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INTER-CHURCH MARRIAGE CONFERENCE: 
Observations from an Anglican Parish Priest

11th International Conference
Newcastle, NSW, Australia
18-21 August 2005

Peter Ashley-Brown

I was ordained priest in 1960, and have served most of my ministry in the Diocese of Newcastle.

During the first four years the Great Divide was firmly in place, and one hardly spoke with people within the Roman Catholic community. My observation was that there were three choices open to sincere Anglican married to a sincere Roman Catholic:

  • They could walk out of church altogether, and many did.
  • They could decide to choose one or the other Christian community, and many did. There were in my various parishes many Catholic men and women who had quietly decided to become Anglican, and were formally received into our Church. They were often really committed Christians.
  • And there were others who kept to their own denomination, and went their own ways on Sundays. This of course had complications when the children came along, and often there was real friction here. But things were already changing, and the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and other ecumenical activities were bringing about a sea change.

The 1970s were a different matter altogether. Post Vatican 2 there was a great deal more understanding and cooperation between the Churches, and I was fortunate to have a very supportive Catholic colleague in my parish at that time. Attitudes had changed, and people were a little less willing to do what they were told. One couple built a house in my suburb and prepared to get married. The wife was a fierce Anglican, the husband a strong Catholic. For the wedding they chose both churches, and were married in two separate ceremonies on the same day. They didn’t tell the priests. There was a furore, though, when Commonwealth police turned up with charges of bigamy, and confronted both priests and the couple! It all turned out right in the end.

But in that community there was a real harmony, and a recognition of the catholicity of both communities of faith, short of sharing communion. I remember two particular couples who valued each other's church affiliation, worshipped with each other and had a deep respect for the other’s church. Such activities as Marriage Encounter, organised by the Catholic Diocese and welcoming Anglicans helped to build a mutual understanding, especially with inter-church families.

By the 1980s many of the tensions had been resolved, at least in parishes where there were clergy sympathetic to mutuality. I was very fortunate in the parish of Belmont, where there had been a great tradition of cooperation. This came to a head in our youth ministry. The Catholic Diocese helped us launch an Anglican version of Antioch, a youth movement for 16 – 24 year olds. In our parish Catholic young people were encouraged to join our group, and as you can guess, numerous cross-church liaisons began. Needless to say, we attended many weddings, and time has moved on. These young people, now in their thirties, represent a real challenge to traditional ideas about denominations, for they are the X generation, post moderns, and they are not particularly interested in ecclesiastical rules; they do what they think is right for themselves and their families. I observe several of these couples married in one or other of the churches, yet bringing up their children to respect both and to develop a real spirituality of their own. They are intelligent, they search for enlightenment, but they are essentially Christian. One couple I know worships regularly in an Anglican Contemporary service, and they call themselves “non-denominational Christians.” Yet they are prepared to do serious study about their faith, and their children have been at worship with their mum and dad since they were born.

This is a long journey from the closed days pre-Vatican 2, and yet some of the divisions still remain. It is not sufficient to have rules in place which are observed in the breach. There really must be a wider recognition of our common allegiance to Christ, and our different ways of approaching him. The altar should be a meeting place, not a barrier; the young people have got it right.