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The following article was first published in "One in Christ" (Vol. XXXV, No. 2, 1999)



Out of their experience of marriage across denominational boundaries, interchurch couples raised the question of eucharistic sharing for interchurch families in 1968 at the first national meeting in England of those involved in what were then known as “mixed marriages”. Some couples have believed for many years that because of their marriage covenant with one another, reflecting the covenant relationship between God and his people, between Christ and the church, they need to share the eucharist, the sign and promise of that covenant relationship.

Such couples were greatly encouraged when in 1993 the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity in Rome issued the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism. This Ecumenical Directory identified those who “share the sacraments of baptism and marriage” as in possible need of eucharistic sharing (in exceptional cases and under certain conditions). Five years on, how do such couples read One Bread One Body? This document, published on 1st October 1998 by the three Catholic Bishops’ Conferences of England and Wales, Ireland and Scotland, offers, as its sub-title states, both “a teaching document on the Eucharist in the life of the Church, and the establishment of general norms on sacramental sharing”. What follows is a personal commentary by the secretary of the Association of Interchurch Families, written out of the experience of interchurch families within the Association over thirty years.

The term “interchurch families” normally refers to families in which one partner is a Roman Catholic and the other a member of another Christian communion. The Directory uses the term “mixed marriage” to refer to “any marriage between a Catholic and a baptised Christian who is not in full communion with the Catholic Church”, and describe the spouses as those who “share the sacraments of baptism and marriage”. Such couples are of many different kinds. Some are never to be found in church; in some only one partner is present at church worship; in others the partners go to worship each with his or her own church independently because for them church-going is an individual matter. For all of these the question of eucharistic sharing does not arise.

Even where there is a desire to share communion across the Reformation divide, couples are very different. Each is unique. Some are very rarely together at the eucharist. Others are together every week. They will experience the need and desire for eucharistic sharing very differently. We have learned over the years that it is always unwise to generalise about interchurch families. It is sometimes difficult to remember when writing about eucharistic sharing that we should always use the qualifying term “some”, and that couples who have expressed their experienced need for eucharistic sharing are a small minority of the large number of interchurch couples in our country. Not only that, but the same couple may experience the need and desire for eucharistic sharing very differently at different stages of their married life.

This response to One Bread One Body is not about “intercommunion” in the sense of more generalised eucharistic sharing between members of different churches or denominations. It is written strictly within the perspective of what is possible now, at the present time, in terms of the exceptional admission to communion authorised in the Roman Catholic Church by the Code of Canon Law (1983) and the Ecumenical Directory (1993). In establishing their own norms on sacramental sharing, local bishops cannot go beyond the general law of the church – a lot of the criticism directed at One Bread One Body seems, quite unrealistically, to expect them to do so. This response simply tries to answer the question: how far have the Bishops of England and Wales, Ireland and Scotland applied the possibilities for admission open to them by the general law of the Roman Catholic Church?

A comparison

Different diocesan bishops and episcopal conferences have responded in different ways to the reference in the Code (can.844, 5) and the Directory (130) to their producing their own norms on admission to the sacraments in the Catholic Church. One Bread One Body is not the first document establishing general norms to appear. In 1983 The French bishops, through their ecumenical commission, issued a Note on Eucharistic Hospitality, which they said needed no updating after the appearance of the Ecumenical Directory in 1993. At Easter 1995 the Archbishop of Brisbane issued an attractively produced 8-page booklet entitled Blessed and Broken: Pastoral Guidelines for Eucharistic Hospitality. In February 1997 the German bishops, through their ecumenical commission, issued a short text on Eucharistic Sharing in Interchurch Marriages and Families. In January 1998 the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference issued a Directory on Ecumenism in Southern Africa in the course of which they established their norms on sacramental sharing.

One Bread One Body establishes norms on sacramental sharing in the final section (17 pages) of an 80-page book that sells at £4.95. It is thus a considerably longer document, and very different in kind, from the other episcopal documents mentioned.

Throughout this commentary there will be comparisons with these other episcopal documents, and also with the shorter draft document for establishing norms sent out for very limited consultation by the bishops of England and Wales in 1996.


The Foreword to One Bread One Body is signed by the three Presidents of the Bishops’ Conferences of England and Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. The Irish and Scots bishops were brought into the work at a late stage in its development.

Work on a document to establish norms on sacramental sharing in response to the 1993 Directory had been going on in England and Wales for a long time. A first draft was prepared by the Bishops’ Committee for Christian Unity and sent to the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity for comment. The Pontifical Council sent back a copy of the French Bishops’ document of 1983 as a better example of the kind of text required. That was in 1994. A second draft was ready by the beginning of 1996. It was expected that the Low Week meeting would approve it; instead it was sent out for limited consultation and deferred until the November meeting. (Parts of this document were used in One Bread One Body.)

It was at this stage that the Association of Interchurch Families in England offered to become involved as a national body in the process. AIF wrote to all the bishops of England and Wales before the November 1996 meeting with two specific requests, and suggesting a meeting of interchurch families and bishops. (The requests were that the bishops acknowledge that the Directory had identified interchurch marriages as in possible need of eucharistic sharing; and that they recognise that in some cases that need might be on-going, not occasional).

As a result of this initiative a short meeting took place in February 1997 of eight members of interchurch families and two of the bishops on the drafting group, together with the two secretaries respectively of the Bishops’ Committees for Christian Unity and for Marriage and Family Life. Interchurch families did not comment on the draft text; they were told that the bishops were starting again on a new text and that it was envisaged that the process might take two years. What they were able to do was to appreciate more directly the problems of the bishops in coming to a common mind on a subject which aroused such diverse and deeply felt responses among themselves. They were able also to express to the bishops their own experienced need for eucharistic sharing on a continuing basis, for the sake of the strengthening of their marriages and family life. They felt that in this they received a fair and sympathetic hearing, although they would have liked to have had time to discuss with the bishops how the norms might be applied to allow this. They hoped for a further meeting on this subject, but it was not one that the bishops wanted to pursue with them. There was no suggestion at that time that the task of establishing norms was one which would be undertaken on a wider basis than that of the Episcopal Conference of England and Wales. So far as I know interchurch families in Ireland and Scotland were not consulted in any way.


The 1996 draft was a short document. It introduced the norms on sacramental sharing established by the 1993 Directory and stated the norms that the bishops of England and Wales derived from them.

The introduction to One Bread One Body makes it clear that this is a different kind of document with a wider purpose. Its “primary purpose is to present the teaching of the Catholic Church on the mystery of the Eucharist.” (2) The eucharist is central in the life of the Catholic Church, to the point that “taking part in the Mass is the hallmark of the Catholic, central and crucial to our Catholic identity.” (3) The document presents “the richness of Catholic teaching on the Eucharist” (4), and Catholics are urged to “refresh and renew” their understanding of their eucharistic belief and their reverence for the sacrament.

At the same time the document is presented in an ecumenical perspective; “an understanding of the Eucharist is essential in the search for Christian unity.” (2) On the one hand there is the question of eucharistic faith; here official dialogues between the Catholic Church and other communities have led to growing agreement, and the bishops are “glad to make use of the results of these dialogues” (5) in their document. On the other hand, there are the practical questions that arise when “Catholics and other Christians live side by side, as communities of faith, praying and working together, and also as individuals, especially when united in marriage” (5). Because of these deepening relationships there is a greater desire to join in celebrating the one Eucharist of the Lord. It is “at the Eucharist that Christians feel most acutely the pain of their divisions.” (6) The second purpose of the document therefore is “to establish the norms to govern sharing of the sacraments between Catholics and other Christians in our countries” (8); such norms “can be developed and changed over time”.

The bishops express their “keen desire to safeguard the integrity of the Eucharist” (8); they are especially concerned that when someone receives a sacrament he or she should understand what the Church means by that sacrament. “It is right to expect that anyone who receives Holy Communion in the Catholic Church should manifest Catholic faith in the Eucharist.” They focus particularly on “the intimate connection between the mystery of the Church and the mystery of the Eucharist.”


Part 2 of the document – nearly 40 pages, or half of the book – is devoted to a presentation of Catholic eucharistic faith. This is beautifully set in the context of “Christ our Saviour – Source and Centre of Communion”, and “The Church, Sacrament of Salvation”, followed by a section on the bonds of communion which unite Catholics with other Christians, although not fully. This work is a real service to ecumenical understanding, and should be widely studied and discussed in ecumenical groups. Often other Christians have not understood why the Catholic Church is slow to make any move on eucharistic sharing, and Catholics have not been very good at explaining this in a coherent way. This section should help other Christians to get inside the Catholic perspective, and to see why from that perspective eucharistic sharing is not normally allowed. At the same time the use made of the fruits of the dialogues already mentioned in order to express Catholic eucharistic faith is very encouraging – particularly the work of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, but also that of the dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Methodist Council. We can see the important process of “reception” at work.

Here we should point out an aspect of this part of the document that is particularly relevant to interchurch families. One of the conditions for the admission to communion of the other Christian partner in an interchurch marriage is that he or she should “manifest Catholic faith in the eucharist”. Some spouses have been told: “You cannot receive communion in the Catholic Church because you do not believe in transubstantiation.” This word (an unnecessary source of confusion today, and widely misunderstood by Catholics as well as by other Christians) has been relegated to an explanatory footnote (105) and belief in the eucharistic presence of Christ is expounded without using it. Now that One Bread One Body has appeared, it should be more difficult for Catholics simply to equate “manifesting Catholic faith in the eucharist” with “believing in transubstantiation”!

What is required from other Christians?

This section explains to other Christians who ask for communion in the Catholic Church what “manifesting Catholic faith in the eucharist” means. (114) Other episcopal statements establishing norms on sacramental sharing have tried to do this more briefly. The French bishops in 1983 asked for “an unambiguous faith in the sacrificial dimension of the memorial, in the real presence and in the relationship between eucharistic communion and ecclesial communion.” The German bishops explained the Catholic faith in the eucharist necessary for admission to communion as follows: “namely that the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ gives himself to us in person in the eucharist as Giver and Gift in bread and wine and so builds up his church. That is why commitment to Jesus Christ calls also for commitment to his church.” The same three elements of sacrifice, presence and eucharist/church relationship are present in both the French and German statements.

The Southern African bishops noted, with regard to “manifesting Catholic faith in the eucharist”, that “it is important to recall that there is a crucial distinction between the substance of the faith and the way it is expressed. What is required is unity in the substance of the faith. Moreover, in judging whether or not such unity is present, due cognisance must be taken of those ecumenical agreements that display the existence of a substantial agreement in faith. One example of such an agreement is that which was reached by the Anglican and Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) regarding the eucharist. In the light of that agreement, members of the Anglican Communion may be presumed to share the essentials of eucharistic faith with us.” (Here is another striking example of reception.)

The ARCIC statement of 1971, confirmed in 1994, dealt with the same three aspects of the eucharist which are identified as essential to Catholic faith by the French and German bishops: the church/eucharist relationship (“The identity of the church as the body of Christ is both expressed and effectively proclaimed by its being centred in, and partaking of, his body and blood”); the eucharist and the sacrifice of Christ; and the presence of Christ in the eucharist.

Interestingly, the British and Irish bishops start with a welcome section on “The Eucharist and the Word of God”, before they go on to “The Eucharist as Memorial of Christ’s sacrifice”, “The Eucharist and the presence of Christ”, and “Holy Communion and Full Communion” (on the eucharist/church relationship). They also finish with a reference which gives the impression of being added on at the last minute, but is important, when they say that the celebration of the eucharist commits us to the poor and should flow into social action.(67) It is, however, the section on “Holy Communion and Full Communion” which is of particular concern to the bishops (8).

Holy Communion and Full Communion

For our purpose two sentences in this section seem particularly important. The bishops say: “We believe that when a person receives Communion at a Eucharistic celebration, he or she should be expressing a deep unity of faith and love with that particular community, and with the wider communion to which that community belongs. Normally when people receive Holy Communion at a Catholic celebration of Mass, they should be saying: ‘We are in full communion with the Catholic Church, united with the bishop of this local community and with the Pope’.” (62) What are they requiring here from Christians of other communions who ask for communion in the Catholic Church? Surely they are asking for a recognition that it is not normal for the Catholic Church to grant such a request; and that where it is granted there needs to be a “deep unity of faith and love” both with the particular Catholic community in which the eucharist is being celebrated, and also with the wider Roman Catholic Church. This is part of what is meant by “manifesting Catholic faith in the eucharist”.

This passage is encouraging for some interchurch families, who may well feel it describes their position. The other Christian spouse cannot say: “”I am in full communion with the Catholic Church, united with the bishop of this local community and with the Pope”, because he or she is a loyal member of a Christian communion for which this is not true. Normally he or she would expect to receive eucharistic communion within that ecclesial communion. But in marriage, which is “an intimate community of life and love” (Gaudium et Spes 48) the partners remain different persons but not separate persons. They are brought sacramentally into the one-flesh relationship that represents so close a communion of love that it can be taken as an image of the relationship of love between God and his people, between Christ and the church.

It is the experience of some couples that sharing in that communion of life and love they grow into a “deep unity of faith” as well as of love. Some express this in relation to the “particular (local) community” of their Catholic partner by undertaking ecclesial functions within that parish – in the ministry of welcome, as readers at mass, as members of the choir or music group, as catechists … . Some would say that in sharing the whole of their lives they have come to share a “deep unity of faith and love” not only with their Catholic partners but with the whole Roman Catholic Church; in fact, they would happily become Roman Catholics if this could be understood in an inclusive and not an exclusive way, if it did not mean cutting themselves off from their existing communion. Obviously not all partners in interchurch marriages would say this, but some would, and would therefore want to present themselves as exceptional cases for eucharistic sharing.


This section of the document is far more problematic from an interchurch family point of view. It comprises two parts: first, The pain of our brokenness, and second, Spiritual need: personal and ecclesial.

Near the beginning, there is a welcome statement that Catholic teaching allows exceptional eucharistic sharing “when strong desire is accompanied by a shared faith, grave and pressing spiritual need, and at least an implicit desire for communion with the Catholic Church” (77). Certainly some interchurch spouses believe that they fit this description. But one of the problems in responding to this section is that while appreciating, welcoming and agreeing with a great deal of what the bishops say, many interchurch families will be utterly dismayed by some of the practical applications which the bishops seem to draw from their statements.

The pain

They talk of the pain of our brokenness, felt particularly when we cannot share eucharistic communion. Taking away the pain does not in itself bring healing (76), and the pain can stimulate us to put our energy into the real healing of our disunity (77). The Catholic bishops in Britain and Ireland “do not judge the celebration of the Eucharist at an ecumenical gathering or event to be a situation in which sacramental sharing might be considered as appropriate in our countries” (78). It would indeed be astounding if they did! Nobody who has tried to get inside the current Catholic position on sacramental sharing would expect them to do so. It would be going beyond anything envisaged by the Code or the Directory.

What the Catholic Church allows and indeed commends is a pastoral response to the expressed serious spiritual need of particular persons. That need may arise not only because an individual Christian is physically unable to have recourse to his or her own minister; it may arise because of shared bonds of communion with Catholics so strong that they need to be expressed in shared eucharistic communion. In 1983 the French bishops identified “some long-lasting ecumenical groups” as well as “some interchurch families” as in need of sacramental sharing. The 1993 Directory for the first time in any Roman document specifically identified mixed marriages between baptised Christians as a circumstance of need for possible eucharistic sharing (159, 160). (Bishops can identify other circumstances of need if they wish to do so.)

“Long-lasting ecumenical groups” are very different from “an ecumenical gathering or event”. In fact, they are much more like interchurch families, if the members share a long-term commitment to one another, if they live together or at least meet together on a continuing basis, if they share in the work of the church together. It is not the painfelt by interchurch families if they cannot receive communion together which is the reason for allowing, even commending, eucharistic sharing in some cases. It is theirserious spiritual need. This may be felt as pain, but it is a much deeper reality; their need springs from the nature of the marriage commitment itself. “The Eucharist is the very source of Christian marriage. … In this sacrifice of the New and Eternal Covenant, Christian spouses encounter the source from which their own marriage covenant flows, is interiorly structured and continuously renewed” (Familiaris Consortio, 57).

Mixed marriages

The bishops have strong words to say on the unity of marriage, and recognise the “ideal” as “the fullness of communion achieved by husband, wife and children sharing as one the Body and Blood of the Lord”.(82) “Inspired by such a vision” they say, quoting a passage from Tertullian, Ad uxorem, “a couple in a mixed marriage may well have a strong desire to receive Holy Communion together, to be fully united at the Lord’s table.”(83) But I think this is to turn things the wrong way round. It does not seem to me that usually the vision comes first, and inspires the desire to share communion. I think that what we can say from the experience of interchurch families over thirty years is that usually the actual experience of sharing in marriage comes first. It is because of that lived experience of sharing everything else that the partners increasingly come to know their real and genuine need to share Holy Communion – that they simply cannot make Christian sense of their marriage without it.

It is only later, when some interchurch families read Familiaris Consortio, for example, that they say: yes! this explains what we experience. I remember the reaction of a Methodist wife when she first happened upon Familiaris Consortio: but if this is what the Roman Catholic Church really believes about marriage how is it that Catholics can’tsee we need to share communion? That is why I have been personally so excited by the writing on marital spirituality which has been coming out in recent years, particularly from the International Academy of Marital Spirituality in Brussels; it offers a language in which to express what some interchurch families have learned from experience. It is like the sense of relief that came on first reading the ARCIC Agreement on the Eucharist in 1971. Yes! we know from living together in our marriage that we are at one in our eucharistic faith, and here is an official document which explains it. To many people in both churches it came as a surprise, but it was already a living reality for us.

Most couples who experience a need for eucharistic sharing find it very difficult to express this in words. Their need seems so self-evident to them that they cannot understand why their pastors, in many cases, find it so difficult to grasp. Hence some of the anger, dismay, disappointment, which has greeted the publication of One Bread One Body.This has come particularly from couples who have been experiencing eucharistic sharing, to the great benefit of their marriage and family life, and fear that this necessary support will be withdrawn from them, or will not be available more widely for others. So it is vital for pastors to try to grasp the intensity of the need (not just the pain) which some couples experience, and to understand that this will be expressed in very different and often inadequate ways.

The need

Among the episcopal conferences who have established norms on eucharistic sharing, it is the German bishops who have tried to give the most detailed guidance to pastors seeking to discern whether a particular couple is experiencing a real need for eucharistic sharing. They write: “Since pastorally the establishment of objective criteria for "serious need" is extremely difficult, ascertaining such a need can as a rule only be done by the minister concerned. Essentially, this must become clear in pastoral discussion. Does the couple concerned (and any children) experience being separated at the Lord's table as a pressure on their life together? Is it a hindrance to their shared belief? How does it affect them? Does it risk damaging the integrity of their communion in married life and faith?” In more general terms they speak of the need of interchurch couples in this way: “Being separated at the Lord's table may lead to serious risk to the spiritual life and the faith of one or both partners. It may endanger the integrity of the bond that is created in life and faith through marriage. It may lead to an indifference to the sacrament and a distancing from Sunday worship and so from life in the Church. Married partners who are seriously striving to base their married life on religious and spiritual foundations are precisely those who suffer by being separated at the Lord's table.”

I think that interchurch families in our countries would like to ask our bishops to think again about the kind of need for eucharistic sharing which they experience. It is far deeper than a question of pain relief. This is a delicate matter because none of us can actually experience another’s pain; we can only know from our own experience something of what it must be like. The bishops are disarmingly humble in expressing the fact that they know their experience here is very limited: “There will sometimes be a deep pain and sadness when they find themselves divided at this most sacred moment of unity. As bishops, we are sensitive to this, and try to understand as best we can. The hurt felt by such couples at the heart of the Church’s memorial of the sacrificial cross and resurrection of Christ can remind us of the urgent need for the healing of Christian dividedness.” (83)

While this last sentence may be true, there is a kind if implied inevitability about it that needs to be urgently questioned. There must be pain while the churches are divided, but is the particular pain that afflicts some interchurch families all necessary pain? We do not believe it is, and we therefore warmly welcome the fact that later in the document the bishops state clearly that “the sacraments should not be denied to those whom the present law of the Church allows to receive them.” (115)

Exceptional cases or exceptional occasions?

In One Bread One Body it is good to see that the bishops quote a text from the 1993 Directory (160) that was never quoted or even referred to in the 1996 draft. It is a crucial text for interchurch families. Regrettably, however, the bishops do not quote it in full. It reads: “Although the spouses in a mixed marriage share the sacraments of baptism and marriage, Eucharistic sharing can only be exceptional, and in each case the norms stated above concerning the admission of a non-Catholic Christian to Eucharistic communion, as well as those concerning the participation of a Catholic in Eucharistic communion in another Church, must be observed."

The bishops stop their quotation after the word “exceptional”. (83) This gives the impression that the text refers to eucharistic sharing which is “exceptional” in the sense of “occasional”, and this is what is picked up later when the bishops establish their norms, and speak of “unique occasions”. The Directory itself never refers to occasions, nor to occasional eucharistic sharing. It speaks of admission to eucharistic communion as being permitted, or even commended, “in certain circumstances, by way of exception, and under certain conditions” (129). It is at the very least a legitimate reading of the text in n.160 to refer the “exceptional” to the “cases” which follow, when it would mean that eucharistic sharing for spouses in a mixed marriage is possible in exceptional cases where the conditions for admission are fulfilled. Here “cases” is taken to refer to couples, that is, to persons and not to “occasions”. Clearly this is not the only possible reading, since the bishops seem to have taken another one. We must also accept that the Code and the Directory are permissive, not prescriptive, in allowing eucharistic sharing in circumstances of need, in exceptional cases and under certain conditions.

What I am saying is that it is the British and Irish bishops’ choice to limit the meaning of the text in the way they do. They have the authority to decide as they have done, but there is no inevitability about it. It is not necessary to speak in terms of “occasional” eucharistic sharing for interchurch families. In terms of the need experienced in interchurch marriages it is a very restrictive reading. Other episcopal conferences have decided differently, recognising that in some cases (obviously not in all) there is acontinuing need for eucharistic sharing. The Brisbane guidelines envisage that a spouse in an interchurch marriage “could well experience a serious spiritual need to receive holy communion each time he or she accompanies the family to a Catholic Mass”, and indicate that this kind of need can be met by the Archbishop. The German bishops envisage continuing eucharistic sharing in some cases: “When full sharing in the Eucharist is granted to the partner who is not a Catholic, care must be taken that an individual case such as this does not become a general precedent.” The Southern African bishops write: “A unique situation exists as regards spouses of a mixed marriage who attend Mass together in a Catholic Church. The uniqueness consists in the fact that their baptismal unity in Christ has been still further sealed by the sacramentality of their marriage bond. Hence both may experience a real need to express that unity by receiving Holy Communion whenever they attend Mass together.” This need can be met in particular cases, whether couples “attend Mass together only infrequently” or whether they “attend Mass together virtually every Sunday”.

All these episcopal conferences follow the Directory in speaking of “need” rather than of “pain”. I hope therefore that as our bishops come to understand more fully thecontinuing need of some interchurch families for eucharistic sharing, rather than focusing on their “pain”, we shall gradually see in some cases a moving beyond “unique occasions” to a continuing eucharistic sharing officially allowed and commended.

Receiving a blessing

What is offered to interchurch spouses as an alternative to admission to communion in this section of the document is a “blessing” at the time of communion. They can “join the same procession to the altar, expressing the real though imperfect communion that already exists between Christians.” Catholics can do the same in the church of their spouse. “This idea of ‘spiritual communion’ is an important part of our Catholic tradition which we should not lose.” (84)

I warmly welcome the bishops’ statement that “reciprocal acceptance of a ‘blessing’ by Catholics and other Christians at each other’s Eucharistic celebrations is something which we encourage as a sign of the degree of unity we already share.” Indeed, interchurch families pioneered this kind of sharing for many years before it became officially encouraged. I remember one priest telling an interchurch wife that he would rather that she did not come for a blessing when her Catholic husband came up for communion, because someone in the congregation might think she was going to receive communion. And one husband on holiday went up with his wife for a blessing, as he was accustomed to do in their home parish, and was met with a refusal: “We don’t do that here.” It is really good to get official encouragement for the practice – for the first time at this level, I think.

For some couples, at some stages of their life, receiving a blessing is enough. A year or so ago I received a letter from a young man engaged to a Catholic girl; why did the Association of Interchurch Families make such a fuss about eucharistic sharing, he asked? He himself was receiving a blessing when he accompanied his fiancée to mass, and regarded this as a great privilege and joy. I fully respected his position, but I could not help wondering how the couple would feel when they had the experience of several years of marriage behind them. I think that most partners receive a blessing as a sign that they really want (need?) communion. There was a moving moment when interchurch families met members of the drafting group preparing One Bread One Body in February 1997. A URC wife said: “By continuing to go for a blessing I feel we’re colluding in a wrong situation – outwardly it looks OK but inside I’m crying every week.” It is important for pastors to realise that those who come for a blessing may be “crying inside” – and that their Catholic partners may be too.

For some couples who are refused eucharistic sharing in the Catholic Church year after year the offer of a blessing comes to feel like a rejection. Sometimes a Catholic partner gets to the point of feeling unable to receive communion in this situation, and joins his or her partner in asking for a blessing. For some couples this can last for many years; others seek a home elsewhere. If a pastor is able lawfully to give Bread to the hungry, it is a very serious matter to refuse it. That is why it is so important that we keep on working away on what is permissible in terms of the 1993 Directory now, at the present time, because for some interchurch families time is short. Their needs are urgent and pressing. That is presumably why the Directory has specifically identified those who share baptism and marriage as in possible need of eucharistic sharing, the only explicit identification besides that of Christians in danger of death. It is another situation of urgency.

Spiritual need: personal and ecclesial

The second part of this section on spiritual need does not mention interchurch couples at all. The great concern of the bishops in this section is to stress that “spiritual nourishment is always ecclesial; it involves the visible community of the Church. … Our communion with one another is an essential dimension of our communion with the Lord. What, then, do we mean by a spiritual need to be admitted to Holy Communion?”(92) In their answer to this question the bishops quote from the Instruction on admitting other Christians to Eucharistic Communion in the Catholic Church, issued by the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity in 1972: it is both “a need for an increase in spiritual life and a need for a deeper involvement in the mystery of the Church and of its unity”. The stress here is that a need for personal spiritual growth is not enough; it must also be a need to enter more deeply into Christ’s Church.

I would like here to point to the use that Cardinal Willebrands made of the same quotation from 1972 when, speaking for the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, he addressed the 1980 Synod of Bishops. He asked them “to study afresh the possibility of admitting the non-Catholic partners in mixed marriages to Eucharistic Communion in the Catholic Church, obviously in individual cases and after due examination.” He pointed out that the Catholic Church “had already recognised the possibility of such admission as long as a number of conditions are fulfilled: it is required that the non-Catholic Christian should profess a eucharistic faith in conformity with that of the Catholic Church; that he should ask for communion of his own accord; and that he should experience a real need for this sacrament. This need is described in the following terms: ‘A need for an increase in spiritual life and a need for a deeper involvement in the mystery of the Church and of its unity’. It seems to me that these conditions are often fulfilled in mixed marriages.” He went on to say that the fourth condition, that the non-Catholic Christian is unable for a prolonged period to have recourse to a minister of his own church, was less closely connected with eucharistic doctrine and faith. For interchurch families it was crucial that the “for a prolonged period” was dropped by the 1983 Code; this opened the way for the French bishops to identify “some interchurch families” and “some long-lasting ecumenical groups” as in possible need of eucharistic sharing.

My point here is that our bishops are using the same phrase to describe what they mean by spiritual need, as the one that Cardinal Willebrands used in 1980 to describe the need experienced in some interchurch families. His speech to the Synod of Bishops was crucial in developing an understanding of the need of some interchurch families for eucharistic sharing. It led both to the significant change made by the 1983 Code to the conditions for admission, and also eventually to the 1993 identification of those who share baptism and marriage as in possible need of eucharistic sharing.


So we come to the last quarter of the document, which inevitably attracted most attention when One Bread One Body was published, and caused much negative comment. There is an introduction, a brief section on sacramental sharing with Christians from Eastern Churches (not considered here), a longer section on sacramental sharing with Christians from other Churches and ecclesial communities, and a concluding section ‘May we all be one’.


In their introduction the bishops recognise that since the publication of the Directory in 1993, and in the absence of norms established by the diocesan bishop or the bishops’ conference, Catholic pastors were to follow the norms of the Directory itself in judging particular cases of need. The bishops have never said this before, and probably most Catholic priests in our countries did not know that this was what the Directory instructed them to do. However, a wide variety of practice has become established, not all of it in line with the intentions of the Directory. Here we are especially concerned with the way in which interchurch families have been affected.

A more open approach

The bishops write: “There have been strong appeals from the leaders of other Christian communities, from Catholics and other Christians involved in ecumenical activities and events, and from wives and husbands involved in interchurch marriages, for a more open approach by the Catholic Church to the admission of other Christians to Holy Communion.” (97) This is a very general statement. From the point of view of interchurch families, a more open approach to the admission of the other baptised spouse in a mixed marriage already exists in the Catholic Church at world level. They rejoice in the 1993 Directory’s identification of their specific need. The Association of Interchurch Families has not asked the Bishops of England and Wales for anything that we did not believe they could give within the current understanding and discipline of the Roman Catholic Church.

The bishops continue their description of the current situation as follows: “Some Catholic priests have acted outside the prescribed norms and invited other Christians to receive Communion, on occasions even issuing an open invitation. There are Catholics who do not see the difficulty in receiving communion at the Eucharist of another Christian denomination; some have alternated, for example, between receiving communion at Catholic and Anglican Sunday services. In these ways, Catholic teaching about the Eucharist, and the discipline that reflects this, has been either ignored or judged negatively against the practice of ‘open Communion’ by others.” (98)

Not refusing

Here again are very general statements. In my experience the first (issuing an open invitation) is very rare, and may present as much of a problem to an interchurch spouse as it does to others. It is far more likely that in some particular situations a priest may make a pastoral judgement and say that he will not refuse anyone who comes in good faith. This is quite a different matter, and respects the Catholic tradition that it is only notorious public sinners who are to be refused at the altar. The Southern African bishops’ guidelines explicitly refer to this tradition: “It has been a long-standing pastoral practice in the Catholic Church not to refuse someone who comes to receive communion in good faith. However, where possible and according to circumstances, it may be advisable or even necessary to inform such a person afterwards of Catholic discipline.” A priest may decide that in certain circumstances, where the members of a particular congregation are concerned, where he knows that they know what the Catholic discipline is, they should be left free to go beyond it, if that is what their conscience requires. A pastoral judgement in a particular situation is quite different from issuing an open invitation. It is even more likely, of course, that a pastoral judgement will be made personally, on a one-to-one basis: “If you come, I will not refuse.” Or: “If you come, I will allow you to take responsibility for your own actions.”

From the point of view of some interchurch families, this is not enough. They need public recognition of their situation of pastoral need, recognition that the other Christian spouse can be lawfully admitted to communion in the Catholic Church under certain conditions, if they are not to live schizophrenic or hidden lives. This is precisely why the Directory was so welcome. No longer did they have to say: “If we come together, will you feel you must refuse the other Christian spouse?” They could say: “If we come together, will you admit us together?” They knew that, according to the terms of the Directory, a Catholic minister was now authorised to say: “Yes, provided the conditions for admission are met by the spouse who is not a Catholic, you can come together.”


The second statement (on alternating Sunday worship and receiving communion at both Catholic and Anglican services) presumably refers to the practice of some interchurch families. But it seems strange to assume because of such practice that all Catholics who do this “do not see the difficulty in receiving communion at the Eucharist of another Christian denomination”. It may be true that some Catholics do not see the difficulty. For many Catholic partners in interchurch families, however, there is great difficulty in this practice. They know that they are doing something that is forbidden by their church. They may judge that in their own particular circumstances it is something that in conscience they must do, for the sake of their marriage and family life, and they know that Catholic teaching obliges them to follow their conscience. But they also know that they will be doing something that may be misunderstood by many of their fellow-Catholics; it is something that cannot be done openly in many cases. We shall need to return to their situation later.

By way of exception

At the end of this introductory section the bishops stress that eucharistic sharing “can only be ‘by way of exception’. The Codes of Canon Law and the Directory do not allow regular reception of Holy Communion by Christians not in full communion with the Catholic Church.” (101) This links up with what they have said earlier: “Whatever exceptional sharing may be possible, only the full reconciliation of Christians can make normal the full sharing together of the Sacrament of Unity.” (93)

In the Catholic perspective it can never be “normal” for divided Christians to share eucharistic communion when they are not in ecclesial communion. It cannot be “regular” in the sense of following the rule; it is always going beyond what is normal. That does not mean however that in some particular cases of need it cannot be frequent, continual, on-going. Other episcopal conferences have shown that in the case of interchurch families it is legitimate to allow for continuing need in some cases. But admission is always to be understood as exceptional, even when it happens frequently, is on-going, “every time the couple is at mass together”.

NORM ON THE ADMISSION of Christians from other faith communities

The first paragraph of this section gives the norm, and several pages of commentary follow. This section is based more closely on the 1996 draft than any other part of One Bread One Body. It gives the impression of not having been sufficiently re-thought in view of some of the new theological material in earlier sections of the document. The norm is as follows:

106 Admission to Holy Communion and to the sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick may be given to baptized Christians of other faith communities if there is a danger of death, or if there is some other grave and pressing need. This may at times include those who ask to receive them on a unique occasion for joy or for sorrow in the life of a family or an individual. It is for the diocesan bishop or his delegate to judge the gravity of the need and the exceptional nature of the situation. The conditions of Canon Law must always be fulfilled. The exceptional nature and purpose of the permission should be made clear, and appropriate preparation should be made for the reception of the sacrament.

References are given to the Code and the Directory, and the reader might be forgiven for thinking that the whole of this norm is part of the general norms of the Catholic Church. The sentence I have italicized is not. It is the British and Irish bishops’ own interpretation of the norms. There is no reference to “unique occasions” in the Code or the Directory; these documents do not speak of “occasions” at all (except for a reference to a mixed marriage wedding, Directory 159).

“Unique occasions”

It is the reference to “unique occasions” which has particularly distressed interchurch families who are aware that other episcopal conferences have shown themselves ready to meet continuing need in particular cases. They can feel driven to despair by the spelling out of a “unique occasion” as “an occasion which of its nature is unrepeatable, a ‘one-off’ situation at a given moment which will not come again”, but “may well be associated with the most significant moments of a person’s life, for example, at the moments of Christian inititation (Baptism, Confirmation, First Communion), Marriage, Ordination and death” (109).

I quote from two reactions to the idea of “unique occasions”.

This comes from an Anglican wife: “I keep thinking about this ‘unique occasions’ phrase, and from a practical point of view I believe that every time my husband and I go to mass together is a unique occasion. The document speaks of occasions that cannot be recaptured, that cannot come again. No Sunday can be recaptured, surely? Every Sunday has its own readings and character liturgically, every Sunday is an occasion when as a couple we are trying to live out our vocation as servants of Christ in two churches. We’ve put effort into preparing for church, we’ve taken part in the service – it is unique, it cannot be recaptured. To say that only the ‘rite of passage’ type of occasions are special and unique enough for our needs to be recognized is to trivialize the special nature of the Eucharist and the liturgy, and to trivialize the vows of marriage we try to keep day by day, and which (like every married Christian couple) we need the support of the community to keep. I feel almost as though we have been aligned with the ‘hatch, match, dispatch’ worshippers, who only go to church at all on those occasions deemed to be unique. What, then, is the value of our perseverance all the rest of the time? Paragraph 110 says ‘it is envisaged that a mixed marriage will usually be celebrated outside Mass’. We assume that the paragraph should read that a mixed wedding will take place outside of Mass. Sadly, the way it reads is almost too true – our mixed marriage – which is life-long, not the work of half-an-hour – does seem to have to find its sustenance and its celebration outside of Mass.”

The second quotation comes from a Catholic husband. In recent years there have been very happy occasions in some Catholic parishes where an interchurch couple have been able to celebrate a wedding anniversary in a very public way with full episcopal approval for eucharistic sharing. Happy as these occasions are, however, this Catholic husband points out that they do not meet the need of some interchurch couples for continuing eucharistic sharing. He writes: “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 a sense in which this focus is appropriate; it is on occasions such as weddings, anniversaries, family gatherings, etc., that the sign value of our marital unity is most clear and vivid. 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 from the sacrament. Our Catholic bishop 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.”

Continuing need

Baptism is a once-for-all sacrament; we renew our baptismal vows annually at the Easter vigil, but we have to live out our baptismal commitment afresh every day. Marriage is a once-for-all sacrament; we celebrate our wedding anniversaries and renew our marriage vows, but we have to renew our marriage commitment to one another every day. The Eucharist is a repetitive sacrament; we need it often to strengthen and keep us in our baptismal lives. We need it often to strengthen and keep us in our married lives. That is why the idea of “unique occasions” for eucharistic sharing fills some interchurch families with despondency veering towards despair.

It is important however to look very closely at the text. The drafters assure us that it is not the intention of One Bread One Body to be more restrictive than the Directory. At first this seems hard to believe, when we read what other episcopal conferences have written, and how they have specifically allowed for continuing eucharistic sharing in certain particular cases. However, a comparison with the 1996 draft is very illuminating. The 1996 draft read: “The sacraments of Penance, Eucharistic Communion and the Anointing of the Sick may be given to those who ask to receive them on a unique occasion for joy or for sorrow in the life of a family or of an individual.” A “unique occasion” was spelled out as “an occasion which of its nature is unrepeatable (eg a wedding or a funeral).”

One Bread One Body, however, states that “other Christians may be admitted to the sacraments of Holy Communion, Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick “if there is a danger of death, or if there is some other grave and pressing need. This may at times include those who ask to receive them on a unique occasion for joy or for sorrow … ” (106). The words italicized here are an addition to the norm that are of the greatest significance. They show that admission need not necessarily be limited to unique occasions. There is a further significant change to be noted. The 1996 draft read: “The Directory envisages that in certain cases of mixed marriages a grave and pressing need might on occasion be experienced.” It is significant that in One Bread One Body the “on occasion” is omittedIt is quite possible for a bishop, therefore, to envisage a continuing need in the case of some interchurch families. He will still be within the norms of One Bread One Body in doing so. We hope that bishops and their delegates will increasingly come to understand the pastoral need of some couples.

Interchurch families, therefore, may not need to be too despondent at the identification of a few examples of “occasions” of need. These include the wedding (110, 111), which is important to some couples, although many others would decide not to celebrate a eucharist at their wedding if eucharistic sharing was not extended to families as well as spouses. It is also envisaged that requests “may come from the parent of a child to be baptized during Mass, or receiving First Holy Communion or Confirmation; the parent or wife of someone being ordained; the intimate family of the deceased at a Funeral Mass” (112). While admission on this kind of occasion has been widely practised in some places for some time, in others it is an enormous step forward to have such occasions identified. Not long ago communion was refused to the great distress of an Anglican bridegroom; “It is not possible”, said the bishop. One parent was told by the bishop: “A first Communion is not exceptional enough.” In the week that One Bread One Body appeared communion for a Methodist wife was refused at her husband’s mother’s funeral, although previously in her own parish she had been admitted to communion at a mass during which marriage vows were renewed.

The situation is very uneven so far as eucharistic sharing is concerned. The bishops have made a great effort to speak collectively, however, and it is a great step forward that they have all agreed as a body, and at the level of the three episcopal conferences, to examine particular cases, even if on very limited occasions. Those who wish to take a less limited approach are free to do so.

Who decides?

Who is to decide in each case? “Except when there is a danger of death, it is for the diocesan bishop or those delegated by him to judge whether there is a grave and pressing need. … A Catholic priest may not make such a decision himself unless duly delegated by his bishop.” (113) This seems to run counter to the Code and the Directory, which gives the responsibility of judging individual cases to the Catholic minister (in accordance with episcopal norms, where they exist; otherwise according to the norms of the Directory itself). It may be that in practice some bishops will delegate to large numbers of priests. The conditions for admission are then given, following the Code and Directory (114, 115). It is particularly noteworthy that nowhere is it said that the condition about a person being “unable to approach a minister of his or her community for the sacrament desired” is applicable to a spouse in an interchurch family. Since the grave and pressing need for admission is that of the couple, it would indeed seem logical that in the case of an interchurch marriage this condition is always fulfilled. But this condition has been used so often, and so recently, as a reason for refusing interchurch spouses that it is very good to see that it is not used in that way in One Bread One Body.

NORM ON CATHOLICS approaching ministers of other Churches and ecclesial communities

Again, the first paragraph gives the norm; it is followed by a page of commentary. The norm states:

116 Whenever necessity requires or a genuine spiritual advantage commends it, and provided the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided, Christ’s faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister may lawfully receive Holy Communion, and the sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick, from ministers in other faith communities whose sacraments are accepted as valid by the Catholic Church.

The norm is explained by saying that in situations of need it is lawful for Catholics to receive the sacraments from a minister of an Eastern Church, but not from “those Christian communities which find their roots in the Reformation”. There follows a quotation from the Directory: a Catholic must ask for the sacraments “only from a minister in whose Church these sacraments are valid and from one who is known to be validly ordained according to the Catholic teaching on ordination.” Here there is a mistake in the quotation, since the Directory (132) says not “and” but “or”. The Directory is presumably allowing for the fact that in some cases ministers may individually be regarded by the Roman Catholic Church as validly ordained, even if the sacraments of the church of which they are a minister are not recognized as valid. In commenting on this text the Southern African guidelines say: “As regards the Churches arising out of the divisions that occurred in the West at the time of the Reformation, the matter, from a Catholic perspective, is not so clear.”

There is quite a development in the commentary from that of the 1996 draft. The draft simply pointed out that the Directory extended the Code with the words “or one who is known to be validly ordained according to the Catholic teaching on ordination”. It said that instances in which Catholics in England and Wales might lawfully receive the sacraments in other churches would be very rare.


In One Bread One Body the commentary points out that “there are special difficulties with Anglican orders”. It states that: “we have to say to members of the Catholic community in our countries that it is not permissible for Catholics to receive Holy Communion … from ministers of the Anglican Communion (the Church of England, the Church of Ireland, the Church in Wales, the Scottish Episcopal Church), the Church of Scotland or of other faith communities rooted in the Reformation.” Thus “sacramental sharing between the Catholic Church and these faith communities cannot be reciprocal” (117). The Irish and Scottish bishops were of course only involved in the document at a late stage. The Catholic President of Ireland, Mary McAleese, had caused a great stir by very publicly receiving communion at a Church of Ireland eucharist in December 1997.

The last phrase in the 1996 draft norm reads “from non-Catholic ministers in whose churches these sacraments are valid”. There is a welcome change in the norm here to “accepted as valid by the Catholic Church”. In the Catholic perspective (and over-simplifying a bit) “validity” just means “recognized by the Catholic Church”. Other Christians can mistake it to mean that if the Catholic Church says that sacraments in the Reformation churches are not valid, it is judging that there is no reality or fruitfulness in the sacraments of these churches, which is not true. It is very unfortunate that the positive view of the ecclesial life and sacraments of other churches that is strongly expressed in the Decree on Ecumenism and the Directory is not mentioned in One Bread One Body.


The German guidelines deal only with admission, and do not mention reciprocity. The Brisbane guidelines say that “the Catholic Church does not permit her members to receive holy communion in Anglican, Lutheran and Protestant Churches”. This section of One Bread One Body has caused some dismay, but the British and Irish bishops cannot go beyond the general law of the Catholic Church, and the link between reciprocity and valid ordination has been repeated in all official documents since the Code. It would indeed be difficult to see how the Catholic Church could authorize Catholics to receive sacraments from ministers it does not itself fully recognize as such.

The Association of Interchurch Families has never asked the Bishops of England and Wales to give permission for reciprocal eucharistic sharing, knowing that they could not do it. It is quite a different question from admission. We have always clearly stated that a Catholic who receives communion at an Anglican or Free Church eucharist with his or her partner is accepting personal responsibility for such an action. It is no use asking for a permission that cannot be given. The most that the bishops could do is what the French bishops did in 1983, quoting a German text of 1976. They said they could not give their approval, but that they recognized that a Catholic, following his or her conscience, might in a particular situation find that it was spiritually necessary for him or her to receive communion at a Protestant celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Some Catholic partners in interchurch marriages have, of course, followed the long-standing Catholic tradition of epikeia (whether they know it or not) in relation to receiving communion in their partner’s church. It is important that ministers of other churches, especially Anglicans, recognize the nature and status of this tradition in the Catholic Church, and the way in which Catholics are helped to make moral decisions when they experience a conflict of values. Otherwise with a straightforward Anglo-Saxon approach some might say to Catholic partners (this has happened in a few cases): I cannot give you communion because by asking for it you are not in good standing in your own church. The British and Irish bishops have never said that a Catholic who receives communion in another church has by that act excommunicated himself or herself.

There is no easy way forward for Catholic spouses here. Marriage is a reciprocal relationship, and some will judge that there is a real spiritual need for eucharistic sharing in both directions, if married couples are to express their mutual care and support and love for one another; but they cannot do this on the authority of the Catholic bishops. A Catholic may decide that in some situations he or she is first and foremost a husband or wife, and in others a representative Catholic. It is not always easy to decide when one or other predominates. Personally I have found a lot of the anxiety in these situations taken away since I heard of some advice given by the late Anglican Bishop of Bristol, Oliver Tomkins, an outstanding ecumenist. He said something like this to a Catholic priest who was debating whether or not he should receive communion at an Anglican eucharistic celebration in a certain situation: “Well, if you do receive, you will be witnessing to the unity we have already been given in Christ. If you do not receive, you will be witnessing to the great work of reconciliation that is still to be achieved. And both are Gospel witnesses.”

Where eucharistic sharing is concerned, while we are not yet one in ecclesial communion, we live in a very confused and confusing situation. There is no easy way forward. Both individual Christians and churches as corporate bodies make different practical decisions about the right course of action to take at any particular time. We can only do the best we can. It can perhaps help us all to grow in mutual respect and love if we remember that, in Oliver Tomkins’ words: “both are Gospel witnesses”.

‘May we all be one’

In a final section the bishops explain the link between their norms and their desire for full visible unity. It is not the norms that cause division; they are the consequence of disunity. (118, 119)

Many interchurch families would want to reaffirm their commitment to full visible unity. They do not believe that continuing eucharistic sharing for some interchurch families would be to the detriment of that greater goal. Rather, it would be a legitimate stage on the way. The final paragraph of the “initial response” of the Association of Interchurch Families to One Bread One Body reads: “We join with our Bishops in their commitment to our common pilgrim path towards reconciliation and full visible unity as Christians. (120) Merely to be able to drop in to one another’s churches for communion would not satisfy those interchurch couples who in their marriages have committed themselves to share everything with each other. Such families pray that their churches will come to a full visible unity comparable to the marriage “partnership of the whole of life”.(79)

Ruth Reardon

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. Association of Interchurch Families, London, England



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