Main Menu  

Open menu

This article, posted here by permission, is from One in Christ, 52/1, 2018, pp. 158-63.


Doral Hayes *

This paper explores the fears and hopes of interchurch parents for their children in 1968 when mixed marriages were considered a principal ecumenical problem. In 1968 it was tentatively suggested that it might be possible to bring up children within two churches; many saw this as impossible. Yet some interchurch families dared to hope that it might prepare the way for visible unity in Christ. This paper considers the response they received and proposes it is time to examine the lived experience of lnterchurch Families and to hear the testimony of Interchurch children asking what relevance this has for the church today.

ifty years ago in 1968, when a small group of ‘mixed marriage’ couples (where one partner was Roman Catholic and the other from another Christian denomination) first came together at national level in England, they coined the term ‘interchurch marriages’ to distinguish themselves from other kinds of mixed marriages. ln 1967 mixed marriages were described by the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity Information Service as the ‘primary and crucial ecumenical problem.'[i] Contrary to this belief, a few people began to suggest that, in the light of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, mixed marriages need not be a problem to the churches, or to ecumenical progress, but rather an opportunity and resource. Concern about the Christian upbringing of the children in such marriages had long been recognised as the central issue. This was described in a ground-breaking editorial published in the English Catholic ecumenical journal One in Christ as ‘the most difficult of all problems’,[ii] since the Roman Catholic Church refused to recognise a marriage between a Catholic and a Christian of another communion unless both partners promised that all children would be baptised and brought up in the Catholic Church. In this paper I will highlight the hopes and fears of interchurch couples for their children as they expressed them fifty years ago, and the responses they received at that time. In addition to hearing the lived experience of interchurch couples, the voices of the now adult interchurch children need to be heard if there is to be constructive reflection on new pastoral approaches.

The Second Vatican Council aroused great expectation among ecumenically minded Catholics, with Ruth Reardon, one founder of AIF describing this as a time ‘when everything seemed possible’.[iii] Vatican ll brought the Roman Catholic Church officially into the ecumenical movement, spelled out its commitment to respecting religious liberty and developed Catholic teaching on the nature and value of marriage, thus impacting the Roman Catholic view of mixed marriages and leading to a change of policy as expressed the Papal document Matrimonia Mixta in 1970. Following the Council there were discussions between the churches, some explaining their difficulties with the Roman Catholic position, and Catholics explaining why their Ecclesiology had led them to a position that was offensive to other Christians.

In some European countries, with encouragement from Rome, the practice on asking both partners to make the traditional promise about the baptism and upbringing of the children began to change, but such changes largely bypassed England.

One in Christ, published in England, tried to spread information about new thinking and practices in other countries, but many people simply did not believe that this was possible. The 1968 editorial made a revolutionary proposal: that the children of mixed marriage families might be brought up within the life of both their parents’ churches, and only when they left home would they have to decide between them.

Several theologians were asked to comment on the proposal; the responses were mainly cautious, but in general the idea was thought worthy of further consideration. It was already being considered by some ecumenically-minded Catholics that where the other Christian partner in a mixed marriage was devout, and the Catholic a nominal Christian, it might in practice be better for the children to be brought up in the church of the more devout partner. This could at least be tolerated by the Roman Catholic Church, even if not approved. But the Catholic partner would have to acknowledge their sacred duty and promise that he/she would do all they could for the Catholic baptism and upbringing of the children. Nobody considered what to do if the partners had ‘two informed consciences’,[iv] both firm in their own church allegiance, and equally desirous of sharing their faith with their children. These couples posed the ‘greatest problem’[v] and the pastoral response was to tell the couple not to get married.

However, in the post-conciliar climate it began to seem to some mixed couples that a more ecumenical approach might be a real possibility: a shared upbringing that would offer an experience of life in two churches. When the first meeting of mixed marriage couples was convened on a national level in 1968, those who came to it found to their joy that others too shared this perspective. They coined the term ‘interchurch marriages’ for those who wanted their marriages to express an ecumenical commitment to both churches and to one another.

Whatever decision they made about the church-belonging of their children they were committed to both churches. ‘Mixed marriages’ continued to be the official terminology of the Roman Catholic Church for such marriages between Christians, but in 1970 the Bishops of England and Wales estimated that 10 per cent of mixed marriages in their countries could be reasonably called interchurch marriages.

The central difficulty for interchurch families in 1968 was the insistence by the Roman Catholic Church on the promise that all children would be raised as Catholics, which seemed to remove joint parental responsibility. Some made the required promise reluctantly, some refused to make it and married in another church resulting in the Catholic being barred from communion; some had not been required to make the promise due to special circumstances; and some hoped to marry without being obliged to make it and remain in good standing within his/ her church. Many faced disapproval from family, priests and ministers; a common reaction from Catholic priests had been: ‘I've never met a couple like you before’. They felt like oddities, afraid they wouldn’t fit in, and that their children might be treated as oddities too, to be fought over by grandparents and churches. There were however hopes that the Catholic rules would change everywhere so that no longer would both partners have to make the promise. This would open the door for the possibility of a joint parental decision to bring up the children in the church that seemed right for each family, or to consider seriously together the possibility of a fully joint upbringing.

There had been many criticisms of the One in Christ proposal from a theological, canonical and not least, a psychological point of view, so the organisers of the first meeting invited a child psychologist and Catholic sister to comment on the proposal. Would it really mean that the children would feel insecure, not knowing where they belonged, as couples had often been told? Or would the parents be able to help their children to grow into a faith and unity that they were beginning to experience themselves, a unity that their churches were now committed to? The response was amazingly reassuring. What matters to children, concluded Sr Mary John, is the harmony and integrity of their parents. She found the idea of bringing up the children of a mixed marriage in both communions attractive, but was puzzled by one part of the proposal. Why should a child eventually have to choose between them? This question came as a surprise but filled participants with hope for the future. They envisaged their families preparing the way for the unity of the churches. Even if unity did not come before their children made their own decisions, perhaps the churches would be closer together so that they did not to have to make a choice.

There were still all kinds of problems to face-—how far would the churches be prepared to adapt their disciplines to allow the degree of sacramental sharing for which parents hoped for their children? The publication of Matrimonia Mixta in 1970 showed that rules could change; the experimental legislation on the ‘promise’ of the 1960s was extended to the whole Catholic Church and the Bishops of England and Wales produced their own Directory making it clear that no promise was required of the other Christian parent. This raised hopes for a more flexible pastoral approach, in which the pastors of both partners could be involved. Already in 1968 the Lambeth Conference in its Report on Renewal in Unity welcomed a move towards joint pastoral care of families both before and after marriage by the clergy of the two churches, but a report from the first mixed marriage meeting in 1968 records a participant commenting, ‘I have not noticed it happening much in England.’ However, Matrimonia Mixta encouraged couples by stating that ‘mixed marriages could help in re-establishing unity among Christians’[vi] and by commending joint pastoral care for mixed marriage families together with ministers of other churches.

The ]oint Working Group between the British Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church took up the question of joint pastoral care for interchurch marriages, and its recommendations were published in 1971. This was encouraging although the idea of a dual upbringing was not accepted as a real possibility. But couples were persistent, and by 1994, when Churches Together in Marriage: Pastoral Care of Interchurch Families was produced by the Group for Local Unity of Churches Together in England, there was considerable experience of shared celebrations of baptism. lnterchurch children were also beginning to ask for shared celebrations of confirmation. One pastoral guideline for clergy and ministers said: ‘Do everything possible to support interchurch parents who want to share the riches of both traditions with their children and bring them up within the life of two church communities; respect any feeling of double belonging on the part of the children, who should not be required to make an exclusive choice?"[vii] Pastoral care for interchurch families remains patchy; in some places good, in others almost non-existent, depending on the understanding and attitudes of local bishops, clergy and ministers. What has always been valuable is the mutual pastoral care that has been exercised by interchurch couples for one another.

The fundamental questions that interchurch couples asked themselves fearfully but also hopefully, were these: Would their children come to a living faith in Jesus Christ? Would the churches allow them to live out and carry forward their relationship with two churches as their parents had hoped and as they themselves might wish as they grew older? In the early years they were working with an untried proposal. Now there is half a century of experience of dual upbringing to assess.

In 2017, I had the privilege of connecting with a group of adult children of the Association of lnterchurch Families (AIF), when l carried out a small qualitative study which has become the starting point for a larger piece of work investigating the lived experience of interchurch children. In 1968 it was not possible to examine the impact of being raised in an interchurch family, while a small study was carried out by AIF in 1984; but in 2018 a more detailed analysis could be possible as a larger group of interchurch children are available spanning different generations. The changing shape of both church and society in the UK indicates less attachment to denomination and tradition and this work has implications for organisations like AIF as well as for the church more broadly.

It is time to ask how this church upbringing and the pastoral response they and their parents received from the churches has influenced their faith, perception of and sense of belonging to the church. It is time to consider whether they were confused-—-did they feel like an oddity or a problem?

ln conclusion, interchurch parents were and still are concerned about whether their children will come to a living faith and how the churches will support them to carry forward their relationship with two churches, as far as they wish to do so. The pastoral response remains patchy and reflecting on the lived experience of interchurch families highlights the need to listen to the testimony of interchurch children, to hear their unique perspective on the pastoral care of their families. Each interchurch family is unique requiring a pastoral response adapted to its needs. Pope Francis writes ‘Education in the faith has to adapt to each child’,[viii] ‘all of us are striving towards something greater than ourselves and our families  Let us make this journey as families, let us keep walking together’.[ix]  lnterchurch families are by their nature families of great faith, informed consciences and ecumenical resource. The churches need to hear their voices, reflecting the joy and pain they have experienced across the Church of God.

* Doral Hayes BA (Hons) is the Executive Development Officer for the Association of lnterchurch Families and Ecumenical Facilitator for Hertfordshire in the UK and wife to Declan and mother to Amelia and Dylan. Doral is currently studying at Newman University, Birmingham, UK for an MA in Contemporary Christian Theology and writing a dissertation on the impact of being raised as an interchurch child.


[i] Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity Information Service (1967) 3, 9.

[ii] Editorial, One In Christ (1968):130-6.

[iii] R. Reardon, ‘There is No Blueprint for lnterchurch Children,’ The Journal of Interchurch Families (2001) Summer.

[iv] Editorial, One in Christ (1968): 131.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Matrimonia Mixta (1970): 1.

[vii] CTE/CYT UN, Churches Together in Marriage (London CTE/CYT UN 1994): 68.

[viii] Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia (2016) par. 288.

[ix][ix] Amoris Laetitia, par. 325.



Articles View Hits