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Interchurch Families and the Quest for Unity

In their marriages, interchurch couples witness the hopes and difficulties of ecumenism

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Originally Published in
The Living Light

An Interdisciplinary Review of Catholic Religious Education, Catechesis, and Pastoral Ministry
Spring 2000-05-12 Volume 36, Number 3
Pp 28-39

Published Quarterly by the
United States Catholic Conference

Department of Education
3211 Fourth St.NE
Washington DC 20017

When a man and a woman from two different Christian traditions fall in love and decide to marry, they begin the long journey of learning to live the unity of their love in the face of the scandal of the churches divided. Fenella and I embarked on such a journey some eight years ago. We have found that the tensions caused by church division impact our daily lives, most clearly at the important celebrations - that is, marriage, baptism and confirmation of children, and above all eucharist, where the consequences of the scandal are felt weekly.

Fenella was living in London at the time of our marriage. We settled in our home in a small community in the center of Canada, and began worshipping together in the Catholic Church. I was already deeply involved in the Church, and Fenella was beginning to discover there a depth of liturgy and spirituality with which she felt comfortable. In addition, Fenella's Anglican pastor suggested that it was more important that we worship together than that she worship in the Anglican tradition. We invited our Catholic pastor over for supper to talk about worship in the Catholic church and especially about receiving the eucharist, something very important to both of us. His response was heartwarming: "Canonically this presents difficulties, but we need to deal with it on a pastoral level." As we had committed ourselves to living in the community for five years, he welcomed Fenella to participate and receive for that period of time, by the end of which, he suggested, she should be able to discern where she wanted to make her spiritual home.

Life went on peacefully for a time. Then came a change of priests. This new priest had a very different understanding and approach, telling Fenella repeatedly in their first meeting that "You don't understand. You're not one of us." We found ourselves in turmoil, wondering how we would be received from Sunday to Sunday, discovering we were being talked about at parish council meetings, and more. We began to cast around for ways to make sense of our experience and in the process were put in touch with the Association of Interchurch Families in England. We subscribed to their publication, Interchurch Families, [1] and remember bursting into tears as we read our first issue. Here were people around the world experiencing the same painful reality. We were no longer alone.


We were invited to Virginia Beach to attend the first international conference of interchurch families. There we met people from associations in England, Northern Ireland, France, and Italy. In addition, the Canadian and American Associations were formed at the conference. At the time, Fenella and I were living in a small Canadian community, miles away from any organized group, so we decided to use my computer skills and our new contacts to establish a web site for interchurch families. [2] That site now contains materials from the long-established groups, the British Association of Interchurch Families, the French Foyers Mixtes, the German Konfessionsverbindender Paare und Familien - each of which were formed more than thirty years ago. The newly formed groups are also represented on the site, with information and reports coming from Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Australia, Canada, and the United States.

Later, we also established an email listserv, [3] with participants from many more countries. Discussions on the listserv range far and wide, sharing joys, sorrows, and liturgical experiences of baptisms and weddings that celebrate the two traditions; discussing understandings and implications of canon law and its application, discussing the most recent significant episcopal statement, One Bread, One Body published by the bishops' conference of England, Ireland, and Wales [4]; and planning for the next international conference, to be held in Edmonton, Canada, in 2001 [5]. What began as a way for us to keep in touch with interchurch families has become a labor of love and a source of nourishment for ourselves and others throughout the world.


In the words of the British Association of Interchurch Families,

We are couples in which the partners are members of different churches. We have committed ourselves to one another in Christian marriage. Because we belong to different churches, our married unity in Christ has to be expressed within those divided churches. It may be, therefore, that our experience of growing together will be useful to our churches at this stage." [6]

The daily experience of interchurch families is to "live in (their) marriages the hopes and difficulties of the path to Christian unity." [7] We believe we bring to the churches a model that contains elements without which the churches cannot move forward in their quest for the unity for which Christ so ardently prayed (cf Jn 17:20-23).

The findings of a recently completed study, "Ministry to Interchurch Families," indicate that in the United States, 32.9 percent of marriages begin as "interchurch" [8]. Over the life of the marriage, almost half of these spouses (43.8 percent) change to a common religious affiliation, with the majority (50.6 percent) remaining interchurch. Of these interchurch families, some 12 percent, or almost 2 percent of the total married population, raise their children inculturated in both religious traditions; this is a very large percentage, considering the families do so with little support and at times with serious opposition from their respective traditions. Nevertheless, families are discovering increasingly the richness to be found in responding faithfully to Christ's prayer.

According to the study, the term "interchurch" denotes "a relationship in which each partner belongs to a different Christian denomination or church". [9] The American Association of Interchurch Families and its sister organizations throughout the world narrow the definition slightly. [10] For these associations, interchurch families are those in which both spouses remain faithful to their own Christian traditions, yet who participate in some degree in the life of their spouse's church. The majority of interchurch couples who experience difficulties in relating to their churches appear to be couples in which one spouse is a Catholic. Most difficulties revolve around times of family celebration, for example marriage, baptism, confirmation of children, and especially the ongoing issue of worshipping together and receiving the eucharist. Regardless of the specific definition used for "interchurch", it is becoming increasingly obvious that by their way of life these families are beginning to make an impact on the churches they attend, both numerically and in the particular way they understand and shape a new way of being church.

The presence of interchurch families elicits a wide range of reactions in church members. Sometimes faith communities are a source of welcome and a gift of encouragement and energy. Others give rise to an implicit and strongly felt sense of unwelcome. Although the occurrence rare, interchurch families sometimes face the shunning of the "non-member" spouse, or worse, of the whole family unit. There may also be a presumption (even pressure) that the non-Catholic spouse will "convert", with the alternative of being an interchurch family simply not seen as an option.

What are the reasons for this range of reactions? How these reactions are expressed, and what is the impact on interchurch families. As we will see, interchurch families are a model for Christian unity. We suggest some responses that might be more open to the interchurch reality while still remaining faithful to the values that canon 844 of the 1983Code of Canon Law and the 1993 Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism (DAPNE) (129-131) attempt to express.


In a recent workshop, priest-anthropologist Gerald Arbuckle, SM, provided some insight into the underlying reasons for the reactions to interchurch families. [11] Each of us lives within a religious culture, he said, with its own pattern of shared meanings, its own resistance to change, and its own instructions about the orderly and correct way to feel, think, and behave. This culture informs our lives, providing a sense of peace and security. Into this culture comes an interchurch family, with one member bringing his or her own religious culture into close proximity with another.

We may know, intellectually and theologically, that a person is our brother or sister in Christ by virtue of his or her baptism and that our unity is further enhanced through the sacrament of marriage. Yet our reaction - personally, parochially, and ecclesially - is to throw up barriers (especially around our most central symbol, the Lord’s table) not only to protect our values, but to prevent that person from impacting upon our safe and secure religious lives. A recent incident in our Catholic parish may serve as an example. A visiting priest was celebrating the Mass in the pastor's absence. A non-Catholic spouse approached him, and explained that her parish was in an "interim" for some six months, so eucharist was not available. Would she be welcome at the Lord's table? "Yes" he replied. "We can do that now." When she went to receive the cup, the eucharistic minister was clearly uncomfortable about giving it. This spouse spoke to the eucharistic minister afterward, saying she was sorry for putting the woman on the spot, but that she had asked the priest and received permission. The woman's response was "You know the rules. You can't just come in here and make up new rules as you go to suit yourself. I'm talking to Father about this." We have discovered, through discussions with many other interchurch families around the world, that such a situation, while painful, is by no means unique.

We speak of "separated brethren," but this is a misnomer. Here the words of G.H. Tavard, AA, one of the drafters of the Decree on Ecumenism, (Unitatis Redintegratio), are apropos:

First, the Latin term used to designate other Christians with whom Catholics ought to be in ecumenical dialogue was not fratres separati, but fratres sejuncti. This was done deliberately at the request of Cardinal Baggio, well known for his mastery of the Latin language: separati, he argued, would imply that there are and can be no relationships between the two sides; sejuncti, on the contrary, would assert that something has been cut between them, yet that separation is not complete and need not be definitive. The nuance does not come through easily in translation, but I would suggest "estranged" brothers, rather than "separated". [12]

We are, in fact, not truly separated, because we remain bound in a common baptism. Over the centuries, however, we have become so estranged from our brothers and sisters in Christ that we now relegate them to the status of "unclean," unless they are willing to change religious affiliation and become "one of us." And yet they come, these "strange" brothers and sisters, not in anger at our estrangement, but in the love that informs their marriages. They come, often willing to share faith, energy, and gift. They come, and as their presence is felt, we enter into chaos, the radical breakdown of the order that we feel. This chaos is not of anyone’s conscious making. Rather, it is the consequence of our inability to enter into dialogue with our "kin," to love them and trust them to love us. The chaos is a consequence of our being unable or unwilling to share our common stories and symbols, especially our central symbol of eucharist. Our response is to expect them to convert to our way of thinking.

To further illustrate Fr. Arbuckle's anthropological perspective, we know from our contact with other interchurch families that the pain of estrangement is most deeply felt by the non-member who is deemed (albeit usually subconsciously) unwelcome by the majority. If the marriage is truly one of mutuality, the "member" spouse will inevitably begin to share in that feeling of pain of rejection and may even become the direct target of it. It may turn out that, unable to live the pain of rejection any longer, one or both of the spouses may change affiliation and become a member of either the spouse's church or a third, "safe" church.

In some 59 percent of cases, such a change of religious affiliation takes place not because of a change in religious belief, but out of a commitment to the strength and stability of the marriage. What was believed before the change remains believed afterward, though it may be lived out in a different form. Religious affiliation is such a deep-seated reality for people that a change of religious affiliation requires in most cases a real act of will. If we truly see the family as the domestic church, then a commitment to that church that is strong enough to overcome that difficult reality should be a cause for rejoicing.

Of those spouses who decide to become a member of their spouse's church, those who remain may be indifferent about their decision (38.3 percent). Over half, however, will experience a modest to strong sense of grief or loss, even opposition. We need to be sensitive to those feelings and, should the spouse be joining "our" tradition, make sure our joy bears no hint of triumph. For that reason, the reception of a non-Catholic into the Catholic community is better conducted at a time other than the Easter liturgy; which is itself more appropriate as a festive celebration of coming to faith in Christ.

It strikes us that a secular approach to law in the West amounts to a kind of legalism. This approach tends to look upon the law as an absolute - the minimum to be done, or the maximum to be sought. In contrast, the canonical community sees law as a sound guideline seeking to express the values of the community. Canonists attempt to be pastoral so that church law provides a sound guide whereby the community might live its life, at once fully recognizing its riches and celebrating them. Yet the legalist looks upon this as merely creating the absolute minimum requirement for sustained membership in the community. The canonical "sound guideline" takes on the force of a steamroller, especially for the person who comes to the marriage without any understanding of the nuances of Catholic language and the application of canon law. While this should be carried out "with respect for the religious freedom and conscience of the other parent and with due regard for the unity and permanence of the marriage and for the maintenance of the communion of the family" (DAPNE, 151), that understanding is seldom fully explained.

Pastors need to respect and focus on the lived reality, calling interchurch couples to the demanding but rich and rewarding task of discerning for themselves how those sound guiding words are to be applied within their marriages. Pastors and the churches must be prepared to walk with the family in that task and to respect their decisions. In the process, their domestic church will be nourished, strengthened, and will bear fruit in faith.

Sometimes those in charge of pastoral care do not meet this challenge. An example of this occurs with respect to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), that wonderful process of discovery and growth of faith in Christ for all considering living within the Catholic tradition. [13] How many times has the response to the presence of interchurch families been "Let's run an RCIA", as if this process will somehow neatly solve the problem of divided churches?

The RCIA divides people into catechumens (unbaptized) and candidates (baptized); in the latter case, the RCIA makes a further, somewhat arbitrary, distinction between those who are catechized and those who are not. Unfortunately, these distinctions are not always made as clear as should be, a failure which implicitly but very clearly signals to the non-Catholic that we do not truly believe he or she is Christian.

This blurring of distinctions may be for purely pragmatic reasons, yet the question remains: if we who are Catholic, well-steeped in our language and symbols, cannot present our theological understanding any more clearly than we do, how are those who come to us supposed to pick up these nuances and know that we really don't mean what we express by our actions? To the non-Catholic, the RCIA also serves as a barometer of our ecclesiology. As such, the blurring may signal the presence of an inadequate ecclesiology, in particular a devaluing of baptism. The candidate who is subjected to it can feel the consequences of this inadequate ecclesiology very personally and painfully.

Another example of misguided pastoral care can be seen in the reception of eucharist by the non-Catholic spouse. The Church teaches that reception of eucharist by a non-Catholic is possible, though only by way of exception. The Second Vatican Council's Decree on Ecumenism indicates that there are concrete, particular, and personal cases where common worship may not only be allowed but even commended, (no. 8). Nevertheless, the experience of interchurch families around the world is that their practical circumstances do not suggest opportunities for eucharistic sharing. A number of factors militate against exploring this. Perhaps the greatest is that its exploration requires time. Four conditions must apply before the sacraments may be administered to a baptized person of another tradition: 1) the person be unable to have recourse to a minister of his or her own church or ecclesial community for the sacrament desired; 2) the person must ask for the sacrament of his or her own initiative; 3) the person must manifest Catholic faith in the sacrament, and 4) the person must be properly disposed. (DAPNE, 131) There must also be a situation of grave need. The Southern African episcopal conference has offered further guidance: "The norms for judging when such a need exists should be laid down by the diocesan Bishop (cf DAPNE 130), although theDirectory on Ecumenism does single out the situation of spouses in a mixed marriage, bound to each other as they are by the sacraments of Baptism and Matrimony (cf. DAPNE, 160)." [14]

It takes time to discern the presence of those four conditions and of grave need. Equally important is that people need to be trusted in the decisions that flow from such discernment. Instead, they are required to ask permission, either of the parish priest or of the bishop. Our experience, like that of interchurch families around the world, repeatedly shows that the level of awareness of our pastoral needs tends to be low at best, and often requires education of the clergy as part of the process of asking permission. Additionally, the non-Catholic must first come to grips with what is a comparatively large Church - complete with its own organizational structure, language, rituals, and law - before coming to know even that permission must be asked, from whom, and how. The task is daunting in its complexity. Asking permission for something that is already deep in our hearts becomes more of a restrictive than a liberating experience. The result is a marked tendency not to ask permission, but to live instead with a profound sense of pain.

Marks' Gospel tells us that in marriage we become "one flesh". (Mk 10:8). John's Gospel tells us that unless we "eat of the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood," we have no life in us. (Jn 6:53) This "one" that God has created then wonders: where is this "one" to worship, to take and eat the body of Christ, to take and drink his blood? Deep pain causes us to cry out like an Old Testament prophet, "How long, O Lord, how long? How many more Sundays must that 'one' whom you have joined together be separated?"


A further factor, as we attempt to live out the unity of our domestic church within the wider Church, is a reality that the churches themselves experience in their ecumenical dialogue, a reality that takes real work to overcome. It has been our experience that we came into marriage with two different vocabularies. It took time before we began to discover that we were using different languages to speak of the same faith experience, or even the same language to speak of different experiences. Language was initially a barrier to sharing our faith. Only the realization that a Church that had given to the world this beautiful person, now my spouse, must itself be something beautiful, enabled us to continue until we could understand each other enough to recognize that our faith, regardless of the terminology and language, was shared.

It is difficult to invest time in listening to each other in church situations, yet when that investment has been made it has borne much fruit. Documents such as those of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Consultation (ARCIC) and the more recent event of the signing of the Joint Declaration between the Lutheran and Catholic churches are wonderful examples. The investment, and its fruits, are something we truly celebrate.

Such an investment of time needs to happen more and more on the diocesan, parochial, and personal levels. It can happen on the diocesan level through prayer and study days shared with pastors and scholars of other churches. It can happen on the parish level by working together on social projects, but even more by sharing times of prayer together. An example might be the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, when interchurch couples in our various congregations could be invited to speak of the ways in which they understand, respect, and celebrate both their traditions. And the investment can happen on the personal level, through simply seeking out new families and welcoming them.

Finally, we invite the churches to consider their roles in the work of ecumenism. The churches have often been portrayed as parents of their children. When the child of one parent falls in love with and marries the child of another parent, both naturally desire the well-being of the son- or daughter-in-law, especially as it has an impact on the well-being of the son or daughter. This model is good, insofar as it shows a deep desire on the part of the "parents" to generate and nurture the faith lives of their children. Unfortunately, little in such a model brings the parents together, other than for the occasional social event.

We suggest that a more appropriate model is that of the children who commit themselves to a passionate relationship of love with each other. Having committed ourselves to each other, they learn to live together and to share resources, material and spiritual. They worship together in each other's churches, and find it especially important to be together at the eucharist. They discover in their marriages that unity does not mean uniformity, and that differences can enrich our common life. We would go so far as to say that, were couples to approach marriage in the same manner as churches tend to approach ecumenism - where every i must be dotted and every t crossed before they can agree to come together - there would be few, if any, marriages.

The words of Canon Martin Reardon are most fitting:

"When we compare the experience of a good marriage with the relationship between the churches, it raises questions. Where would our marriages be if we did not live together under the same roof; if we did not share all our goods and finances with one another; if we did not eat together day by day; if we did not share together in the education of our children? We are told that marriages where commitment, communication and cohesion are lacking are liable to end in divorce. We want to share our experience of all these wonderful things with our churches, because we fear that if our churches do not follow our example, the ecumenical movement could end in divorce. " [15]

Regardless of how many episcopal statements are made indicating how the law separating the Catholic and the non-Catholic should be observed, perhaps even despite our rich theology of baptism and marriage, these statements must not be restrictive or take precedence over the values of baptismal and marital unity and of the centrality of the domestic church. Nor will episcopal statements elaborating on the wonderful wisdom, openness and compassion (such as the DAPNE) resolve these deeply embedded problems - though such statements would help greatly. They would help Catholics understand their own faith and its possibilities, and make non-Catholics feel more welcome, heard, and understood within the Catholic community with which they have become inextricably linked by virtue of their baptism and their marriage.

The only way these issues will be resolved is to begin to trust, to join in dialogue with, to listen to stories from, and to share symbols with each other. Through this, we may together come to a place where we can recognize and celebrate the gift each brings to the family.

We believe that interchurch families offer an example of such mutuality of trust, of dialogue, and above all of love. We invite the churches, their pastors, and their members to look on interchurch families as opportunities for growth in unity rather than as problems of disunity. We invite our church leaders and members to join in dialogue with us and to learn from our experiences, that together as Church we may walk the path to Christian unity, and in the walking discover we are that One for which Christ prayed.

RAY AND FENELLA TEMMERMAN are a Catholic and Anglican interchurch couple living in Canada. Members of the Canadian Association of Interchurch Families, they are active in ecumenical endeavors, including operating a web site and e-mail listserv for the association.

They can be reached at

879 Dorchester Ave.
Winnipeg, MB R3M 0P7
By phone at (204) 284-1147
By email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


[1] Interchurch Families, a Journal of the Association of Interchurch Families of England, is published twice a year. It discusses the theological and pastoral issues raised by the existence of interchurch families. It is available from This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. The Association of Interchurch Families, Bastille Court, 2 Paris Garden, London SE1 8ND, England.


[3] This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with subscription information available at

[4] Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, 'One Bread One Body' (London and Dublin: Catholic Truth Society and Veritas Publications, 1998). See the review of this document by Richard E. McCarron in The Living Light 36:1 (1999): 84-85.

[5] The conference is planned for August 1-6, 2001. Information is available at

[6] Cf. Association of Interchurch Families, "Churches Together in England", Interchurch Families, 5:1 (January 1997). Cf. the Interchurch Families web site

[7] John Paul II, in an address to interchurch families, York, England, 1982

[8] Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics are taken from Center for Marriage and Family, Creighton University "Ministry to Interchurch Families: A National Study" (Omaha, Neb,: Center for Marriage and Family, 1999), 139..

[9] Ibid., 4.

[10] For more information, contact the American Association of Interchurch Families

[11] Cf. Fr. Gerald Arbuckle, Earthing the Gospel : An Inculturation Handbook for Pastoral Workers (Maryknoll, N.Y.:Orbis Books, 1990) and Refounding the Church: Dissent for Leadership (Maryknoll, N.Y., Orbis, 1993)

[12] G.H. TAVARD, "Reassessing the Reformation," One in Christ, 19 (1983), pp. 360-361.

[13] The adapted RCIA acquired the force of law for the dioceses of the United States on September 1, 1988, and has since been the only adult initiation ritual that may be used licitly in the Latin rite territories of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

[14] Southern African Bishops Conference, Directory on Ecumenism for Southern Africa 6.3.4, February 2000.

[15] Rev. Canon Martin Reardon is a priest of the Anglican church in England, and is married to a Catholic. He spoke at the International Conference of the Association of Interchurch Families, held in Geneva in 1998. The full text of his address can be found on the Association of Interchurch Families web site.


On the Interchurch Families web site, you will find two excellent sets of bibliographic references provided by listserv members.

By Dr. Michael Lawler, director of the Center for Marriage and Family, Creighton University, Omaha, NB.

By Amy Jill Strickland, J.C.L., doctoral candidate, canon law, Leuven, Belgium.



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