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Interchurch Families: Witnesses to Christian Unity

All cross-frontier marriages – whether they cross national, ethnic, faith or denominational boundaries – offer a challenge to their communities. They cannot help it. Here are two people belonging to two human groups which are distinct and different from one another and have allowed those differences to become dividing lines. Romeo from one group and Juliet from the other group are saying in effect: "We love one another; we want to spend our lives living together; we believe we can handle differences between ourselves which our communities cannot yet handle."

Fragile but full of potential

Such marriages have a built-in fragility if they do not have the support of their two communities. There are many degrees of difficulty. In some places a couple who love one another may not even be legally entitled to marry – this was the case for blacks and whites under the apartheid system in South Africa. In some countries one of the couple may be a resident, and the other be refused a residence permit; this can happen in England. Or it may simply be that at the first sign of difficulty in the marriage, people will be only too pleased to rush in and say: "We told you so! We knew what would happen if you married one of them." Wherever people think in terms of "them" and "us" there are likely to be problems.

On the other hand such marriages are full of potential. Learning to live with differences is necessary in every marriage, if it is to survive. Coping with gender differences can be a big enough task in itself, without other complications thrown in. But learning to live with cross-frontier differences as well can be enriching and exciting; whole new worlds can be opened up for both partners. At the same time it can be enlightening for their respective communities to see that a cross-frontier couple are able to remain together in harmony, because they love one another sufficiently to work at living with the inevitable tensions involved. If they can do it, why cannot whole communities do it too? The moment of recognising that "one of them" can become "one of us" – yet without losing their identity or cutting themselves off from their own community – can be a very precious one.

So there are two sides to the coin. Cross-frontier marriages need special support from their communities. At the same time they have something special to offer to their communities.

The problem of Christian divisions

So far we have spoken in general terms about cross-frontier marriages. You might expect the problems (and therefore equally the potential) of intermarriage to pale into insignificance where interchurch families are concerned. After all, the couple share their Christian faith; as interchurch families we are always quick to point out that we are not interfaith marriages when people get it wrong! It is just that the couple live out their one Christian faith in two different church communities. Today, however, those church communities are committed to growing into full unity with one another. So why a problem?

What we are considering here is the marriage of a Roman Catholic to a Christian of another communion – a marriage which crosses the Reformation divide. In Northern Ireland such a marriage is a cross-community union with all the tensions which that involves, but this is not so in England. Society in general does not condemn interchurch marriages. But an interchurch couple has to face the fact that their churches are still divided, and that this fact of division is going to cause all kinds of practical difficulties to them as they live out their lives as Christian partners and parents. In which church are they going to marry? Where will their children be baptised and nurtured in the faith? Will they worship separately or together?

This is the nub of the problem. The two partners are called together to form one church in their home, one "domestic church" in the terminology of Vatican II. However, their one little church is linked to the whole Church of Christ which exists throughout all ages and in all places through two separate and divided churches – both in the sense of denominations and in the sense of local congregations. They are trying to hold the two together, somehow, in their one marriage, which is in itself an image of the bond between Christ and his Church (Eph.5). How can they possibly do it?

The mystery of Christian unity

The simple answer is that they cannot, which is why the Catholic Church and other churches too have traditionally discouraged mixed marriages as strongly as they could. But there is a way forward, and it is good to be reminded of it when we come round each January to celebrating the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The founder of the Week of Prayer, Abbé Paul Couturier, was an obscure French Catholic priest living in Lyons in the 1930’s who had come to feel deeply the scandal of Christian divisions through his friendship with Russian Orthodox refugees whom he had been trying to make welcome in France. It is often through coming to know other Christians on a deep level that we become aware of how scandalous our divisions really are.

But Abbé Couturier also became aware that the mystery of Christian unity is greater than the scandal of Christian divisions. Christian unity is not a problem to be solved; it is a mystery to which we must open ourselves. Christ has already won for us unity with God and with one another, and it is only our own sinfulness that hinders us from accepting God’s gift. We shall be given unity, therefore, as we grow in holiness, as we grow closer to Christ. Jesus prayed for the unity of all his disciples on the eve of his passion: "Father, that they may be one as we are one; that they may be one in us, that the world may believe" (John 17:21). Christ is now alive with the Father interceding for us, continuing to pray for the unity of his disciples. If all Christians from within our divided churches, and faithful to the witness of those churches, place themselves within the prayer of Christ for unity, open themselves to allow Christ to pray his prayer for unity in them, then God will be able to give us the unity which is his will for us. In his own time many Catholics condemned the teaching of Abbé Couturier, but a quarter of a century later the Second Vatican Council called the "spiritual ecumenism" for which he stood "the heart of the whole ecumenical movement", and the Week of Prayer which he founded has entered into the life of our churches.

The mystery of marriage

Marriage, like Christian unity, is a mystery (mysterion is the Geek word for sacrament); it opens us up to share in the life of God. It is "an intimate community of life and love", in the words of Vatican II, which reflects the union between Christ and his church, and draws the spouses into the communion between the Son and his Father, in the Holy Spirit.

In interchurch families these two mysteries come together. "You live in your marriage the hopes and the difficulties of the path to Christian unity", said Pope John Paul II to interchurch families at York in 1982. "Some people play at ecumenism but we live it", said one interchurch couple many years ago. It is this living out of Christian unity day by day in the tiny community of marriage and family life that is the vocation of interchurch families. It is by committing themselves to love one another for life, and by taking into that committed relationship their two different and distinct church traditions that the spouses make their unique witness to Christian unity. They share the everyday struggles of all married partners – how to communicate with one another, how to achieve cohesion in their life together through the inevitable conflicts that arise, how to work daily at deepening their commitment to one another. But they have this added dimension: living within the mystery of their marriage the mystery of Christian unity.

Interchurch marriages need support

We said at the beginning that cross-frontier marriages are fragile; they need support. Paradoxically it is simply in asking for the support that they need to live the life of their one domestic church within two divided Christian communities that interchurch families contribute to and influence the movement towards Christian unity.

Recently we have had a powerful example of this. For many years some interchurch families have been saying that they need to share the eucharist in order to build up their marriage and family life. Now, in their teaching document on the eucharist, One Bread One Body, our Bishops have echoed the Ecumenical Directory issued from Rome in 1993 in pointing to the unique identification of those who share the sacraments of baptism and marriage as in possible need of eucharistic sharing. It is not that they are moving towards "intercommunion"; it is important for the Catholic Church to continue to hold to the close link between communion in the eucharist and communion in the whole of church life. But it is a recognition that in the context of developing relationships between the churches it is possible in some exceptional cases to go beyond what is normal practice and admit the other Christian spouse to communion on occasion. Interchurch families have spoken urgently and insistently of their need to share, and we now have a demonstration that there is room for flexibility within the Catholic position as the churches move closer together.

A witness to offer

When they receive the pastoral support they need, interchurch families can be very powerful witnesses to unity. When two ministers take part together in a wedding celebration, when a shared celebration of baptism takes place, when interchurch spouses can share communion on the occasion of a wedding anniversary and be welcomed to do so by the whole parish, they become visual aids which demonstrate the real, if not yet fully realised, communion of all baptised Christians in a way which no amount of talking can do.

But above all, in living out their marriage commitment to one another, interchurch partners can show the churches something of the nature of Christian unity. It is their love for one another and their long-term commitment to one another which is the necessary context in which they can grow into unity as partners and can undertake their mission together as parents. They live under the same roof. They share all their possessions. They hold together in sickness and in health, in all life’s ups and downs. In doing this they grow in mutual understanding and mutual enrichment, and they learn to distinguish the fundamentals of belief that they need to share from the complementary attitudes and insights which enrich their lives with their variety. This is the kind of relationship they would want to commend to their churches as these grow into unity.

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