This article was published in the Summer 1997 issue of The Journal.

Ecclesiological Implications of Interchurch Marriages

Appeal to our Churches
In July 1993 Fr Rene Beaupere OP and Pasteur Jacques Maury, who have worked with interchurch families for over thirty years, addressed an Appel a nos Eglises directed to the churches in France and elsewhere (see Interchurch Families, January 1996). They were not making any requests on behalf of interchurch families; they were asking the churches to recognise that the very existence of interchurch families, spanning the divide between two churches and living concretely within both communities, raised important ecclesiological questions for the churches to tackle.

A reply by the Churches
They had received various provisional replies at an earlier stage. The Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed Churches in France, however, took their request seriously, and after reflection and consultation sent a reply in December 1996 signed jointly by Mgr Gerard Daucourt, President of the Catholic Bishops' Commission for Christian Unity, and by Pasteur Werncr Jurgensen, President of the Permanent Council of the Lutheran and Reformed Churches of France. A synthesis had been made from independent replies received from the French Reformed Church, the Lutheran Churches in France, and the Catholic Church, which latter had organised some research among interchurch couples in the Paris region and had also consulted diocesan ecumenical officers through the Episcopal Commission for Christian Unity.

The churches agreed that it had been an opportunity to reassess the situation of mixed couples, so deeply affected by divisions. On the pastoral side, they recognised that "consideration for people, for the couples themselves, is more important than purely juridical statements". The churches have different experiences here because of the numbers involved: only 2% of weddings in Catholic churches are of mixed couples (although in the diocese of Strasbourg it was 20% in 1994), whereas three-quarters or a half of the weddings in Reformed or Lutheran churches involve mixed couples, depending on the region. In both cases, however, it was agreed that pastoral care needed to be developed much more. "It is not a case of proposing ready-made solutions, but while respecting the liberty and responsibility of particular couples, and taking account of their personal history and situation, of helping them to make authentic choices, even if they are sometimes difficult."

It was agreed that in many cases partners already play important roles in the church of their spouses, and share in many ministries. "Thus there is already a recognition of the presence of mixed couples in each of the churches." On the juridical side, however, there was a marked reluctance to make changes in canon law and church discipline to take account of their experience of "double insertion" in the life of the churches for fear that their challenge to the churches to come closer together - a challenge needed by the churches on their road to reciprocal recognition - would be weakened. If interchurch families become comfortable in their "double insertion", they might cease to exert pressure for closer unity. "There could be very little difference between a 'reconciled island' and a 'ghetto'."

The fundamental eccIesiological differences between the churches has led to the adoption of very different positions in practice, and the letter repeated what these positions are. The Catholic Church judges that the conditions do not exist in France to go beyond what the Ecumenical Directory of 1993 has established at world level. The French Reformed Church thinks it is possible to live together as companions in faith without obliterating differences nor trying to get beyond them in an institutional way. The Lutheran Churches of France think that the way forward is not towards a "double eccJesiaJ belonging" but through effective participation in the life of the communities of the two partners. But the churches are not satisfied with the present situation, and realise that they must follow up the eccIesiological debate together.

Both Fr Rene Beaupere and Pasteur Jacques Maury expressed their gratitude for the reply. They want "to continue to pursue this essential dialogue". Fr Beaupere points out once again that ecumenical relationships are too fragile, too easily reversed by a change of minister who interprets church documents differently from his predecessor- or indeed, is unaware of their existence. What has been gained needs to be fixed in church practice and structures. But above all, the ecclesiological questions remain to be tackled. The replies only recognise some exceptions, some adaptations, some tolerances here and there, an acceptance that there is sometimes an active presence of a member of another church in the confessional bodies. But instead of reflecting on this lived experience and drawing out the canonical consequences, the churches start from their classical theological positions and so have little difficulty in showing it is not possible to go further, at least for the moment.

"But true ecumenism begins when the principle of conversion is accepted - a conversion which includes ecclesial structures. This is where we need to make progress. This will not make jl)yers mixtes a "special case" of a different nature from that of other ecumenical groups of theologians, of the faithful, even if foyers lnixtes do represent an extreme situation. But none of these groups are to placed in a 'ghetto' it needs to be recognised that without breaking with their mother churches they are spiritual places where reconciliation operates more effectively than in the rest of the ecclesial body. It is necessary to analyse why this is so. .. . Unity will not fall ready-made from heaven ... it is being restored step by step, and communion will spread like an oil spill ... But the church authorities need to integrate these 'islands of reconciliation' where they appear into the life of the churches at the structural level too - otherwise they risk becoming only temporary manifestations, a sort of cancerous growth which will only add to division. This is the way, it seems to Jacques Maury and to myself, that we need to move forward in reflection and action; there will be no ecumenical advance without this new effort."

(The full texts can be found in the review Foyers Mixtes Chretiens,no. 115 ,Jan-March 1997)

Hits: 1619