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 This article was published in the Summer 2000 issue of The Journal.

Eucharistic Sharing in Interchurch Families in Relation to Authority Issues

Over the past few years a project on Authority and Governance in the Catholic Church has been pursued in England under the auspices of the Queen's College, Birmingham. As part of this project a number of small organisations such as the Catholic Association for Racial Justice, the Association of Separated and Divorced Catholics, the Advent Group (Catholic priests no longer in active ministry), and the Margaret Beaufort Institute of Theology (for women) were invited to contribute. The English Association of Interchurch Families was included. and is producing quite a lengthy report on the subject it chose to study. We give below a brief interim report which had to be made this summer, as a taster of what is to come.


There are two differences in our study from that of any other contribution. We are dealing with Roman Catholics married to members of other communions, mainly the Church of England or the Free Churches, so we have to take account of the authority of Christ as it is exercised in other churches in a different way from that in which it is exercised in the Roman Catholic Church. Second, we are focusing on a subject (communicatio in sacris) in which over the past fifty years it seems that Rome has been prepared for faster change and development than is welcomed by the Catholic Church in England and Wales. Therefore interchurch families have experienced the central authority in the Roman Catholic Church as supporting their aspirations.

There are many kinds of interchurch families. Not all desire to share the eucharist. Most members of AIF do have this desire. Our contribution reflects our experience, and makes no claim to represent the views of all interchurch families. It draws on the archives of the Association and the experience of couples most of whom are AIF members (some seventy couples met in twenty groups in different parts of the country). We have also gathered the reflections of some twenty-five pastors and theologians who belong to our pastoral network, and those of six of the Catholic bishops who are on our mailing list. We looked at how decisions about eucharistic sharing in interchurch families are made, and the interplay that exists between different authorities in the church.

Historically the Second Vatican Council is our starting point. The Council took a far more positive view of other Christians and other churches than ever before. It took a startlingly novel and positive view of sacramental sharing (this is not normative but it is "sometimes to be commended"). It took a new and positive view of marriage as a call to holiness and of the family as "domestic church".

Thus some interchurch partners saw their vocation to marriage as caught up in the ecumenical process by which their respective churches were coming together. In the growing unity of their own domestic church some saw a foretaste of the unity to which all are called, and their longing to receive the eucharist together to express and deepen their marriage covenant was felt with increasing strength.

Spode 1968
The issue of eucharistic sharing was already raised at the first meeting of English interchurch families held at Spode House in November 1968. Couples realised that practice was not uniform in the Catholic Church. One Anglican husband present had been given pennission to receive communion at his wedding to a Catholic in Italy that summer - something unheard of in England. The Council had insisted that Christians were united in the sacrament of baptism. These couples were also united in the sacrament of marriage. The group studied marriage in Scripture, and the "one flesh" relationship which was not to be torn apart by human agency but was to image the close union of love between Christ and his church seemed of its nature to cry out for eucharistic sharing. How could the church unite them in the sacrament of marriage, at1d then divide them at the eucharist? They had with them a respected Catholic theologian, ecumenist and He encouraged Catholics to and family life. They had to express pastor who, although not allowed by his church to invite other Christians to communion, made it clear that he would think it wrong to refuse spouses who came forward responsibly and in consider the need to be present good conscience to receive. also at Anglican or Free Church worship with their partners, for the sake of mutuality in their somehow the fact that they were one family, while at the same time being related to two churches (both local congregations and denominations). The group found a collective voice to express to their churches their need for pastoral care adapted to their circumstances; a statement went to a meeting of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission held shortly afterwards at Pineta Sacchetti, and was released to the religious press. Authority issues relating to decisions to be made at every level in the churches were already present at that first Spode meeting in 1968.

The expectations of the early 1970's that the churches would soon understand the special needs of interchurch families and be willing to meet them - proved over-optimistic. Nevertheless, there have been many changes at every level in the church over these three decades that have been very welcome to interchurch families.

The current situation After tracing this 30-year history, our study looks at the current situation in England and Wales. Only a brief flavour of be relatively recently married couples. our report can be given here. Most of the couples who took part in the study feel the need to share communion as spouses when they are together in church (every single time: Anglican husband who hardly ever receives with his wife). The few who have not especially wanted to share communion tend to Basic decisions on church-going (to go together or to go separately) are made by the couple. Most of the couples in this study have decided it is important for them to go to church together often, most of them in both their churches (we decided to be a two-church family, and everything else has stemmed from that). There is a tension here between the mutual responsibility which some spouses feel to support and affirm one another in their churchgoing, and an expectation from some clergy that after their marriage they will continue to function as individuals. (They can both go to communion as often as they like in their own churches: Catholic bishop). The need to share communion is often felt more strongly when children arrive, and First Communion has been a crisis point for many interchurch families. Many couples feel that it is a bad Christian witness not to receive communion together. (We told the parish priest that as a Christian famity we are a church, and the only integrity we can have is to worship and pray together, and we have a responsibility to offer this to our children). There is a tension here between parental responsibility and wider church authority.

If decisions about church-going are made as couples, most decisions about receiving communion seem to be made by the partners as individuals, in relation to the norms of their own church and that of their partner, and in relation to the particular context in which they find themselves. Most of those contributing to this study would decide to receive communion together in the context of interchurch family meetings (that's different - it's in the family) and in situations where they are not known (nobody can be offended if they don't know).

Catholic ministers
Where couples are known, there are many constraints. What happens in practice often depends on the local priest and people. Most couples are concerned not to eause upset or distress to Catholic clergy and congregations, even when they are convinced in conscience that the family should receive communion together. The Roman Catholic Church admits other baptised Christians in circumstances of need, in particular cases and under certain conditions. The 1993 Directory identifies those who "share the sacraments of baptism and marriage" as in possible need of eucharistic sharing. This is often not known by local clergy and congregations. It sometimes takes a lot of courage for a couple to raise the question at all. The fear of rejection is very strong in some couples. Others will argue, but the result of that is often negative. The authority of Catholic priests is respected when they listen to a couple's need with pastoral concern and sympathy, even when they feel obliged to say no. (The important thing was that[the priest] acknowledged my eucharistic need to share communion every time I go to mass however because of the conservative nature of the congregation it would be a scandal ... I know he understands and is on my side; that to me is crucial: Anglican husband). Their authority is less respected when they refuse to discuss the issue or treat it as a purely canonical question, or simply say it is not possible (thus showing themselves to be ill informed). Other couples are welcomed to communion together by local Catholic ministers, who find that local congregations also welcome this policy. (We must respect people's consciences that's the teaching of our church ... I've asked my congregation about that; you have to be fair to them. I can 't find people who don't want it: Catholic priest). It is particularly difficult for such couples if their situation changes when they move. (It's like a post-code lottery,­ having had the experience of nearly a year now of not being able to share when previously we could I can realise how hard it is, and it definitely does not get easier: Catholic wife). Some Catholics decide not to receive communion in their own church if their spouse cannot do so (I position my wife in front of me and if she doesn't receive communion I don't either: Catholic husband).

Not many couples had approached a bishop directly; they seemed too distant. This was reflected in the bishops' experience; they were surprised to receive so few requests. Some bishops delegate responsibility for making decisions in particular cases to all their parish priests; this is in line with canon law, although the episcopal conference reserved decisions to bishops and their delegates, and in some dioceses there are very few delegates. The bishops interviewed would in any case not wish to go against the judgement of a local minister (in the end he's the one that's got to live with it, and work it through, and pastorally counsel the couple: Catholic bishop). A bishop only seems likely to overturn a locally established practice if it becomes a public "scandal".

Other churches
Different churches have different norms. The Church of England welcomes baptised communicant Christians in good standing in their own churches; some Free Churches invite all those who love the Lord Jesus. The Catholic and the other Christian partner have therefore to make different kinds of decisions (In his church, what I can do, authority resides with the priest; in my church, what he can do, authority resides with him: Anglican wife). The Catholic may be welcomed by his partner's church, but is however only authorised by the Catholic Church to receive communion in circumstances of need from a minister who is validly ordained, and the Catholic Church has not recognised Anglican or Free Church ordination. Some Catholics decide not to receive (it's very difficult to break away from the tradition of doing what you're told - there's always the voice of Rev’d Mother ticking away in your head: Catholic wife). Others make a conscientious decision to receive (the responsibility is mine and I have to take the consequences: Catholic wife).

The Bishops of England and Wales cannot authorise Catholics to receive communion from ministers whose orders are not recognised by the Catholic Church; this has been forbidden at world level. The most they could do is to recognise the right of the Catholic to make a conscientious decision to go beyond the norms without incurring ecclesiastical penalty. Where admission is concerned, however, instead of speaking of "unique occasions" they could allow spouses to receive communion together on a continuing basis in some cases, as other episcopal conferences have done. They could be less grudging and restrictive in tone, and share the "joy" expressed by Pope John Paul II at the fact that other Christians can share Catholic communion in certain cases where there is a deep desire, a spontaneous request, and Catholic eucharistic faith. (Ut Unum Sint, 46)



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