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This is a draft of a chapter that has been accepted for publication by Oxford University Press in the forthcoming book The Oxford Handbook of Ecumenical Studies edited by Geoffrey Wainwright and Paul McPartlan, due for print publication in 2019

Part 4 Instruments: Chapter 10 INTERCHURCH FAMILIES                  

Are interchurch families ‘instruments’ of the ecumenical movement?

It may seem surprising that interchurch families (usually one partner a Roman Catholic and the other a member of another Christian communion) are included among ‘ecumenical instruments’. Most are official bodies or organs of dialogue set up by the churches specifically to promote Christian unity. Interchurch couples get married because the partners fall in love and sense that God has called them to this particular union. Their own unity as two persons called into ‘an intimate community of life and love’ (Gaudium et Spes 48) is at the forefront of their minds. The institutional churches have not encouraged this vocation – in the past they have strongly warned Christians against ‘mixed marriages’, and even now often point to the inherent difficulties rather than to the possible benefits.

Interchurch families believe that they can contribute to Christian unity

Yet from the official entry of the Roman Catholic Church into the ecumenical movement, marked by the Second Vatican Council, many couples have believed that their own growing unity could in some small way contribute to making visible the growing unity between their churches. Their confidence grew until in 2003 an international gathering meeting near Rome and representing interchurch families from eleven countries could state:

We believe that, as interchurch families, we have a significant and unique contribution to make to our churches’ growth in visible Christian unity. Many people in our churches have told us that we are pioneers. As two baptised Christians who are members of two different, and as yet separated Christian traditions, we have come together in the covenant of marriage to form one Christian family. As we grow into that unity, we begin and continue to share in the life and worship of each other’s church communities. We develop a love and understanding not only of one another, but also of the churches that have given each of us our religious and spiritual identity. In this way interchurch families can become both a sign of unity and a means to grow towards unity. We believe that interchurch families can form a connective tissue helping in a small way to bring our churches together in the one Body of Christ.

Different kinds of interchurch families and mixed marriages

The 1993 Ecumenical Directory issued by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity refers to couples in mixed marriages between a Catholic and another baptised Christian as ‘those who share the sacraments of baptism and marriage’. Not all such couples would normally be called ‘interchurch’. One or both partners might be nominal Christians, or might decide to worship separately within their respective communities.

In interchurch families both partners remain faithful to their original church membership, but, so far as they can, are committed to participate in the life and worship of their spouse’s church too. If they have children, they share their parental responsibility, bringing them up to appreciate both  Christian traditions. There is no blueprint for how this is done; each family is unique, and in conscientious striving comes to a common mind on how to live out its two-church character.

Groups and associations of interchurch families

In the 1960s couples who began to explore this possibility felt isolated. Groups and associations were formed for mutual encouragement and support. Many couples active in these groups had experienced considerable difficulties and discouragement from families and from their church communities, but they were positive about the opportunities offered by such marriages for the partners themselves, for their children and for their churches. They wanted to share this positive approach with other mixed couples who felt pressurised into choosing one church or the other, or decided to cut their links with both churches because of the problems they had encountered. Ecumenically-minded Catholic clergy (together with ministers of other communions) began to fulfil a vital role in the pastoral care of these family groups. Indeed, they were often at the origin of such groups: there was René Beaupère OP in France, Don Mario Polastro in Italy, John Coventry SJ in England, Beda Müller OSB in Germany, Michael Hurley SJ in Ireland, and later George Kilcourse in the United States and Tom Ryan CSP in Canada. They stimulated interchurch family groups to think beyond themselves and their needs to their contribution to growing unity between the Roman Catholic Church and other churches.

By the time the Second World Gathering of Interchurch Families took place in 2003, informal international networking had brought together English-speaking associations and groups in Britain and Ireland, Australia, Canada and the United States (usually called ‘interchurch families’, but ‘mixed marriages’ in Northern Ireland), French-speaking groups in France and Switzerland (‘foyers mixtes’ or ‘foyers interconfessionnels’), German-speaking groups in Germany and Austria (konfessionsverbindende Familien’), and Italian groups (famiglie miste interconfessionali’). They had made contacts with interchurch families in Africa and Asia too. These groups were united in their desire to contribute both to a better pastoral understanding of interchurch families and to closer relationships between their churches. Together they were able to give a voice to these aspirations. It is primarily these groups and associations of interchurch families who are considered as ‘ecumenical instruments’ here.

Do the churches see interchurch families as ecumenical instruments?

Before the Second Vatican Council mixed marriages between Roman Catholics and other Christians were forbidden by the Catholic Church unless both partners made promises, including a promise to bring up all the children of the marriage in the Catholic faith. Other churches saw this as violating the rights of their members. In 1963 Dr Visser t’ Hooft, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, declared that the ecumenical reality of the Council would be judged by two things. One was whether it removed the canonical difficulties for Christians of other communions marrying Catholics.

The fruit of the Council was seen when the papal ‘motu proprio’ Matrimonia Mixta was issued in 1970. The Catholic partner alone had to promise to do all that he could for the Catholic baptism and upbringing of the children; the other partner was not required to make any promise. There was also a less negative view of mixed marriages: they ‘do not, except in some cases, help in re-establishing unity among Christians’. A radical change was hidden under cover of the negative.

Pope Paul VI spoke more positively in his encyclical Evangelii Nuntiandi of 1975. ‘Families resulting from a mixed marriage also have the duty of proclaiming Christ to the children in the fullness of the consequences of the common baptism,’ he wrote. ‘They have moreover the difficult task of becoming builders of unity.’

Pope John Paul II was even more explicit in Familiaris Consortio in 1981. ‘Marriages between Catholics and other baptised persons … contain numerous elements that could well be made use of and developed … for the contribution they can make to the ecumenical movement. This is particularly true when both parties are faithful to their religious duties.’

In Britain in 1982 Pope John Paul II spoke of interchurch families as ‘living the hopes and difficulties of the path to Christian unity’. The 1993 Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism issued by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity marked a real step forward in its pastoral provision for mixed marriages, but did not move beyond Familiaris Consortio in assessing the contribution such families might make to the ecumenical movement. Ten years later, things had moved on. Cardinal Kasper, then President of the Pontifical Council, could say in his greeting to the Rome world gathering in 2003: ‘Mixed marriages have an important role to play in ecumenical relations’.

There has been further progress in assessing this role. When he visited Poland in 2006, Pope Benedict XVI said that a mixed marriage could lead to the formation of ‘a practical laboratory of unity’. In his Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism (2007) Cardinal Kasper stated that the Catholic Church ‘invites reflection on the contributions [mixed marriage families] can make to their respective communities, as they live out their Christian discipleship faithfully and creatively.’

We have detailed these developments in the Roman Catholic Church, because it has generally been easier for other churches to appreciate the ecumenical significance of interchurch families. Gradually it became possible to explore this together. In 1998 the Seventh Report of the Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches recommended eight priorities for the attention of the 1998-2005 Joint Working Group, and the second was: ‘The ecumenical role of interchurch marriages. The ecclesiological implications of the sacrament of marriage between Christians of different Churches and in their family life’.

How interchurch families contribute to Christian unity

Interchurch families as described above contribute to Christian unity by their very existence. Certainly many are active in ecumenical structures such as Councils of Churches and bilateral dialogues and committees, because they are strongly motivated to work for church unity, but interchurch families embody unity in simply being interchurch families, apart from any activities in which they participate. They also point to the scandal of Christian disunity in a very striking and personal form, for example when they are not able to share eucharistic communion.

Growing together as partners, parents and families

When mixed couples consider marriage, it can be the strong Christian quality of their lives that attracts them. What they have in common is so much greater than that which separates them in their respective denominational allegiances. They are both children of the one Father, disciples of the one Lord Jesus Christ, bound together by the gift of the one Holy Spirit. They share their baptismal faith and deeply desire to commit themselves in a life-long covenant to journey together to the Father’s house. The scandal is not that two Christians are drawn to marry one another, but that the communions to which they belong are divided, so it is difficult for them to decide to marry. As they live their marriage together, as equal partners with shared parental responsibilities, church divisions mean that they have particular problems, but they also have special opportunities to receive and create unity.

When they meet, the partners may well assume that the divisions between their two ecclesial communions are irreconcilable. But they grow in married love as they share their lives together, respecting and forgiving and learning from one another, and they find that this attitude can extend to one another’s churches too, as they live together within both traditions. There is a real ‘exchange of gifts’. Just as they both have much to learn from and offer to one another, they come to realise they have much to learn from and offer to each other’s church tradition. Elements from both are integrated into their family life. They learned to practise a mutual ‘receptive ecumenism’ long before it had a name! Together they take on a larger identity that includes rather than excludes; they discover that their differences can be enriching, and do not necessarily divide them. Their children inherit this wider identity.

In living within one another’s traditions interchurch families come to understand that just as the positive gifts of each other’s church communities can be valued and shared, so their characteristic weaknesses can be forgiven. If marriage partners learn to see the perspective from which their spouse is coming, words and actions that at first seem unacceptable are placed in a new light. The hurt they cause is forgiven because the limited perspective from which it comes is understood. The underlying love and trust are of greater importance in their lives. Cannot churches, too, learn to understand one another’s perspectives and forgive one another?

In the process of living together interchurch families come to understand that the same truth can be expressed in different ways – sometimes they appreciate this in practice even before theological dialogues acknowledge it. When the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission came to a ‘substantial agreement’ on the eucharist in 1972, many were surprised. But Anglican-Roman Catholic couples who had been accompanying one another to church each week were not; they had already experienced themselves as ‘doing the same thing twice over’.

Sharing the experience of unity with others

As they share in the life and worship of their partner’s church as well as their own, interchurch spouses can be welcomed and feel at home in both. Some accept responsibilities in their partner’s church – teaching the children or helping with the youth group, joining the music group, the welcome ministry, or even the parish council. When they are accepted as ‘different’ and yet ‘one of us’ they can undermine prejudice, and by their presence help to make clergy and congregations more aware of the language they use about other Christians.

When clergy and congregations of both churches join in celebrations of family occasions – weddings and especially baptisms, even funerals – unity can become for them a living reality in a new way. Clergy brought together by the insistence of a mixed family who have valued their experience of exercising joint pastoral care are more ready to offer this to other couples. If interchurch families host house-groups for Bible study or prayer it is natural for them to be ecumenical rather than limited to a single congregation. Thus interchurch families can become motors of ecumenism on a local level.

Domestic churches: visible signs of unity

When they open their homes and share their experiences with other Christians, interchurch families are witnessing to their existence as a ‘domestic church’, bonded together in their marriage covenant. They know themselves to be one church at home, and that this one church is profoundly in communion with the two churches – in the sense both of denominations and local congregations – to which the partners respectively belong. They will not yet receive canonical recognition of this experienced reality, but they can remain faithful to both ecclesial communities and give expression to their lived unity as fully as possible in their particular circumstances. Partners and children are always trying to push at the boundaries, in their desire for eucharistic sharing, for shared celebrations of baptism, and for ways of affirming the faith of growing children and celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit that involve both church communities. Such celebrations can be a joyful ecumenical witness without parallel. The vital importance of Christian unity is experienced in human terms.

The domestic church is built up through the relationships of marriage and family life, in the constant falling and rising again through which couples and families experience the ever-present  grace of God in their homes. Interchurch families witness to the centrality of committed relationships in the movement towards Christian unity. Their love is not content with a parallel separate existence, but yearns for, and therefore promotes, growth into deeper unity. The marriage covenant provides a support and framework within which this love is encouraged to grow. Actual living together under one roof enables the partners to enter into each other’s everyday life, to get to know one another at a deep level. They share resources and decide together how best to use them for the good of the family and others. Parents share responsibility for the education and nurture of their children, and welcome the contribution of growing children to family decision-making. Interchurch families who do these things in their everyday lives are creating a living and healing connection between the ecclesial communities to which they belong; their domestic church embodies and signifies the growing unity of the Church. Children of interchurch families take their two-church connection for granted.

How can interchurch families become more effective ecumenical instruments?

This situation offers a considerable challenge to institutional churches that regard themselves as separate and distinct from others, and insist that ecumenical encounters must take place from a single denominational base. It especially challenges the Roman Catholic Church whose self-understanding includes a sense of being ‘church’ in a fullness that it cannot attribute to other ecclesial communities. It is easier for churches that regard themselves as ‘parts’ of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church to accept the two-church character of interchurch families.

Challenges and gifts to the churches

If interchurch marriage spouses experience their marriage relationship as an equal partnership, they may well feel they have to give equal weight in practical terms to the two churches that nourish their one domestic church. They have variously described their experience as ‘double belonging’, ‘double insertion’, ‘double participation’, ‘double solidarity’. They are not claiming canonical dual membership, but trying to express an experienced reality. This is a particularly difficult challenge for the Roman Catholic Church, with its conviction that the Church of Christ ‘subsists in’ it in a way that goes beyond what is lived in other churches. (Of course since Vatican II the Roman Catholic Church no longer claims simply to ‘be’ the one Church of Christ without remainder.)

Often the official response when interchurch families try to describe their experience of unity in the domestic church and their efforts to bring up their children within that unity is simply: ‘It is not possible’. An institutional mentality cannot cope with it. The 1998-2005 Joint Working Group of the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church devoted a number of sessions to interchurch families, but failed to come to any kind of understanding and did not even wish the papers presented at those sessions to be published. Yet by the grace of God the impossible happens, and ‘affective ecumenism’ may well lead on to ‘effective ecumenism’. 

Challenges to accepted ways of thinking are uncomfortable. But because change and conversion is always needed on the Christian journey, challenges can be received as gifts. Interchurch families can be received as gifts. The institutional churches have at times tried to set the spouses against one another: ‘if in spite of the Catholic’s best efforts’; ‘Anglicans are advised to stick to their consciences’. But domestic churches have refused to be divided, and have worked for a win-win situation. Both ecclesial communities are to be equally valued, respected and loved within their one family. It doesn’t always work out in perfect harmony! But it is the aim in many interchurch families, and they hold to it so far as they can. Thus they witness to the priority of our relationship with God-as-Trinity, and of our relationships with one another in promoting Christian unity, to spiritual ecumenism and to the ‘ecumenism of life’. It does not mean that other aspects of unity are unimportant, but without these, the fruits of theological dialogues cannot be ‘received’ and lived in our churches. Interchurch families live the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ of unity. At their best, they can live ‘reconciled diversity’ within an ‘organic unity’ – albeit on a small scale.

Pastoral understanding

It will probably be a long time before the concept of ‘double belonging’ can win any kind of official recognition within the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed the expression can easily be misunderstood and needs to be used with caution. Meanwhile, what the Catholic Church can do, and has done, is to develop a better pastoral understanding of interchurch families in their concrete situation. The influence of other churches has helped, and the more this pastoral understanding can be developed, the more ecumenical progress can be made. A response to pastoral need can help to break down an institutional mentality.

This is true at all levels of church life. At local level, some ministers apply the general norms in a way that allows the lived unity of a particular couple or family to be expressed sacramentally, thus responding to their deepest desire. At national level, churches have worked together on the pastoral care of interchurch families; for example, Churches Together in England, Waldensians and Catholics in Italy, Catholics and the Uniting Church in Australia, the Catholic/Reformed Dialogue in the United States. At international level, the 1993 Directory issued by the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity was particularly important. It recognised that although the Catholic partner was obliged to promise to do all in his/her power for the baptism and education of children in the Catholic Church, the other partner ‘may feel a like obligation because of his/her own Christian commitment’. It allowed for exceptional eucharistic sharing for those who share the sacraments of baptism and marriage; it was clear that the norms of the Code of Canon Law for admission to communion could be applied in the circumstances of a mixed marriage, under certain conditions and on a case by case basis. Such application has been made more widely in some countries than in others. Some episcopal conferences and particular bishops  have been able to distinguish between authentically interchurch couples with a real and deep need to share communion from the larger body of mixed marriages where no such desire may be felt. Exceptional eucharistic sharing is a pastoral provision, but its ecumenical significance should not be underestimated.

Instruments must be put to use

To be effective, instruments must be used. Groups and Associations of Interchurch Families have always tried to relate both to their denominational authorities and to larger ecumenical instruments. The British Association of Interchurch Families is recognised as a ‘Body in Association’ with Churches Together in England and the other national ecumenical instruments, and members of interchurch families have been called on to take part in bilateral dialogues in a number of European and English-speaking countries. An international group of interchurch families were official participants in the Third European Ecumenical Assembly, and interchurch families have also been represented at Assemblies of the World Council of Churches. Representatives of the international network of interchurch families received a warm welcome when they visited the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity in 2005 for informal discussions.

Interchurch families are a small number in relation to the many mixed marriages involving a Roman Catholic and another Christian, but there are signs that their ecumenical potential is being recognised. Evidence comes from the ecumenical vademecum published by Cardinal Walter Kasper in 2007: a Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism. He refers to the intrinsic value of the contribution they can make as they live out their Christian discipleship faithfully and creatively. Faithfulness does not mean a slavish conformity to the past; interchurch families are encouraged to seek creative new ways of expressing the unity in Christ of their domestic churches.

Interchurch families are to be ‘called upon to play a role’, to be ‘given a particular responsibility’ in various local ecumenical activities, or in organising support groups for other mixed marriage families. They are to be invited ‘to study and make known the Church’s teaching concerning the promotion of Christian unity and developments resulting from ecumenical dialogue’. They certainly have an incentive to do this, since they often suffer in their family lives from ignorance of ecumenical developments by pastors who may be very well-meaning but do not know what is ecumenically possible. These things have happened already on the initiative of interchurch families, but now it is bishops and others responsible for promoting Christian unity who are asked to invite and give active encouragement to them to undertake such tasks. It is good that interchurch families are given a recognised responsibility; but relevant church authorities will need to take action. As they do so they will have the opportunity to listen to ‘the particular experiences’ of interchurch families, and to give them ‘due pastoral consideration both in terms of the gifts and the challenges they bring to their communities’.

The Handbook places interchurch families in its section on ‘Sacramental Celebrations’; thus the sacramental reality of their marriages and family life is affirmed and underlined. Since the sacraments, besides being ‘an expression of the Church’s unity’, are also ‘a source of the Church’s unity and a means for building it up’, they ‘have their place in spiritual ecumenism’. A future task will be to draw out more fully the relationship between marital spirituality and spiritual ecumenism, between the domestic church and the whole Church. If by their existence and patient endurance and sustained efforts groups and associations of interchurch families can continue to stimulate and contribute to this work, they will indeed be useful ecumenical instruments.


Interchurch family reviews such as Foyers Mixtes published in Lyon, France 1968-2009, and Interchurch Families, London 1979-2004.  A pack entitled Interchurch Families and Christian Unity was published by the Association of Interchurch Families, London, in 1997. Many articles can be found on the web-site:


BUSH, JOHN C and COONEY, PATRICK R, eds. 2002. Resources for Ecumenical Hope: Catholic/Reformed Dialogue in the United States. Louisville: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation and US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

CHURCHES TOGETHER IN ENGLAND/CYTUN 1994. Churches Together in Marriage: Pastoral Care of Interchurch Families. London: CTE and CYTUN.

INTERCHURCH FAMILIES INTERNATIONAL NETWORK, 2003. 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, Association of Interchurch Families.

KASPER, CARDINAL WALTER 2007. A Handbook of Spiritual Ecumenism. New York: New City Press.

KILCOURSE, GEORGE 1992. Double Belonging: Interchurch Families and Christian Unity. New York, Paulist Press.

PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR PROMOTING CHRISTIAN UNITY 1993. Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism. London, CTS.

ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH and the UNITING CHURCH IN AUSTRALIA, 1999. Interchurch Marriages: their Ecumenical Challenge and Significance for our Churches: Report of the National Dialogue. Melbourne: Uniting Church Press/St Pauls.



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