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Celebrating Baptism in Interchurch Families

Some of our stories

Every interchurch family is unique. So this is a series of stories.

The couples whose stories are told here are committed to one another for life. They are bound together not only by their baptism but by their marriage. They are equal partners in marriage. They live together under the same roof every day of the week. They share all their resources ­ all the time. As parents they share responsibility for the education and nurture of their children in Christ.

So they are one church at home (the "domestic church" of Vatican 11), but they are also related to two churches (both in the sense of denominations and of local congregations). This is the lived experience of these couples. Because they intend to bring up their children within that living reality, it is inconceivable that both their churches should not be involved ­ in some way ­ in their children's baptism.

Here is a selection of stories, all true. presented chronologically from 1970 to 1994.

Ruth and Martin's first child, John, was born in May 1970. They wanted his baptism registered in both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, and also to have a joint celebration. From four months or so before the birth was due, they tried out all the possible combinations of ways to do this that they could think of, in vain. But they had been married in Belgium, so explored possibilities there. When John was eight months old, he was baptised in a service which was basically the (then) new Catholic rite with some Anglican input. (He was old enough to enjoy having a white garment to put on, and it was hard to keep the candle out of his reach.) The Anglican celebrant registered the baptism in the Anglican parish; the Catholic assistant registered it in the Catholic parish. Two years later, in England, John's sister Sarah was baptised when she was two months old in an Anglican chapel. The same service was used, but this time there was a Catholic celebrant with an Anglican assistant. Again there was dual registration. Those present ­ Catholics, Anglicans and others ­ were enthusiastic about the occasion, the form of service used, and the way it witnessed to unity in baptism.

David and Lynne's first child Robert was born in 1981. They had never discussed baptism. Lynne assumed she would be responsible for their children's religious upbringing, since she worshipped at the Anglican church every Sunday, while DAVID attended the Catholic church three or four times a year. However, when Robert was born, David was adamant that he should be baptised in the Roman Catholic Church as it was the one true church. He refused any discussion. After six months Robert had not been baptised. Grandparents were pressing them... Their respective clergy urged them both to hold out. "He/she will see sense. You'll win," they both said. The couple reached a state of total non­communication. There seemed a real danger that the marriage would collapse. Lynne felt desperate when she saw AlF's address in an agony column in a women's magazine, wrote for information, and discovered that some couples were taking a two­church approach. David read it too. Could they begin again? They took it to their clergy. They began to attend church together, on alternate Sundays. Grandparents were sceptical, but neither they nor the clergy wanted the marriage to loll apart. David and Lynne began to think about how they wanted to educate Robert. For various reasons, they decided on an Anglican school. "Well, then, baptise Robert Anglican," said both clergy. By now this wasn't what either wanted. Finally Robert was baptised in the Anglican church and straight afterwards taken to the Catholic church for anointing. David and Lynne continued to go to both churches together, although Lynne was still more committed. Both clergy visited them as a couple, and the Catholic priest was grateful for the "beneficial effect" Lynne was having on David. Both sets of parents became more supportive. David's mother even started going to ecumenical services, which she would never have considered before.

Anne and John's first child Ruth was born in 1984. After much heart­searching, she was baptised in the United Reformed Church, but Anne and John continued to attend both churches together. Then John was born. What should they do? Ensure both children belonged to the same denomination? Recognise the other parent's feelings and baptise John in the Catholic church? The URC minister and the Catholic priest made quite separate visits, but both suggested the same thing. Baptise John in a joint service in one church, and at the same time admit him into the other. "One of the most heartening and genuinely ecumenical experiences we have ever had was the willingness of both our clergy to co­conduct a baptism in the other church, if it helped, they said. "It was the answer to our hopes and prayers, but one we felt was so unrealistic that we had simply not discussed it with either church." John was baptised in the Catholic church with the URC minister taking part, then blessed in the URC and put on their Cradle Roll. And when John was baptised, his sister Ruth was anointed in the Catholic church.

Caryl and Damien moved just before Kirstyn was born in 1986, so they had to arrange a baptism in a place where they were not yet known, which is never easy. Eventually the Catholic parish priest reluctantly agreed tht the Anglican priest could do a reading and lead some prayers before the actual baptism. Caryl and Damien felt this was a very minor thing and would have liked more sharing. But when they went back to tell the Anglican clergy, these thought it was great apparently ecumenism had previously been a total non­starter with the Catholic priest. Caryl and Damien presented him with a common baptism certificate to fill in.

Andrew and Helen's first son Stephen was baptised in a Catholic church in 1984. Their second son Julian was born in 1987. Should Julian be baptised at an Anglican service (for balance within the family) or at a Catholic service (for consistency towards their two children)? They couldn't decide. They really wanted a joint celebration. Their first suggestion was that both Catholic and Anglican ministers should pour the water and say the words together. The Anglican vicar agreed, but the Catholic priest saw problems. The matter went to the Vicar General of the diocese and lengthy discussions followed. There were periods of hope and periods of despondency. Eventually the Catholic bishop agreed to a baptism in their home, with the Catholic priest baptising and the Anglican vicar taking part. The service was prepared by Andrew and Helen with elements of both the Catholic and ASH services. Friends from both churches were present. Julian (now nearly 5) was well prepared and took part in the prayers. He ticked off the Catholic priest for spilling water on the carpet. Andrew and Helen felt that Julian had been baptised into the Church of Christ as represented by their family.

Derek and Eileen were worried by a change of parish priest just before their first child Aidan was born in 1989. Their fears were groundless. "Tell me what you want and we'll work something out", he said when they approached him. They decided against baptism during mass because the URC half of the family would not be able to receive communion, but Aidan's grandfather, a URC minister, was able to act as the minister of baptism in the Catholic church, followed by an anointing by the Catholic priest. Members of both congregations were happy to be present.

Jim and Pamela have no children yet. They have talked about baptism a lot, because Pamela is a Baptist. Jim is happy to defer baptism until their child can answer for him/herself. This might be about First Communion age in the Roman Catholic tradition. They hope that their churches will respect their decision and support them in it.

Our last story is of a baptism which took place in February 1994 in a shared church ­ the building is shared for worship both by Catholics and Anglicans. Several months before their first child was born, Beverley and Paul approached both the Catholic parish priest and the Anglican vicar about baptism. Although this is a Local Ecumenical Project, there had never been any shared celebration of baptism. Normally both ministers celebrate baptism in the context of a regular service, but they agreed on a separate service for Joanna, so that the two traditions could be fully involved. Paul and Beverley prepared the service, using the Catholic rite as a basis and incorporating some of the ASH forms. They wanted a eucharistic context for the baptism, so in this church, where there is a double tabernacle, they held a communion service, at the suggestion of the Catholic priest. There was one Catholic godparent; two others who were technically witnesses from the Roman Catholic point of view, but felt to be equal godparents by Beverley and Paul. Members of both congregations were present. Some of those present ­ including nonchurchgoers ­ made a point of telling Joanna's parents that the service was "the most enjoyable, most meaningful, most happy, most welcoming or the most easy to understand" in their experience. Paul and Beverley felt it was a good witness. Afterwards, the baptism was entered in both registers, with notes being made of the ecumenical context of the service.

These are just a few of our stories. There are many interchurch families who want their child's baptism to witness to what they experience as true in their family life. And many have testified to the positive effect of a shared celebration of baptism on family, friends (Christians and others) and congregations. But in some local situations, interchurch families who feel this way can only wait. Waiting is a witness too ­ a sort of passive resistance, non­violent ­ not breaking with either church, active in its suffering, combined with a drip, drip, pressure which says: "We will not go away; we are called to stay here, one family within both our church communities."

The sad thing, of course, is that so many couples do go away when the churches seem to them to be dividing their family, rather than supporting it. If only our churches could get together both to prepare for and to celebrate baptism, this needn't happen. It would be good for interchurch families and mixed marriages, and it would be good for the churches too.

Interchurch families are not saying that our truth is the whole truth. But it is our witness and we have to stick to it. We know we present ­ not least in this area of baptism ­ a "challenge and an embarrassment to our churches" (to quote the foreword of Churches Together in Marriage, published by Churches Together in England in 1994). We hope that our church leaders and communities, at every level, will take seriously its guidelines, and address its recommendations, so that we may all bear more effective witness to our one Lord, our one faith, our one baptism.

Published by the Association of Interchurch Families, England



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