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Report on 
Association of Interchurch Families 
Annual Conference

Swanwick, 27 – 29 August 2000

The theme of this year’s conference: ‘Spirituality in Interchurch Families’, meant there was rather a different feel from previous years. As one group member put it: ‘A calm has descended on Swanwick.’ Small group discussion was a principal activity, along with worship in many styles, and through this we were enabled both to articulate our sense of how a distinctive spirituality grows and develops within our families, and also to share intimately our worship and time together, to refresh and renew our individual and family Christian lives.

Visitors helping us to do this were Tim and Chantal Evans from Lyon, France, with their four children; Fr Bernard Longley, Secretary to the RC Bishops’ Committee for Christian Unity; and Ruth Harvey, Leader of the Living Spirituality Network, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. The conference theme attracted one of the largest attendances we have had, with a particularly large group of children and young adults. There were some new families and one engaged couple, and our friends from the New Life Christian Centre in Derby to work with the children’s groups.

We were in pre-arranged small groups for three sessions, which meant a real fellowship and understanding could be built between group members, and, as husbands and wives were together, gave us as couples time for that fellowship which is sometimes lacking in our busy church lives full of responsibilities. The first session, ‘Sharing our Spiritual Treasures’, gave an opportunity to talk briefly about an item, time, person, text, prayer or event which had meant a lot to us. This was a time of opening up to the others in the group and created very naturally a fellowship which was a strong basis for the other group sessions. Our group, where we all knew each other well at the beginning, took the opportunity to vary the customary introductory session by letting partners introduce each other: this gave us the (very encouraging) experience of hearing how our partner felt about us as spiritual beings!

The plenary session with Tim and Chantal Evans showed us an interchurch family’s spirituality ‘in action’. Tim and Chantal both work in their respective churches, as lay reader and youth leader and with other responsibilities and commitments, as well as having four young children. Some of us had met them at a time before the children were born, and were delighted to find that in their daily lives, there was still time for God, and that the children were involved in their family’s spirituality at every stage.

Firstly they made the point that an interchurch family can often feel they are between two stools. They don’t want to lose touch with their roots, but by trying to be part of two communities they can miss out on strong links with either and sometimes feel uncomfortable. Tim and Chantal try regularly to review and strengthen their belonging to the wider christian community. They spoke of the Eucharist, which they experience together as a gift which is greater than themselves, and also of praying as a couple, which is sometimes difficult, but not because of traditional barriers, more because of different biological clocks and personalities. They find prayer together a place to nourish personal relationships, and they also find short times of retreat helpful.

They saw the characteristics of interchurch family spirituality as:

  • being creative
  • concerned with dynamic growth
  • prayerfulness

Tim said he saw interchurch families as being part of God’s creation, which we can enter into in so many different ways, through using our senses, by appreciating beauty in art, music, literature, and by expressing our creativity in prayer, worship and lifestyle.

Being dynamic is a question of not staying put, but of growing spiritually, which is slightly different from just ‘growing up’, and may also be distinctive from the spiritual growth in one-church families. Differences between our communities can create hurt, but can help us to grow. The Trinitarian model shows us a network of relationships, and we can go beyond a sense of simply ‘my church/your church’, or parent/child. Interchurch spirituality can stimulate relationships in and beyond families and church; there may be barriers, but there are also bridges. Growth isn’t change for the sake of it; people need feeding, parents and children, and are rarely completely satisfied. Unexpected things can happen! Death is a part of this growing process – we can share our pain and grow through it too.

Prayerfulness is more than just prayer, and a prayerful attitude to our lives is nourished by our different traditions through meditation and scripture, which can be explored individually, as a family and with others. Singing, walking, reading, all can help us to focus on Jesus as His disciple. It is important to find time alone as well as praying as a couple.

Tim said that the consequences and qualities which grow from these three aspects of our spirituality are that we look to God’s kingdom, not just to our churches. We serve others, we seek justice and peace in God’s way, continually open to others. In this way, our spirituality has a missionary quality, and we can also cultivate our spiritual life to enter that kingdom, paying attention to God’s creative spirit like small children living out our own parables.

Chantal shared with us some experiences of family spirituality. The family tries to create an ambiance in the home which speaks for itself, and touches the senses and the mind as well as the spirit. Lent and Advent are good times to do things together, having a fixed and limited timespan. For children, items can be left in a special place each day to pray and think about. Even if they decide not to go to church on Sunday, they have a time of prayer together. Before mealtimes, they have a time of quiet or singing together, and if the doorbell rings, they invite the guest. On Maundy Thursday, when interchurch families can sometimes be divided about which church celebration to attend, they hold a simple family celebration at home, similar to the Jewish Passover, with the youngest telling the story and the others joining in. They try to share with others, not necessarily friends or family, at special times such as at Christmas.

Discussion followed in our groups concerning our own family spirituality and the shared activities which foster it.

On Saturday evening, following the traditional ‘campfire’ singing, we held the first of three worship celebrations, an Anglican Eucharist led by Chris Bard, who promised it would be ‘very Anglican’! Using Taizé chants and quiet music, and poetry from Anglican sources such as by George Herbert as a basis for meditation in place of the sermon, we built on the fellowship we had experienced in our groups during the day.

Sunday morning was the opportunity for a different style of worship, a Mass led by Fr David O’Connell and members of the Young Adults Group of AIF, whose planning of the liturgy had occupied several meetings before the conference, helped by Bev Hollins. The friendship which has grown up in this group during national and international conferences, and which warmly included new members this year, led to a lively celebration, with a spoof quiz show ‘How to get to heaven’ in the homily slot. The young people also competently led prayers and singing.

The group session following the Mass enabled us to focus on a particular aspect of interchurch family spirituality chosen by the group, for example eucharistic spirituality, tensions between traditions, the differences between one/two church families, defining spirituality, spirituality in worship, pain as a growth point and double belonging. We had plenty of time for discussion and were able to share very openly. Our group, for example, discussing the eucharist with Fr Bernard Longley observing, were able, as old friends, really to examine our individual eucharistic beliefs and practices without just using denominational phraseology, leading us to a conviction that different eucharistic belief is certainly not denominationally based, and is often just difference in emphasis and/or wording. In our home churches, we hardly ever have the opportunity or privilege to be able to talk at this level, as many people in local discussion groups are limited in their understanding and experience by their one-church allegiance.

In the following plenary, each group reported on the main points arising from its discussion. Common subjects had arisen in several groups, whatever their focus. Points highlighted in plenary were:

  • the feeling that there is no spiritual formula for an interchurch family
  • the challenges and opportunities met by interchurch families, who can be agents for change
  • the mutual enrichment which different members of an interchurch family can give each other, drawing on one or more traditions
  • the witness we can give to the ‘oneness of Church’ as missionaries, ambassadors, catalysts for change
  • through feeling the pain, we live the unity of the Cross – pain leads to growth
  • the choices interchurch families have to make, which mean we keep to the fundamentals, continually talked over and reassessed. We always have a second opinion!
  • how spirituality may be defined as our relationship with God and THEN with our church communities
  • other words which had come up repeatedly: openness, acceptance, explaining, sharing, enrichment

The Young Adults Group had had a period of discussion and meditation, helped by Ruth Harvey.

After the group reports, Ruth and Fr Bernard Longley shared their own reflections on the groups’ discussions, several of which they had observed. As Bernard said, Ruth and he came from very different perspectives and backgrounds, which complemented each other well. He saw the partners in an interchurch family reaching out and connecting from one denomination to another, going home from one church a pilgrim to the other, and experiencing the relationship of love in marriage, which becomes a pathway to God and, through the marriage sacrament, a sign of God’s love to others. The interchurch family is a witness to the unity of the Kingdom, a looking forward to the fullness of the Kingdom. Bernard had been reminded of the spiritual need of such families, and the challenge to pastors to become better aware of this. He had noted that the conference itself is an important spiritual resource for us, which has to last for a long time. He reminded us that mission and unity lie at the heart of the Gospel, but there may be a sense of isolation of being a faithful servant, a DIAKONOS – the one in between – the mediator – a go-between to link the churches. In that we are sharing in the ministry of the one mediator, Christ.

Ruth Harvey shared with us a little the sense of living on the margins, having been brought up within the community of Iona, where members explore the integration of the life of action with the life of faith, a focus of interchurch families too, and that of many such intentional communities. The orientation of the whole of our lives towards God meant a real enrichment. She had several questions to put to interchurch families based on our understanding of marriage and family and our experience of shared worship, which stimulated us to new thoughts about our mission. Members expressed the thought during the discussion which followed that AIF witnessed to something a little different from intentional communities, which mostly consisted of like-minded people wanting to renew the church. Renewal might certainly be a focus of individual interchurch families, but together we are seeking to encourage the churches to move further towards unity. In fact, maybe we are becoming TOO like-minded.

Sunday afternoon was free, and as usual saw members departing to surrounding tourist attractions, or just enjoying the swimming pool or relaxing in the garden. A great deal of preparation was also going on, as Sunday evening saw the now regular concert demonstrating that AIF members of all ages have great talent and can let their hair down. Turns covered the whole spectrum of entertainment, from gymnastics through ‘Grease’ to classical cello, and several people trod the boards for the first time, promising much for future conferences. The concert was followed by quiet night prayers, led by Andrew and Pauline Johnson. Taking advantage of the bar, some members joined a late-night group to catch up with news of local and ecumenical events.

Monday morning brought the AGM, of which the Minutes are available, including a tribute to Ruth Reardon, standing down as Hon. Secretary of AIF but elected as lifelong President and continuing to work for the Association as co-ordinator of Education and Representation, and to articulate our experience in her theological writing. We also expressed gratitude to Mary Bard, who resigned as Catholic Co-chair after four years, and was replaced by Paul Docherty, wh had already proved his worthiness for the post by finishing his sponsored ‘ascent of Everest’ on behalf of AIF up a stepladder in the garden.

Our final act of worship was led by a group of Free Church members, helped by practically all the children and their leaders, and was a joyful and enthusiastic celebration of Christ among us.

We returned from this year’s conference fully refreshed and renewed, with inspiration to draw on in our daily lives, and a deeper feeling of support and fellowship than ever. We particularly appreciated the small group discussions. Brian Dwyer, who was at the heart of this year’s conference planning group, summed up by saying that what we had experienced this year should pass into our whole lives and activities as interchurch families, and we hope much of it will be incorporated into future conferences.

Melanie Finch

Children at Swanwick

For the benefit of list members, I'd like to add a bit of news about the children and young people. When Melanie said there were plenty of them, it was no exaggeration! We had a good size creche, with three people to staff it, at least two of whom are professionally qualified. They provided an important safety net for parents of tinies. At age 4 children graduate to the main children's programme. A wonderful team from a local independent church put on a stunning programme to help the children deepen their faith as well as have a good time. This year the theme was "faith, hope and love" and there was a mix of singing, craft, special prayer times (when faith was undoubtedly deepened), story times and fellowship. Eight leaders looked after the children in three groups, and brought together all of them (about 50, I think, without having the exact numbers to hand) to form a choir for the final act of worship. My daughters are still singing the new songs they learned. Six of the older girls learned and performed a terrific dance routine to a contemporary Christian track by a band called the "Worldwide Message Tribe". Excitingly for many of the younger folk, one of the band members was attending another conference at Swanwick!

Young Adults Group (YAG)

The Young Adults Group - another large group, about 18 most of the time, had members aged 15-21. We had plenty of news to share and were excited and nervous at having responsibility for the Mass. It was wonderful that AIF had given us such a vote of confidence. Months of planning came off well. The sketch, for anyone interested, "Who wants to go to Heaven?" was a spoof on the series "Who wants to be a mllionaire?" In our version everyone could win the top prize, but... 

Two key issues have come out of the conference for second generation members of interchurch families. The first is that confirmation is a big issue for 11-14 year olds, and they need more time and space to think about that than we have been giving them. Please pray for young AIFers of that age, and for those of us, not just in England but throughout the world, who are trying to support them. We'll be making special provisions for them at Swanwick 2001. 

The second is that when the second generation gets to be adult we have no support mechanism for them, no place where they can gather. The content of our annual conferences is geared towards the first generation, to couples, and it does not answer their needs at all. The second generation is not simply a combination of the two parts of the first. It is something new, something vibrant, something ecumenically exciting, challenging and indescribable! In them is a vision of what a united church might be, but it isn't necessarily what we expect. Some of these adult second generation members, having outgrown the youth section of AIF, need a place where they can come together to share their experiences and concerns. 

Of course, if they want it, it is up to them to do it - it is not for AIF to do it for them. But they need prayer as they find their place in a Christian marketplace that does not have a properly shaped hole for them, in churches which do not structurally allow for people of their background and experience. If they are to stay in church and keep the faith, they need to have somewhere to let off steam and express their own spirituality. That is why AIF gatherings are such an important escape valve for the first generation, and I feel that something like it is needed for the next generation.

Bev Hollins