s gift of sacramental marriage, into the domestic church they are called to become. All those who deeply desire it are strengthened when they share the Eucharist at the heart of their conjugal and family life.

Ruth Reardon



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