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The Association of Interchurch Families, England, has produced a wonderful set of resource materials, some of which are listed on this web site.

Note: Information presented in these packs reflect the experiences of interchurch families in the English context, and will not necessarily be applicable in other parts of the world.

These resources are, therefore, to be used as helpful aids, to enable you to delve more deeply into what is possible where you live.

That limitation notwithstanding, however, we trust these resources will be helpful for you on your journey to Christian unity.

This is taken from the article "Making a Marriage: Seeking Unity" by Canon Peter Chambers, 1993.

Making a Marriage: Seeking Unity

This article was published in the January 1994 issue of the Journal.

On 2 October 1993 the Marriage and Family Life Commission of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and the Diocesan Commission for Christian Unity join.tly a day workshop on Interchurch Marriage an Undervalued Resource. The Bishop of Arundel and Brighton, together the Anglican Bishop of Lewes and the Methodist Chairman of the London South-West District, formed a church leaders' panel to answer questions, while a panel of three interchurch couples shared the joys and difficulties of living their marriage and bringing their families within two church communities. The day began with the following by Canon Peter Chambers, Director of the Board of Social Responsibility in the Anglican Diocese of Guildford.

Marriage Doctrine: finding common ground
Marriage belongs in the natural order - the order of creation. Marriage is a creation ordinance, yet we need to be careful not to say "therefore each person should marry".

Monogamous marriage requires mutual commitment to the relationship and its duties, fidelity to one partner, and the permanence which ensures security for partners and offspring.  The Christian doctrine of marriage builds on these characteristics. Marriages are by intention lifelong; no marriage ought to be dissolved. Jesus spoke of the laws of divorce as a temporal response to human hardness of heart. The Church has consistently maintained that marriages should not be dissolved. In the Middle Ages the Catholic theologians went further and argued that a marriage properly made between baptised Christians cannot be dissolved. One divergence we can see in our traditions is between the Catholic jurisdiction over marriage and the Orthodox and Reformed churches' recognition of the State's jurisdiction.

The ehurches across the traditions sometimes speak of the family based on marriage as a microcosm of the church, the little church, the domestic church. And a recent ecumenical Study Guide embraced family life in its diversity of forms with the concept of "living in covenant with God and with one another". It is a theme which translates the Old Testament understanding of Israel as the "Bride of the Lord" and St Paul's description of the mystery of Chdst and the Church.

In marriage, heterosexual love finds its proper expression in a relationship "in which the natural instincts and affections, implanted by God, should be directed and hallowed aright". It is linked to the readiness of the spouses to be open to children.

There is a potential to marriage; through this covenant a man and a woman discover within the discipline of marriage the true measure of each other's dignity. In the relationship in which each recognises self in the other, "bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh", there is a discovery of all that the Creator has made and seen to be good. But we also come closer to that knowledge of our own selfishness, that which obstructs the sharing of love. And because this hurts so much, we need and accept forgiveness. Bonhoeffer wrote of this forgiveness at the heart of marriage: "the heartbeat of every marriage, as a Christian sees it, is forgiveness" [quoted in John Austin Baker, The Whole Family of God].

Two churches, two individuals
An "interchurch" marriage is the union of two baptised Christians of different traditions, with each spouse (i) actively involved in his or her church (and to various degrees in one another's church) and (ii) taking a conscientious role in the religious education of his or her children. Such marriages are also called ecumenical and "two-church", and they are distinguishable to a from those which involve partners from different churches with both either nominal adherents or one partner committed and practising but the other not (for thc present at least). The important point is that there are no blueprints; marriages, all marriages, can become afflicted by the blight of idealism, and stunted by a pre-occupation with being normal. What we must recognise is the experience of a eouple saying together. "there are two churches in our marriage and we both want to express that tmthfully".

Now as I learn about the trials to which people are put in maintaining and expressing these loyalties, I also hear a voice at the back of my mind saying, "Well. so what? Isn't this the kind of testing that all marriages face, as each partner brings her or his convictions and habits of kinship to their life together?" It is not uniquely interchurch marriages that have to cope with loyalty to two sets of values, two familiar patterns of living. That struggle is not just a little modern difficulty; it is natural to marriage. Husbands and wives do not just fit each other like pieces in a jigsaw. It is a cause of inconvenience and pleasure in marriage that spouses choose each other with their obvious differences.

These differences, when valued, assist the making of a marriage. A person who has arrived at a sustainable level of maturity and self-worth will confidently maintain his or her individualness in relationship; that personal strength in each person is an asset in marriage, and it is devalued when partners deny that individualness. "One flesh, separate persons" (the title of an early book by Robin Skynner) is a key phrase in an understanding of the way maniages work. Intimacy, which is the basis of marriage as a relationship (and of friendship), is all the stronger when partners respect their need to go apart and enjoy the very things that emphasise the difference between them. And so relations between the sexes may work better when a society gives scope for men and women to enjoy the company of their own sex. I say "may work better" because much depends on the way these single-sex groups behave. Chauvinism causes poor relations between the sexes, just as racism engenders strife between peoples. Where those women's and men's activities are a strength, where national celebrations are wholesome, is when they increase a person's sense of worth without denigrating those who are different. Tribal kinship is a great resource; tribalism is a destmetive force.

One kinship: God in the midst The experience of many interchurch couples indicates the chauvinism, the tribalism of our Christian traditions. The Anglican theologian David Jenkins expounded this theme in a bracing way [The Contradiction of Christianity, SCM Press, 1976] twenty years ago, and I suggest that it may help us to recognise a purpose in the struggle of interchurch marriage. There is still much in the institutional form of our church life, and in the conveyed attitudes of our denominations, that is a defenee against knowing the truth. The truth is, "God with us", transfonning the world by the renewal of personal lives. But our traditions have faltered at the comprehensiveness of this truth. It has bee orne God with us, and, therefore, not with you; and by that youare diminished. That is the lie which is fostered as this tribalism is perpetuated from generation to gencration by hardening the differenees; and in the proeess that untruth is defended from the Spirit that leads us into all truth. The intimaey of marriage, the bond between parent and child, both allow the unguarded moment in which we human creatures know "the One who is in the midst of us". That is the potential of marriage as a means of God's grace; it discloses the truth. And to those who want to maintain the lie about Christianity, marriage itself is subversive and "marrying out" is a betrayal. Marriage is subversive because marriages gain an autonomy; with good authority, couples may challenge the teachings of their churches or pastors.

What is particular about an interchurch marriage is that in the church where each spouse is looking for reassurance and affirmation as they risk this joumey in marriage, as they nourish their children by giving themselves, there they can find themselves most alone. And they want to say to their churches, "You ought to be with us, not making things harder for us. In our marriage, can you not see the coming together of our two churches? Can you not see the kinship that will supplant our tribalism? We want to bring up our children to regard and value both traditions of Christian faith; why will you not let us prepare for that in the way our children are initiated into the Christian Church and let their Baptism be celebrated in a rite which shows that?" Where they look for affirmation, they meet with discouragement. That may not be so much conscious rejection as apathy. It may be less the outright rejection of their marriage as the disinterest shown to their aspirations that is most discouraging. It would be overstating it to say that interchurch partners have chosen their partners out of a desire for ecumenism; rather, the experience of their marriages fosters the urgency of ecumenism.

Who prepares whom for pilgrimage?
Having spent some years learning about how the churches and the clergy engage in marriage preparation, and having tried to write and say a bit about it all, I have now reached a stage of thinking that most of the time we are not very good at it. I think we ought to ask the couples themselves to do it. While we might be eamestly wanting to induct them into this holy estate of matrimony. equipped with all the survival skills they can carry, I think the partners themselves may be more preoccupied with preparing their families and the church for their marriage. For that is the point, is it not? This eouple is not about to enter on a new relationship; it is a relationship they already enjoy. What they need to do is to tell everyone else to take it seriouslv, beeause that is what they want to do. And so the preparation that is needed is for the families, and everyone else affected, to adjust to that, get used to the idea, and come and celebrate it. It is the burden of that whieh can make getting married such a hassle.

Two-church couples seem to have more hassle than most. And that is odd; these partners have all the right connections. Yet at the very time when they might call on the combined resources of two traditions, the line goes dead. Of course, the right way for the churches to do it is obvious. The respective ministers get in touch, have a friendly chat, and decide how they can best help the couple and the families to prepare the nuptial celebration. It should all be easy because the church says that it is the partners themselves, not the priests or pastors, who are the true ministers of the marriage. Enough said, T hope; more will is needed and the first job of the clergy is to sort out the preliminaries and legalities constructively. But the change will only come when as churches we think it is worth it. And we might reckon it worth it if we took more notice of what is happening in marriages; not what we like to think is happening, or think ought to be happening.

Scenes from a marriage: glimpses of the Church
Here are some of the things I see and hear happening in marriages. I see a man and a woman deepening their friendship and consciously searching for each other, looking at each other and enjoying each other. And then I see a man and a woman, both avoiding each other's eyes, gazing with a mixture of fear and fantasy at the people around them. I hear a wife and a husband discussing with strength and feeling the way they need to manage their resources and each make sacrifices, and coming to a decision they will both respect. And I see a wife and a husband each competing with the other for their share of the family means, each controlling what they have acquired. I perceive a spouse who is leaming what the other believes to be precious and is growing to value that same thing. But I also see a spouse who is afraid of what the other finds precious and will not let that spouse speak of it, enjoy it, or share it.

And in these scenes I catch sight of the little church. I feel at ease with two friends who can so act together that others feel safe and welcome in their presence; friends whose hospitality and charity is sueh that a community is the better for their being there. I see a man and a woman full of the will to make a good life together for all their family; each becoming aware of what matters most in that enterprise. But they do not always see the same priorities. They are leaming how to say what they feel and believe in, to each other; and because neither mocks the other, they do not have to defend their views, only explain them the better, knowing that the other is listening.

Now I would expect to notice glimpses of these things in a conversation with any couple. And part of a preparation to marry might be for the couple themselves to affirm sueh of these strengths and virtues as they see for themselves and to bring them to the wedding feast like bread and wine. But I also glimpse some of these things in the habits of church life; it does not require much imagination to look at those scenes from a marriage and reeognise them as pietures of our churches in their relationships with their neighbours. And that is the point: how can the blind lead the blind? Will they not both fall into the pit? As churches we are learning to be good partners in pilgrimage; let us engage with those who are the little chureh, the domestic church. In making marriage they are seeking unity, and are exposing the tribalism of our churches.

Peter Chambers.

Marriage across Frontiers

A report by Ruth Reardon, honorary secretary of the Association of Interchurch Families (AIF), on a three-day conference held in May 1992. This conference, held in Newcastle, Northern Ireland, offered an opportunity to see interchurch marriage in the wider context of mixed marriages across national, ethnic and religious frontiers. The gathering was held under the auspices of the Commission on Marriage and Interpersonal Relations of the International Union of Family Organisations, and brought together members of 37 organisations from 18 countries. The local hosts were Relate Northern Ireland and the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council (CMAC). The Association of Interchurch Families received an invitation because the subject this year was "Marriage across Frontiers". 

A global perspective

It was a salutary experience. On the one hand, the "problems" of interchurch families seemed to pale into insignificance beside those which face families which span national, ethnic and faith divides; on the other hand, the similarities stood out clearly. For us, it is a question of how the churches together can come to terms with mixed marriages between Christians, just as on a global level nations and ethnic groups and world religions have to come to terms with a situation in which mixed marriages are increasing fast in numbers. Once again it was clear that questions facing divided churches are a microcosm of questions facing a divided world.

As a representative of interchurch families, I was very much in a minority. Some people were at the conference because of the subject, but many others were representatives of family organisations who are at the conference every year whatever the topic. The Commission "brings together people from different parts of the world who have a professional interest in practice and policy matters concerning family life". In that context, interchurch marriage became a very specialised minority interest. "Catholic-Protestant marriages are no problem," everybody said, "except in Northern Ireland, because people don’t practise any more."

A special study by Gillian Robinson of the Queen’s University, Belfast, on Cross-community Marriage in Northern Ireland, had been commissioned on the initiative of CMAC and Relate in preparation for the conference, and a shortened version of it was presented by Professor Stringer. The title "cross-community" itself indicates that in Northern Ireland Catholic-Protestant marriages span both a social and a religious divide. Very few of the couples studied were likely to join AIF’s sister association the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association (NIMMA), but their problems were clear enough.

The second main input came from Professor Barbara, of Nantes University, who has studied for many years marriages between French nationals and immigrants. His stimulating lecture showed the complexity of classifying cross-frontier marriages. Every marriage, of course, crosses frontiers of gender and family culture. But one of the findings of the conference was that differences of nationality, ethnicity and religion can highlight collective aspects of the nature of marriage which are easily overlooked, especially by cultures which stress the value of individual choice. Thus studying them can contribute to our understanding of marriage itself.

Apart from the two keynote papers, most of the conference time was spent in group work, pulled together in a final plenary session. This was chaired by Christopher Clulow of the Tavistock Institute of Marital Studies, who also put together a six-page report on the conference. Here I am summarising its findings under four of his main headings.

Subversive marriage

Marriage is both a social institution and a personal relationship. When individuals in their marriage cross the collective frontiers of nationality, ethnicity and religion they raise issues for the group; they can threaten the security of the group. Marriage can even be seen as an act of treason – for instance, in the case of Anglo-German, Franco-Algerian, Israeli-Egyptian and Serbo-Croat marriages in recent history. Questions of identity are raised – both on the collective and the individual levels. 

Areas of vulnerability

Pressure to conform with the identity of the group may place individual identity in jeopardy. One or both partners may experience social isolation and a sense of exclusion from community rituals and routines which can support family life. In extreme cases, failure to conform with the identity of the group may result not only in discrimination but in physical attack.

The absence of shared history, culture and language may give rise to misunderstandings and poor communication which could destabilise marriage in times of crisis. Children may introduce particular conflicts into the relationship when choices have to be made about parenting practices, education and religious affiliation. Matters that can be taken for granted in same-culture marriages may require difficult negotiations and compromise for partners who come from different cultures. These may have to be managed by the couple unsupported; there will always be a fear (and sometimes a divisive hope) that those who are taken into the couple’s confidence may demand conformity to the social norm.

Areas of potential

The areas of vulnerability are also the areas of potential. Couples may succeed in managing differences that communities have failed to manage, and their success may offer hope to others who wish to bridge the gap in conflicts which threaten to tear communities apart.

In the absence of social support, there may need to be a higher than normal level of commitment between couples marrying across frontiers; no evidence was given that cross-frontier marriages are more prone to breakdown than others. Differences between partners may encourage planning and communication between them, developing their capacity to negotiate, as well as being enriching in opening up new worlds.

The potential for developing a mature relationship may be enhanced in cross-frontier marriages, with partners less dependent on parents and others to define their values for them, and children gaining from a model of partnership in which there is tolerance and an acceptance of differences in others. 

Supporting cross-frontier marriages

The Commission felt it important to support cross-frontier marriages, rather than accepting the point of view that they should be discouraged because of the challenge they represent to existing orders.

International law should take account of the diversity which characterises family life today; a supra-national framework is required so that the outcome of family disputes which cross national boundaries should not depend on the law of any one country.

Educational opportunities exist to break down barriers of prejudice. Children of cross-national marriages can be integrated in the educational system with sensitivity and in ways which respect their differences. Couples planning to marry across frontiers can be encouraged to think ahead and prepare for the challenges they may meet. All religious bodies and denominations have a pastoral responsibility here. Organisations helping couples have a duty to provide training for their staff. The media and the dramatic arts have a part to play in sensitising the community to the predicaments of those in cross-frontier marriages.

Socio-economic policy should take account of cross-frontier marriages. The issues need clearer definition. It is not helpful to see marriage as a solution to obtaining the right to work in, or the citizenship of, a country; nor should those entitled to live and work in a country be socially and economically disadvantaged because of their marital status.

Psycho-social factors affect the capacity of those in cross-frontier marriages to make the most of their situation; counsellors and others need training to develop understanding of the interplay of social and psychological factors affecting partners and children.

The full report by Christopher Clulow and the keynote papers by Professors Stringer and Barbara can be obtained from the Secretariat of the International Union of Family Organisations, 28 Place St George, 75009 Paris. Gillian Robinson’s full survey Cross-community Marriage in Northern Irelandcan be obtained from the Centre for Social Research, The Queen’s University of Belfast, 105 Botanic Avenue, Belfast, BT7 1NN.


Reflections from an interchurch family perspective

It seems to me that interchurch families’ experience has something to offer in the wider mixed marriage context where national, ethnic and faith barriers are concerned. That remains to be seen. In what follows I am simply suggesting that the findings of the conference can help to clarify some of the questions which face interchurch families.

We can’t help being subversive

The conference was clear that cross-frontier marriages by their very existence threaten the identity of the group, subvert the existing order, are a danger to traditional institutions. But, as the report points out, "it is unlikely that couples themselves will attribute these meanings to their choice of partner".

As couples, we tend to think first of ourselves as the vulnerable ones, and maybe need to recognise more fully the threat we constitute to our churches, and especially perhaps to the Roman Catholic Church with its very strong sense of corporate identity. Thus we need to be able to exercise a great deal of imaginative empathy in our relations with the clergy whose role it is to represent in a special way this corporate identity. A very good example of this kind of imaginative empathy is to be found in the spontaneous reactions of a URC wife to a Catholic bishop’s letter, as seen in the AIF video (see * below). It was maybe easier in this case because the bishop himself indicated his own vulnerability, as well as responding positively to the family’s request [for permission for the wife to receive at her child’s First Communion]. We need to develop our understanding of how we ourselves can appear as a threat, in order to exercise imaginative empathy also in situations which are extremely difficult for us.

George Kilcourse’s book Double Belonging (Paulist Press/Fowler Wright, 1992) is very helpful in this respect. It shows the enormity of the paradigm shift which has to take place in the Roman Catholic Church if the insights of the Second Vatican Council are really to be integrated into its life; how essential this is for the welfare of interchurch families, and how interchurch families themselves are contributing to the process.

The magnitude of the task should not be underestimated. But we do contribute to the process, and we can consciously "own" the inevitably subversive character of our marriages. "By challenging the existing order," says the Newcastle report, couples in cross-frontier marriages "may have long-term community interests at heart." It is not so much that we have to do anything; we just have to exist as interchurch families. We have to hang on to what is necessary to us as families, while at the same time being aware that by our continuing existence we can sometimes make life just as uncomfortable for our church communities as they do for us, by remaining divided.

A question of identity: the couple

The conference report brings out the fact that a point of convergence between the public and private meanings of cross-frontier marriage is the preoccupation with identity. At collective and individual levels there is concern to differentiate "me" from "not me", "us" from "them", because identity is marked out by the drawing up of such distinctions. The fear of being overrun operates between groups and individuals alike; similar dynamic processes operate to protect identities. The report notes that at a psychological level there may be no differences between marriages in terms of dynamic and developmental issues; the "foreign-ness" of a partner may only surface as an explanation for problems when the relationship is under pressure.

Partners in interchurch families have often said, "I am a better Catholic (or whatever) because I married an Anglican (or whatever)"; identities have been strengthened because they have had to be affirmed and explained. And yet at the same time many partners have also felt themselves, at least to some degree, to be taking on a new identity, sharing to some extent in the "other" church, within the overarching identity of Christian marriage.

So the subversive question which these couples ask the churches (along with many other Christians committed to the ecumenical movement) is how long we have to go on with exclusive definitions – if this, not that; if a Catholic, not a Protestant; if Orthodox, not Methodist … Catholicism and Protestantism belong together, as Adrian Hastings makes clear in his article "Catholics and Protestants" (Interchurch Families, 1, 1, 1993). All Christians belong together. There is a Christian identity.

Recently AIF had a visit from Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who has worked with Jewish-Christian marriages and wanted to see how far the questions raised by these are similar to those raised by interchurch marriages. He said that within Judaism terminology is changing: "mixed marriages" used to mean marriages between two kinds of Jew (e.g. Orthodox and Reformed), whereas now it is losing this meaning and coming to be used for marriages between Jews and non-Jews.

As in a shrinking world we come to identify ourselves increasingly as members of the one Body of Christ, bound together by the one baptism (whatever the distinctions within this identity), a similar change in terminology will presumably gain ground.

It is worth noting that Roman Catholic canonical terminology already distinguishes between marriages of Catholics with non-Christians, for which one needs a dispensation from "disparity of cult", and those with baptised Christians, where the dispensation is from "mixed religion". It is only in the second case that the marriage is recognised as a sacramental Christian marriage.

A question of identity: the children

Most people at the conference took it for granted that parents should choose an identity for their children – one or the other – and preferably as early as possible. From the experience of an interchurch family, my instinctive reaction was to question this assumption. Of course, many interchurch families do choose one denomination or the other for their children, and would testify that this can work well; but many others have opted for a dual identity, refusing to make an exclusive choice within the overarching Christian identity they seek for their children. They believe that this can make sense in a situation in which the churches have committed themselves to unity, to becoming one church. There cannot in the end be irreconcilable differences between them; differences, yes, but differences which can be held together in communion.

The trouble is that we have not yet reached the end, and to many people in all our communities the differences do still appear irreconcilable. Bishop Vincent Nichols has told us (Swanwick conference, September 1992) that we do no service to our children if we bring them up with unreal expectations; there are at present essential differences between the churches. It is certain that, by not choosing one identity or the other on their behalf, parents place a burden on the children as well as offering them a gift. The question is whether the value of the gift is greater than the weight of the burden. Many would claim that it is.

There are many kinds of marriage across frontiers. Sometimes the identity of the child is settled because of the place where the parents live. The conference noted that it may be hard in these circumstances for the non-indigenous partner to maintain an individual identity.

It seems often to be the case that where children are clearly brought up in one church rather than the other, one partner experiences a real sense of isolation and therefore pressure to join the rest of the family. Sometimes this can be done in good conscience, after mature reflection, and family life can become that much easier, but in other cases the sense of being a foreigner in one’s own family can persist, and special pastoral care may be needed. There is a certain parallel with the situation where "the power balance in a relationship is likely to favour the indigenous partner in terms of language, familiarity with surroundings, networks, procedures, social support and legal rights", as the Newcastle report notes. This is identified as one of the "areas of vulnerability" for cross-frontier marriages.

Where interchurch couples opt for dual identity for their children, they are committing themselves to managing differences that their church communities have so far failed to manage – "an area of

potential", according to the Newcastle report, but equally requiring pastoral concern and support. Professor Barbara remarked that if parents do not choose an identity for their children, society will do so. It remains to be seen if this will happen in the case of interchurch children – whether or not the churches will continue to try to urge them to choose an exclusive identity if they wish to be confirmed.

Good for everybody

In our group at Newcastle we talked about educational equivalencies and how difficult it is for parents who want their children to move between two cultures to move them from one educational system to another. But other families, too, it was agreed, would benefit if this were made easier. "What’s good for mixed marriages is good for everybody," someone remarked.

So maybe what’s good for interchurch families is good for the churches as a whole. It’s an encouraging thought for interchurch families who remain within two communities but struggle to persuade those church communities to express and celebrate more fully that growing unity between them which they already acknowledge.

These paragraphs, which presuppose a marriage between a Roman Catholic and a member of another Christian Church, are largely taken from a Catholic Truth Society pamphlet, Mixed Marriages between Christians (revised 1985), which treated wider aspects of two-church marriages; partners of different Churches intending to marry may find the whole pamphlet useful.

Getting Married

When I wrote the pamphlet referred to, I treated Being Married before Getting Married. The reason was that a lot of the processes to be gone through in order to get married only make sense in the light of being married: the responsibilities the couple will have to each other precisely as Christians of different Churches; the steadily developing responsibilities they will have to their children; their responsibilities to their families and their Churches; their opportunity to develop a spiritual union with each other at the deepest levels; their opportunity of creating their own Christian union in their marriage; their opportunities for uniting their Churches. They won't be able to start with a blueprint for the future; this will develop out of their experience of being married. And so they need as far as possible to keep their minds and their options open. But they do have to start somewhere.

First steps

First of all, it is best to think, and read, and talk together a lot. It is best to do this before approaching clergy of either Church, so that when you do this you already know a good deal about your aims and the meaning of any steps that have to be taken to fulfil them. There are bound to be new ideas to get used to, and you must get beyond being defensive with each other. Amarriage belongs wholly to both partners all the way through.

The next step will be to approach the clergy, in order to make arrangements. Which clergy? Well, why not both, even if you have already decided in which Church you would like the marriage to take place? This is part of each taking the other seriously as a Christian. It may be that the Catholic is a far less committed and developed Christian than the other. It may be the other way round. If so, the Catholic should not make the mistake of having it all his or her own way and taking charge of the religious side of the marriage. And Catholics are a bit inclined to do this. But that is not love, and it does not make for a Christian marriage, which can only be created by both partners. So I would say to the Catholic, forget about your partner becoming a Catholic; if your husband or wife ever does that, it will be because through you they will have found in the Catholic Church what they need. Here is your chance to help your partner to be a better Anglican or Protestant, and for him or her to make you a better Catholic. There will be far more in either of you than meets the eye. Love develops the other by giving; it does not possess. So shed your hang-ups and set about creating each other in the image and likeness of God.

The next steps may well concern the two families. One or both families may in varying degrees be hostile to the marriage on religious grounds. It would be wrong for the couple simply to go it alone. You are each part of your own family and are about to become part of two. You will need them and you are part of their fulfilment, so it is worth a good deal of effort to reconcile them to your marriage. But don't let them pull you apart! Don't let them get you tearing each other's eyes out, when left to yourselves you could sort everything out. At the end of the day you may have to put your own union and your own lives first, and to work for reconciliation on a longer term. Families nearly always come round when the couple are seen to be quietly united already. You may have to let one or other family let off some steam, and so get rid of a feeling of being threatened, without letting it upset you. It is often a help to get sympathetic clergy of your own Church, who know your family, to help you in reconciling them.

So parental opposition can be one of those many instances in two-church marriage where what starts out as an obstacle and a problem turns into a creative opportunity; in reconciling families to the marriage you are to some extent, through them, reconciling your two Churches.

Permission to marry and the `promise'

As was said at the beginning, I am presupposing a marriage between two Christians, one of whom is a Roman Catholic. And the Roman Catholic Church has some rules which need to be explained and understood. A Church is a human society, even if it is also the Body of Christ, and human societies have laws or rules to support and express what they value, and to hold them together as human communities. Rules, and the ideas on which they are based, are not the same thing and should not be confused with each other. The Catholic Church may change its ideas and so change its rules. But there will be other, more basic, ideas and values which it cannot change; they are part and parcel of what it is; they are understood as God's revelation and his will. But even in these cases the Church could convey its ideas simply by teaching; it does not have to have a rule of action, and if it does, the Church can change one rule of action for a better one, to express the same idea. The permission a Catholic needs to marry another baptised Christian is a matter of this kind.

The Catholic Church believes itself to be not just one Church among others, but central to God's plan of salvation: a centre of God's self-gift and teaching, the Church that expresses the full idea of what God's Church should strive to be. Part of what being a Catholic means is to share this conviction.

The Catholic Church does in fact express this conviction in the form of a rule of action, by requiring the Catholic to get permission to marry a Christian of another Church. The Church does not have to have such a rule, and could abolish it, if that seemed best. It serves to make a Catholic entering upon a two-church marriage face up seriously and from the outset to the responsibilities of this sort of marriage. But it is important to realise that it is not some arbitrary way of being difficult about two-church marriage; it seeks to bring out into the open a particular idea of the Church.

The parish priest in England or Wales can now grant this permission, or the dean in the absence of the parish priest. But he cannot refuse it. If for some reason he thinks a couple, otherwise free to marry, are not in the right frame of mind, he has to refer the question of granting permission to the bishop.

For the parish priest to be able to grant the permission the Catholic has to make a two-fold `promise'. This is another case of a rule which the Catholic Church could change (and has in fact changed in some respects in recent years). As has been said, the convictions on which the `promise' is based are not changeable by the Church. But it is for the Church to decide whether to ask a Catholic about to enter a two-church marriage to express in formal terms his or her already existing conviction; and if the Church does do this, then the Church can decide what sort of formal expression in words is appropriate.

The other partner does not have to make any form of promise. He or she has to be told of the undertaking the Catholic gives, and have it explained to avoid misunderstandings. As far as the mere law goes, in order that the permission should be granted the non-Catholic partner does not have to state or indicate a position, or, indeed, to show any reaction at all. The Catholic Church is not making rules for what those who are not Catholics should do. But in the more personal and pastoral setting of preparation for marriage, as opposed to legal requirements, it is reasonable for the priest, if he is able to offer any help, to discuss the situation with both partners.

Most other Churches do not require their members to get permission to enter a two-church marriage, or any form of promise. This does not mean that they do not mind whom their members marry. Catholics would be wrong to think that. But, conversely, other Christians would be wrong to think that the Catholic Church is introducing unfair moral pressure at this point; permission and `promise' are intended, as has been said, to bring out into the open a particular idea of the Church.

The form of words that the Roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales have decided upon for the two-fold `promise' is as follows: `I declare that I am ready to uphold my Catholic faith and to avoid all dangers of falling away from it. Moreover, I sincerely undertake that I will do all that I can within the unity of our partnership to have all the children of our marriage baptised and brought up in the Catholic Church.

(The Catholic partner may choose either to sign this declaration, or to make it verbally to the priest who is arranging the marriage.)

The first point to notice is that the formula has two parts. The first part, the declaration of readiness to preserve one's Catholic faith, is clear, and does not normally cause any difficulty to either partner. Marrying another committed Christian can, of course, be a great help to one's faith.

The second point to notice about the formula is that, though it is elsewhere described by Canon Law and by the bishops in their Directory as a promise, the actual word `promise' does not occur in the wording. That is why `promise' has so far been put in inverted commas. It is a word with rather too hard edges in English.

The third point to notice is perhaps the most important of all, namely that the content of the `promise' was changed by the Pope's Letter of 1970: the Catholic doenot give an undertaking that his or her children will be baptised and brought up as Catholics, as had to be done in the past, and as the word `promise' might still suggest. He or she undertakes to `do all that I can within the unity of our partnership' to bring this about. The bishops clarify this wording as follows: `that is to say, all one can do in the actual circumstances of the marriage, without jeopardising the marriage (i.e. putting it at risk), within the unity of the marriage'. Thus they banish the idea of the Catholic using unfair moral pressure to satisfy his or her conscience at the expense of the conscientious position and rights of the other partner, or at risk to the growth into unity of the marriage. What it will be in the power of the Catholic partner to do about the children's baptism and upbringing in the actual future will depend, not simply on the attitude of the other partner, but on the ability of both to grow in mutual understanding and Christian love.

Some other committed Christians may think it is their duty in conscience to bring up their children in their own Christian tradition, but others may not feel so strongly about bringing them up in their own Church, so long as they are brought up as Christians. In this latter case there is a certain imbalance built into the situation which has to be faced. The Catholic will not be creating an imbalance or putting in an unfair bid for the children; he or she will be bringing out into the open an imbalance which is already there. It can be seen as another expression of the self-understanding of the Catholic Church. Both partners will have to face this situation and decide by degrees how they are going to live it. But the imbalance should not be exaggerated. Once married, the two are on an equal footing: each partner is in conscience impelled to share with their children as fully as possible the truth as that partner sees it. What is vitally important is that husband and wife should have a deep sense of equality within the marriage.

The fourth important point to notice is that the `promise' does not require the couple to have decided what they are going to do about the baptism of their children in advance of their marriage. They may well feel that they need to grow into unity within their marriage first, and reach an eventual decision by that route. It is not a requirement for getting the permission to marry that they should have decided beforehand. The priest helping the engaged couple would be right to get them to talk about this question, but he cannot make a decision on the issue a condition for granting the permission.

With the air cleared and the ground prepared, the serious sharing of ideas and purposes between the couple can now begin. The Catholic partner must, obviously, be sincere about doing all he or she can to fulfil the undertaking. But the bishops guide the Catholic who in practice finds that in this marriage it is not possible to carry out the undertaking fully. They write as follows in the Revised Directory on mixed marriages, called simply Mixed Marriages, CTS 1990: `Where the children, despite all the Catholic's efforts, are baptised and being educated in the faith of the partner, the promise made by the Catholic still has meaning. It demands that the Catholic partner: (i) intends to play an active part in the Christian life of the marriage and the family; (ii) will do all that he or she can in the actual circumstances of the marriage to draw the children to the Catholic faith; (iii) will deepen his or her faith in continuing to study it, so as to have a fruitful dialogue with the partner on matters of faith, and be able to answer the questions of the children; (iv) will pray with the family, especially asking the grace of unity, as Our Lord willed it.

The `form' of marriage

Here again we have a Catholic rule which the Catholic Church could modify or abolish, if this seemed best. The rule is that, for the marriage to be recognised by the Catholic Church as a true marriage, it must take place before an authorised priest (or deacon) and two witnesses. This, then, is a law about what is called the legal `form' of marriage. The origins and history of this rule are too complicated to explain here. It goes back to the time, before the rise of modern states in Europe, when there was no civil law of marriage; the Church had the responsibility of protecting marriage by her own laws. A few points of explanation may help.

(a) The rule arises from putting two facts together. The first is that the ministers of marriage as a sacrament are the baptised couple themselves, and not the priest who officiates; the. second is that marriage is not simply an event between the couple, but gives them status and responsibilities in society. Hence the rule about marrying before a priest and two witnesses, the priest being the official witness of the Church. Without this rule a couple would be truly married if they simply exchanged vows in secret, but there would be no evidence for others of their status and responsibilities.

(b) So the rule did not arise because of mixed marriages, though it has some effects on them. It was not introduced to put pressure on mixed marriages, but to prevent secret ones.

(c) It says nothing about the place where the marriage is to be celebrated. It is the law of the land which says that marriages must take place in buildings registered for the purpose. So it is not true (as is sometimes said) that the Catholic Church forces her members to be married in a Catholic church. The Catholic rule would be kept if the couple married before a Catholic priest in an Anglican or Protestant church, but the law of the land and of the other Churches puts obstacles in the way of that.

Because this is a law which the Church could abolish, she can and does dispense from it for serious reasons. And in England and Wales this dispensation is now often given, to enable the marriage to take place in the church of the other partner according to the rite of that church. A good reason for dispensation would exist if a practising Anglican girl were marrying a Catholic man, and both wanted to be married in the bride's church. This not only fits in with social custom; it fits in with the meaning of the marriage ceremony. In this, the bridegroom represents Christ and the bride represents the Church: marriage exemplifies and is a means of bringing about the union of Christ with his Church, that is, the people he draws in love to himself.

This dispensation still has to be obtained (by the priest who is fixing things up) from the bishop of the place where the Catholic lives; bishops want to keep track of how frequent requests are, and what reasons are advanced. It is different, then, from the permission to marry someone who is not a Catholic, explained above, which can now be given by the parish priest.

The marriage ceremony

A practising Catholic, being married in a Catholic church, would normally want a Nuptial Mass. And this has been allowed for marriages with baptised Christians of other Churches in this country for some years.

But the matter needs a great deal more thought.

Most people only get married once and every detail of their wedding means a great deal to them. So since the Catholic in the case we are considering is already having the wedding in his or her church, he (she) has to take extra care that his (her) partner is really made to feel that the wedding belongs to both of them, and to both their families. For a marriage is the beginning of a union of two families, not just of two people. For many other Christians it would be strange to have a wedding in the middle of a eucharistic service at all. So the first thing the couple would have to ensure is that having a Nuptial Mass is not going to seem to the other side like a Catholic take-over that partly excludes them.

More serious is the question of Holy Communion. Marriage is above all a sacrament of union, and it seems to many that a totally jarring note would be brought into the wedding if one of the couple received Communion and the other did not; this would be a great imbalance and a painful separation at the very celebration of union. Even if the other partner were allowed to receive Communion, that would still not solve the problem, unless the permission embraced that partner's family otherwise one family and their friends who were Catholics would be receiving, and the rest not.

There are, then, strong reasons why it is better not to have a Nuptial Mass in a two-church wedding. But, as always, the couple must decide about it together.

The new Catholic rite of marriage lends itself to a good deal of participation by others present apart from the officiating priest, whether the marriage is mixed or not. If a two-church couple are marrying in a Catholic church, that is a good reason for giving a large share to the other family. Relatives can be drawn in to read the readings, and to lead the responsorial psalm and the bidding prayers; a minister of the other Church can be asked to give the address, to add prayers of his own for the bride and bridegroom, and to give a blessing.

There is nothing to be lost, and everything to be gained, by each being sensitive to the religious needs of the other partner; a wedding can then be an expression before all who are present of what the couple are going to attempt in life. A two-church couple cannot solve the problems arising from the division of the Churches rather are they the chief sufferers from that division. But many a couple has found that what at first looked like problems and obstacles have become opportunities for deepening their sensitivity to each other and deepening their Christian union. There is a basic unity already existing between all Christians, a unity given by Christ himself. A two-church couple can bring that unity to fuller and fuller realisation in their own lives, and so be a striking sign to their two Churches of the unity these Churches are still seeking. There is only one way in which couples or Churches can eventually become one, and that is by each being more and more united with Christ.

John Coventry, S.J.

This Centrepiece is reprinted from Interchurch Families, the Newsletter of the Association of Interchurch Families, no.6, January 1982, revised in 1992 in the light of the Revised Directory on Mixed Marriages issued by the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales in April 1990.

For a commentary on this revised Directory by Mgr David Donnelly and a comparison with the 1970 Directory and its 1977 revision, see the Centrepiece of Interchurch Families no.23, Summer 1990. 

Marriage Preparation

A presentation to the Archbishop of Canterbury on behalf of 
The Association of Interchurch Families, Heythrop College, 2 March 1996

 The Lord Chancellor's Family Law Bill (formerly the Lord Chancellor's Divorce Bill) now before Parliament has made all the Churches in England rethink their attitudes and approach to marriage breakdown, and focused their attention on ways to prevent it.

The Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church fundamentally share a theology of marriage firmly rooted in Christian teaching and tradition. Both hold to the principle of "the union of one man with one woman voluntarily entered into for life, to the exclusion of all others".

It would be less than honest not to admit that there is a difference in the responses of these two Churches to the pastoral treatment of those people whose marriages have failed. It must be acknowledged, too, that there is a difference in thinking on contraception. But there is no divergence of view on the sacred and sacramental nature of marriage itself, nor on its centrality to Christian family values.

For some years now the Roman Catholic bishops in England and Wales have required that parish priests should ensure that couples who come to them asking to be married in a Catholic church are adequately prepared for the step they are about to take. The Church of England, because of the legal requirements and restraints on it, is not in a position to make such stipulations. We know, though, that in practice Anglican clergy urge young people to consider very carefully the nature of the commitment which they are undertaking, and encourage them to seek marriage preparation. We are also aware that interpretation of the Catholic guidelines varies greatly, and that many couples do not have the opportunity for more than the most cursory preparation. Organised marriage preparation courses are by no means widely available.

Marriage preparation stresses that marriage is a sacrament between two committed people ready to make a spiritual as well as a public and legal affirmation of their love and long-term commitment to each other. It aims to give couples, faced with all the social pressures of planning a wedding, enough time and space to recognise and prepare themselves for the greatest endeavour any two people are likely to embark on in today's demanding and uncertain world. It tries to reinforce the communication between partners, so that their mutual understanding and appreciation before marriage is all the greater. It hopes to explore the characteristics of various marriage pitfalls, so that the skills and qualities needed to build a successful relationship are highlighted.

Seventy per cent of Roman Catholics getting married in a Catholic church in England and Wales are marrying partners who are not Catholics. Some will be marrying others whose commitment to their own Church is as deep as their own, if not deeper. Others, perhaps in reality the majority, may have no strong adherence to any Church, or indeed any transcendental belief. We must acknowledge, too, that the strength of commitment on the part of the partner seeking to be married in church is not always that strong, either. He or she may be seeking a church wedding to placate the family, or for predominantly social or romantic reasons. All this is also true of couples marrying in the Church of England, which conducts a much larger number of weddings.

Any couple wanting to marry in church, though, is by that very gesture demonstrating their recognition, even if only subliminally, of the spiritual dimension to the contract, and to their relationship, and in making their vows before God they are asking for His grace and seeking His strength and blessing in their union. The Christian community cannot fail to respond to this approach. The Churches must offer all the help and support they can towards sustaining this desire; to do less is to fail the Spirit.

A significant number of interchurch families are involved in helping in marriage preparation. We feel that we have a valuable contribution to make here because most couples embarking on marriage will, at least to some extent, have grown up in different traditions. We consider that our witness to mutually-reinforcing interchurch relationships recognises that, in a predominantly secular world, Christians of different denominations have far more that draws them together than separates them. We think that our experience of crossing boundaries, and of building links between families and bridges between communities, can be a reassurance to those who are wary of such bonds. (And all marriages connect more than two individuals.) We know the difficulties and, although we acknowledge solutions are not easy, we hope others can draw on our confidence and the trust we have learned we can share.

We consider, furthermore, that marriage preparation is an area where co-operation between the Churches could produce immense benefits. In our experience, it is not doctrinal, nor catechetical, nor denominational, in either intention or format.

Resources are limited. Essentially, resources here are the trainers themselves, and the skills, ability and capacities they can draw on, because trainers must be willing to give of themselves.

We should like to make certain suggestions - our "Wish List", so to speak.

First, we suggest that the Churches should look at ways in which they can co-operate in the training of the trainers in marriage preparation. The mechanisms to do this already exist. It is happening in certain dioceses - for example, in the West Country. This will maximise the resources that are available. Given the limits to the resources of our own Association, interchurch families think we could contribute most effectively here.

Second, we suggest that the Churches should unite in planning a recruitment campaign to persuade more married couples to help in the work of marriage preparation.

Third, we suggest that the Churches should share information on the availability of courses and on the best practice. At present, there is no recognised or agreed method of preparation. An exchange of ideas and experience would be particularly fruitful.

Fourth, the more resources the Churches find they can share, the more productive they can be, especially at the local level. In one parish on Merseyside, the Churches felt able to run a joint marriage preparation course; in time, others may come to do so also. Even now, too many engaged couples never get to hear of the possibility of attending marriage preparation courses.

Finally, it would provide a great impetus if the Christian Churches at the highest level felt able, in an ecumenical context, to affirm their support for marriage itself and to stress the value they place on preparation for it. Otherwise we face the prospect of pastoral resources becoming increasingly absorbed in the distressing work of dealing with marriage breakdown. As we know in other contexts, preventative care is not only more effective and less costly than remedial treatment, it is far more life-enhancing.

Rosy Baker



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