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The following article was published in "Ecumenism", No. 132, December 1998. "Ecumenism" is published quarterly by the

Canadian Centre for Ecumenism
2065 Sherbrooke St. W.
Montreal, QC HH 1G6
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 Reprinted with permission.

An international gathering held at the World Council of Churches headquarters in Geneva, July 23-27 1998, put a human face on the domestic churches that are the members of the Associations of Interchurch Families and their French equivalent, the Foyers Mixtes. Some seventy-five families from twelve different countries, with about thirty of their children, gathered to celebrate their love for each other, for their churches, and for the Body of Christ, the Church.

The conference also brought to the fore the needs of those families for an extension of eucharistic hospitality consistent with the imperfect but very real unity they already live by virtue of their baptisms and marriages.

The Experience

For four intense days, we gathered to hear leaders of our churches; to discuss how we could be gift to our churches and to the Church, to share the joys and frustrations of our relationships with those churches; and simply to extend hospitality to one another over meals in common.

Along with the fact that this meeting was held at the WCC headquarters, the importance of interchurch families for the churches was evident in the presence of Bishop Duprey, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Rev. Konrad Raiser, General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, were the keynote speakers. Bishop Duprey took time from his attendance at Lambeth conference, and Rev. Raiser interrupted his holiday with his family to be with us. Both speakers reflected strongly their passion for the unity of the Body of Christ. Rev. Raiser presented a different paradigm - that of the foyer, the heart of the household, as a place where hospitality is given by extending the table, setting another place, or even, as in some societies, laying out a special mat on the floor for the guest, the visitor.

Following these presentations, there were opportunities for workshops in which we discussed topics as diverse as the "double belonging" nature of our families, our dreams of Christian unity, and the prayer life of our families from which comes the strength and nourishment to continue in our vocation of being a gift for the healing of the churches. We also considered what we would do if unity were in fact achieved.

We listened as Dr. Michael Lawler, head of the Centre for Marriage and Family at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, shared some of the preliminary findings of the Centre’s recent research into interchurch family life. To be published early in 1999, the results of the study provide some very interesting and important findings.

For example, others have said that mixed marriages are the primary cause of people leaving the Catholic church. It is true that a larger percentage of Catholics living in interchurch marriages who leave their church is larger than the percentage of Catholics living in single-church marriages who leave their church. However interchurch marriagesare also a primary way for people to come into the Catholic church. A key factor in determining whether families stay with, or move to, this or that church is the experience of being welcomed by the church community. To state it simply, interchurch families, like other families, go or stay where we are welcomed, appreciated, and nourished.

Another critical and very exciting finding also emerged: interchurch families do indeed make choices as to where they will live out their faith life. We do so, however, not by way of rejection of this or that church. Rather, many of us make these decisions on the basis of what will best strengthen and maintain our families, the ‘domestic churches’, which the churches all proclaim are the foundation of both church and society.

In the light of such observations, we find that the most important thing the churches can do to retain and even attract membership is to make those people feel welcomed, appreciated, and nourished – in short, to extend honest hospitality.

On Saturday afternoon we worshipped together at a Catholic eucharist. Gathering in a large circle around the chapel, we each received the eucharist or did not, respecting the individual’s conscience in applying the guidelines expressed in the "1993 Directory on Ecumenism". On Sunday we worshipped together at the Reformed cathedral, where Pastor Anne-Lise Nerfin presented a powerful sermon on Luke 11:1-13 (the parable of the man who persistently asks his neighbour for bread to feed a visitor). We could not help but feel the appropriateness of that passage for interchurch families and especially for our persistent call for consistent eucharistic hospitality!

Finally, on Monday, we gathered to prepare a letter to the two key Christian bodies, the World Council of Churches, and the Catholic church. We found this a very difficult task, yet knew that our call was real and vital. From the richness of our experience of daily mutual love and respect. which we believe points the way to unity, we interchurch families deeply regretted that we had to address the letter to two bodies. Among other things, we called these bodies to come under one roof, to live and work together on a daily basis, in a relationship which mirrors our own, as a step toward full unity.

While youth participated throughout the conference, including a special section in the final worshp service, their most significant role was in the preparation of this letter to the churches. Their contributions and their perspective took such a clear and direct tone, questioning the divisions and calling the churches to unity, that they were quoted verbatim rather than being simply amalgamated into the body of the letter. Their participation also gave clear evidence that the work for Christian unity will continue into the next generation.

Questions of Sign and Sacrament

The presence of these couples, all living out the rich reality of their sacramental unity, raised in me a new understanding of the question of eucharistic hospitality. The Catholic church has for some time now been focusing on the concept of occasions where eucharistic sharing could be extended. I have questioned this, as I find it difficult to accept that the unity of my marriage to my wife should be measured by the quality of our anniversary celebrations! There is, however, a sense in which the focus on occasions is appropriate: it is in occasions such as weddings, anniversaries, family gatherings, etc., that the sign value of our marital unity is most clear and vivid. On those occasions, it is relatively easy to see that there is a real even if perhaps imperfect unity which allows for and even commends the extension of eucharistic hospitality.

The temptation, however, is to see these visible and vivid occasions as the criteria, rather than as signs pointing to a sacramental reality. This must not be allowed to happen, as the sign cannot be separated or discriminated from the sacrament. Our Catholic bishop, Antoine Hacault, made this point eloquently when presiding at a eucharistic celebration in our home town of Morden. He pointed out that, were he to ask a married couple what their marriage was like, they would not focus on the quality of their anniversary celebrations. Rather, he said, they would tell him of their commitment to each other, their care for their children through good times and bad, their mutual love and respect lived out on a daily basis.

Possible Directions

That reality must be considered when extending eucharistic hospitality. While there is a natural tendency to take the easy way out, by looking only at those occasions where the sign of unity is clear and vivid, we need to do the work of looking beyond that sign value, to the reality of the sacrament itself.

I suggest that the choice which interchurch couples make to worship together, as a vital way of nourishing and enhancing the bond of their marriage, and of strengthening their family life, is itself a sufficient sign of the sacramental reality of their married life. I further suggest that, at least in the case of interchurch families, we need to move away from assuming that the sacramental unity is inadequate unless the sign value of that unity is clear and vivid. We need rather to move toward assuming and affirming the sacramental unity unless there is clear evidence to the contrary. This is particularly true when, as stated above, interchurch families make a conscious choice to worship together in one or both of their traditional communions.

This, it would appear, is what the bishops of Southern Africa have done in their recent "Directory on Ecumenism". It is also the direction that emerged clearly in the gathering of interchurch families in Geneva, where their presence and the sign value of their commitment were valued as a gift to the churches and the Church, both pointing the way to, and living already, the unity for which Christ prayed.

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Ray Temmerman graduated from St. Paul's National Seminary, Australia, in 1980. He has a long-standing commitment to ecumenism and social justice. Ray now lives an interchurch marriage in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he and his wife Fenella (Anglican) are actively involved in both churches. He and Fenella are Lectors in their Catholic parish, where Ray is also a Eucharistic Minister.  Both are also active in their Anglican church.



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