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March 1999

Prepared for the AIF Workshop at the CCBI Assembly, 25 02 99 
and adapted for AlF Heythrop, 06 03 99

What some interchurch families - probably most of us here, but not all interchurch families - would like is to be able to share communion in one another's churches in an open way and to know that they are affirmed, recognised, by both their churches in doing so. We are nowhere near this at present. It's a long-term perspective - and before we get there our churches will need to be much further forward on the road to full unity - which is an even longer-term perspective. I think it is the Catholic bishops' fear of losing the longer term goal of full visible unity that makes One Bread One Body seem such a cautious and even backward-looking document in some places. But if we think about it, most of us interchurch families don't want to lose that longer term goal either. In our commitment to full visible unity we as an Association are fully united with the Catholic bishops.

We need to remember that with One Bread One Body we are concerned with authorised eucharistic sharing - authorised at the level of the three episcopal conferences of England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland. This is a very different matter from the unofficial eucharistic sharing which goes on all the time, or even from what one avant-garde bishop permits. We know that law follows theology, and theology springs from experience. It takes a long time to move through from experience to law, which is what we are dealing with here. Do not underestimate the distance that has been travelled. The possibility of non-Catholics ever receiving communion in the Roman Catholic Church seemed unthinkable before 1964. Even the Church of England did not officially allow members of the Free Churches to receive communion in Anglican churches before 1972.

The Association of Interchurch Families, as an organised body, has only ever asked the bishops of England and Wales for what we believe they are able to give us within the current understanding and discipline of the Roman Catholic Church world-wide. It is important to realise this in relation to what I am going to say. That is all we have ever asked for in the area of eucharistic sharing. Of course we hope for more! We know that more is needed, not just for interchurch families but for all Christians who recognise in some sense the reality of the church outside our own denominational boundaries. But life is short for interchurch families. We are concerned with what can be done now.

It is a strictly limited objective. You need to understand the positive response of AIF to One Bread One Body within that perspective. We are concerned with what is possible 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 by the Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism (1993). The Bishops of England and Wales cannot go beyond the general law of the Roman Catholic Church - much of the criticism directed against One Bread One Body seems to expect them to do so.

It is important to recognise that the Roman Catholic Church does not envisage "intercommunion" in the sense of generalised eucharistic sharing between members of different churches or denominations. The first part of One Bread One Body explains why this is so, particularly in the section which stresses the very close link between eucharistic communion and ecclesial communion, between Holy Communion and full communion, between eucharist and church. It is important for other Christians - and indeed Roman Catholics - to take this section seriously. In the Catholic perspective it is not normal for Christians living in divided churches to come together to share the eucharist.

However, the Roman Catholic Church has come to recognise that in some sense the church is out there, beyond its own boundaries, that there are real bonds of communion which link other churches to its own life, even if there is not yet full communion. Therefore, admission to eucharistic communion in the Roman Catholic Church can be permitted, indeed commended, in identified circumstances of need, by way of exception in particular cases, and under certain conditions. This is a pastoral provision that applies to exceptional cases of need. The Code of Canon Law in 1983 gave one example of a circumstance of need: danger of death (bishops are allowed to identify other circumstances of need). The Directory in 1993 gave one (only one) additional example: those who share the sacraments of baptism and marriage. This was a great joy to interchurch families. The specific need of the spouses to share communion as a couple is recognised officially by the Roman Catholic Church at the world level.

What could the bishops have done therefore? They could have recognised that, although there are very many couples who share baptism and marriage who feel no need to share communion, some of those who do feel such a need, experience this as a continuing need for eucharistic sharing to support them in their marriage and family life. This has been recognised by some bishops in other parts of the world. The German bishops have said that in particular cases full sharing in the eucharist can be granted to the partner who is not a Catholic. The Archbishop of Brisbane has said that a spouse could well experience a serious spiritual need to receive holy communion each time he or she accompanies the family to a Catholic mass. The Southern African bishops have said that the partners may experience a real need to express their married unity by receiving holy communion whenever they attend mass together. AIF would have liked - indeed we asked for - a specific recognition by our bishops of this kind of on-going need. That we were not given. Instead they speak of need on "unique occasions". That is our great disappointment as an Association, and as we said in our initial response, "we would have wished the Bishops of England and Wales, Ireland and Scotland to have specifically recognised that some families may well experience a continuing serious spiritual need to receive together." (the Code and Directory speak of need, not pain.)

However, it is a great breakthrough for our countries that the bishops have collectively said that admission is possible at all, and we are delighted about that. If it is possible even once, it is possible more often. The absolute stance: "I cannot admit you" has gone. This is of very great significance. In some places it is an enormous step forward to have even a very few family occasions identified as possible occasions for eucharistic sharing by spouses or family. We also observe that the bishops' text does not exclude the possibility of continuing admission, even when it refers to "unique occasions". Most commentators have not noticed that. I didn't at first! It says that those in need of admission may include those who ask to receive on unique occasions. It does not say that admission must be limited to unique occasions. This is a carefully drafted text which leaves the way open for a pastoral application of the norms, concerned with the particular needs of particular couples, which is what we believe the Directory requires. The text sounds extremely restrictive. (That satisfied the conservative bishops.) It need not be taken in that way. (One of the drafting bishops has made this quite clear to us, and has instanced a permanent permission he has given for admission in one family situation.)

We may expect therefore very different situations in different dioceses, as the bishops each establish their own norms for eucharistic sharing in their own dioceses. They each have their own consciences to follow, and clearly some of our bishops would have wished Rome to make no reference at all to the possible need of spouses who share baptism and marriage to share communion together. They may judge this unwise, even wrong. They have had to come to terms with an authorised application of canon law that wasnew in 1993 - an application which we have to recognise is permissive, not prescriptive. I shall be very grateful to have all possible information on how One Bread One Bodyis being applied around the country. We know one bishop has told his clergy to tell people that they can ask for permission in rare cases of need. We know that one bishop has told an AIF member that he is happy for interchurch families to know that he regards Christmas as an occasion of need. We know that one bishop has said that he will delegate the power to admit to all his parish priests, telling them to be sensible but generous. On the other hand we know also that one bishop has sent out a pastoral letter onOne Bread One Body making no reference at all to the final section. We know that another gave the impression at a diocesan meeting of a very narrow interpretation: possibly weddings and first communions. We shall not use private information in a public way, and as an Association we should resist the temptation to try to play one bishop off against another. It would be counter-productive. As parents we know we have to close ranks when our children do this, even if we disagree with one another. In any case, communion is about love. If we do anything to foment discord at any level we have already failed in building up communion. Of course we shall fail all the time! But we have to set our sights on building up communion in love - making a conscious option for this.

The situation will also vary from parish to parish. From 1993 until One Bread One Body was published, Catholic ministers - in the absence of episcopal norms - were authorised by the Directory to make a pastoral judgement in particular cases whether or not to admit interchurch spouses to communion. One Bread One Body has reserved this decision to the bishop or his delegates. Clergy too have their own consciences to follow, and they are the ones who have to deal with particular. pastoral situations in the way that a bishop doesn't. The parish priests who have admitted particular spouses to communion on a continuing basis, will find it pastorally very difficult to change an established situation, whatever a bishop may say. Others have for a very long time taken the position: I will not refuse when I judge there is a serious case of need. Or even: Iwill allow the person who comes to take responsibility for his or her actions. The tradition of "not refusing" is a very respectable one in the Roman Catholic Church. We should not ask for more. We must not press priests to do what they cannot lawfully, or what they are deeply unwilling, to do. There will continue to be much unevenness in practice. It is a situation we just have to live with. But the fact that there will be authorised admission on some occasions, and authorised not just at the level of a single bishop but at that of three episcopal conferences, is a very significant, move forwards.

I have not mentioned reciprocity - Catholics receiving communion in other churches. The passage at the end of One Bread One Body forbidding this has upset many people. Of course there are Roman Catholics who want to share communion with their spouses in the church of their spouse. Marriage is about mutuality. The Association of Interchurch Families has never asked our bishops to authorise this, because we know they cannot do so; every document from Rome has made it clear that reciprocity can only be authorised where the orders of the celebrating minister are recognised by the Roman Catholic Church. This has to remain a matter for the conscience of the individual Roman Catholic. Some Roman Catholics married to other Christians will decide in one way, some in another. Some will decide differently on different occasions. There are no right answers. I have myself been greatly cheered since I was told of some advice given by the late Anglican Bishop of Bristol, Oliver Tomkins, to a Catholic priest who was debating whether or not he should receive communion at an Anglican celebration in a certain situation. Oliver Tomkins said something like this: "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." Both are Gospel witnesses.

Ruth Reardon



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