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30 years of interchurch marriage

Simon Quail

I was born in 1948 into a Roman Catholic family. I grew up in the Cotswold village of Heythrop, where the Jesuits at that time trained their philosophers and theologians in the depths of rural England. 

There was a mile to cycle down the drive to Heythrop College, where I attended mass every Sunday. This was not therefore a normal parish situation. This was the training ground of Soldiers of Christ. The young men sang well; the small ‘parish’ congregation of local and estate people sat at the back and kept quiet. Mass was in Latin. You were not expected to say anything. I received my First Communion, which was preceded by my first confession at age 7 in a side chapel, from my Dominican uncle. Along with my two brothers I was an altar server, trained in the Latin responses by Robert Murray, SJ. Eventually the dialogue Latin Mass came in, and it was a huge innovation when the congregation were allowed give voice in response to the priest’s invocations. I never really understood what all the Latin meant, but it did sound good.

We met and married
I was away at sea from the age of 17 as a cadet in the merchant Navy, and I always tried to attend Mass whenever I found myself in port on a Sunday. I lived in Sydney for four years and eventually my local church was St Mary's in Hunters Hill. This was a fine Victorian Gothic building in the English style.
In 1973 I met my wife-to-be Marilyn, in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney. Three months later we were married by special licence of the Catholic bishop (due to the fact that we only gave one month’s notice to the local parish priest). Prior to that we had travelled together from Sydney to Adelaide, Perth and back. In Adelaide we went to a Methodist church service where the singing was enlivened by guitars, then later went to the Catholic cathedral for the six o'clock evening mass, where rock musicians from the high altar rocked the youth in the nave. It was very different from both our experiences in England! When we went to the Anglican church together in Perth we could not tell whether we were in an Anglican or a Catholic church. This sharing of church experiences and blurring of traditions became a motif for our search for a resolution to the perceived problems of sharing different church traditions while wanting very much to share the rest of our lives together. We were very much in love and love conquers all; we glossed over our differences. We were hopeful all could be easily resolved!

Obviously the most important step in cementing our relationship was marriage. We thought long and hard about where to get married and what sort of service we wanted. Marilyn had an Anglican upbringing, but when we met in Sydney in 1973 she was attending a well-known Methodist church. Marilyn and I went together to each other's services to understand each other's tradition. I was intrigued by the communion tradition of the Methodist church, where we passed round small pieces of bread, offering them to our neighbour, followed by a rack of small communion glasses, from which each person took a tiny glass of wine. This was very different from my Catholic experience.

I think the main reason we chose to get married in my church was simply that I did not feel that I belonged in the Methodist church, whereas Marilyn had very little attachment to any particular church. Also the Catholic church was very beautiful, fitting for her wedding!

We discussed matters of our different faith traditions in our two training sessions with the parish priest. We explained to him that Marilyn was an Anglican and I was a Catholic. He told me I had to promise to do all that I could within the bonds of our marriage to bring up our children in the Catholic faith. Marilyn had to be aware of my promise but did not have to make any promises herself. She would not be able to take communion at a nuptial Mass so we decided on a straightforward marriage ceremony. I must say I was surprised at having to make a promise about the upbringing of my children, having never really thought about it. It pointed up the divisions between us and we realised that this was something we were going to have to work through. It was a negative pressure to have to deal with in the early stages of our marriage.

I remember my mother sending me in article from the Daily Telegraph about an organisation called the Association of Interchurch Families, which was concerned to promote unity and understanding within what were called then mixed marriages. We found this a very encouraging article and it gave us hope.

At that time I remember going to Catholic Mass on Sundays by myself with Marilyn coming with me sometimes, and sometimes going additionally with Marilyn to an Anglican service locally. Because life at sea and marriage seemed compatible, we decided to return to England so that I could train to teach; I had obtained a place at Mary Ward College, Keyworth.

I remember attending the very traditional Anglican church and also the lively local Catholic church. At that time the priests had been giving general absolution during Mass before this practice was stopped by Rome. I thought that this was an interesting and useful innovation, as it helped to remove a difference in practice between our two church traditions.

I was having great problems at that time about the obligation to attend Mass every Sunday when I wanted also to share communion regularly with Marilyn. One thing that always saddened us was the division we suffered when Marilyn was denied communion at the Catholic altar-rail with me.

I needed to talk through my problems with somebody. 

Thinking things through
I have a reply to a letter of mine to John Coventry SJ; he wrote it on 16 December 1974. He was very encouraging. In the letter which enclosed details about the Association of Interchurch Families, he advised Marilyn and I to… ‘do whatever most, at any particular point, builds up the Christian unity and mutual understanding of husband and wife.Every couple is just that couple and not other people. They have to make their own way in constructing a shared conjugal spirituality, and should do so fearlessly. It can be quite exciting! … and is at any rate full of opportunities. Once you can start thinking in terms of opportunities, rather than obstacles and problems, it all becomes quite different. …
In the light of the above principle, I haven't the slightest hesitation in saying that you ought to go to church with your wife on Sundays… instead of going to Mass. The important reason for doing this is your duty to explore and share with her the spiritual tradition of her church (as she does yours); i.e. the Gospel overrides the law.’ 

Soon after we made contact with the Association of Interchurch Families and met Ruth and Martin Reardon. I remember meetings at Spode and also once at my College at Mary Ward, Keyworth. These were very small gatherings at that time and I remember that the Reardon children were quite young. It was at this time I first met John Coventry and had long conversations with him and also with Adrian Hastings. They both encouraged me to put my marriage first and to work out my need, my scruple sometimes, to attend weekday Mass. 

This was for me a vital time. It enabled me to explore going to Holy Communion with Marilyn in her Anglican church one week and for Marilyn to come with me to my Catholic Mass the next week. As the years rolled by I became more comfortable with regular reception of Anglican communion because it allowed Marilyn and me to witness to our shared spiritual life together. It was very hurtful for us when she came to Mass with me but was not able to come up to receive communion. We wrote a long letter to the Catholic Bishop, asking permission for Marilyn to receive with me and telling him of our practice of sharing communion together in the Anglican church because we saw ourselves as one in Christ in marriage. He wrote back to me a letter basically saying that my ideas ‘were mixed up’ and that ‘the Eucharist is the focal point for unity and must not be used indiscriminately’.

Father John Coventry wrote to me further in 1978 after I had felt that I had been reprimanded by the Bishop. He consoled me that, ‘over and above what is important for your own marriage, I think you are on doing something important in bringing before priests and bishops realities of experience and conviction of which they may not be aware. All interchurch families have to struggle through difficulties, and live tensions rather than resolve them, for the sake of other families and in the process of change in climate of opinion and understanding’. And in a further comment he made about the use of the Eucharist, Father John clarified that ‘what the Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism, n.8. meant… is that sharing in the Eucharist may be used discriminately. It neither says nor means that it may not be used at all.’

Our first local Catholic priest tried to convert Marilyn to be a Roman Catholic, suggesting that this was the only way forward for us. Our second Catholic parish priest was not only probably the largest Catholic priest in Britain but a also very nice man.

The question of baptism
When our first daughter Joanna was born in 1977 we had to think about baptism of course. What Marilyn and I both wanted was for both the Anglican and Catholic priests to baptise Joanna at the same time saying the words, ‘I baptise you in the name of the Father and Son and the Holy Spirit’, while they both held the shell and poured water over her head. I remember the parish priest and our local Anglican vicar coming round to our house and discussing how we would accomplish this. To cut a long story short this is what happened, and I don't think the Catholic Bishop was consulted about this minor parish matter! We were delighted. Joanna received a baptism certificate from both church communities and as an Irish interchurch family once put it, Joanna was now at 200% Christian: 100% Catholic and 100% Anglican.

In 1978 we moved to another part of the country and began to establish a practice of worship in our local communities. We liked our Anglican village church at the top of the hill where Marilyn and I and Jo went together every other week. We had to explore several Catholic parishes to discover parish priests who would give us both a welcome. But the situation remained that Marilyn was not welcome at the communion rail, except by one priest who said: ‘It is the Lord's Communion. It is not mine to refuse’. It was a rare example of understanding.

Our second daughter, Philippa, was born in 1979 and of course we wanted the same concelebrated baptism as for Joanna. After much discussion to share in our understanding of what we wanted, the vicar and priest shared jointly in the baptism. I don't think anybody bothered the Bishops for any particular permission at this time.

When Robert was born in 1982 we needed, for some reason I do not recall, written permission from the Anglican Bishop. We also gained agreement from the Catholic Bishop when we visited him, but only because this had happened before in our family. He would have preferred another kind of shared celebration. As the girls ran around his parquet floor we discussed the theology of concelebrated baptism. Robert was duly jointly baptised, as his sisters had been. We felt that we had done right by our children in opening to them the opportunity of experiencing fully the tradition and teachings of both Christian churches.

First Communion and after
The next stage to cause friction in our journey in faith was preparation for First Holy Communion. We left it until Joanna was nine years old in 1986. The difficulty was that I was away at sea and Marilyn would be responsible for taking her to First Communion classes at the Catholic church. This she did with very good grace and understanding. But of course, on the day of the First Communion I very much wanted Marilyn to receive communion with Joanna and me. We were both very pleased to have permission from the Catholic Bishop. But it always felt painful even having to ask. We never felt this should be necessary, but Marilyn always wanted to have a genuine welcome, and not to be underhand about it. The same happened with Pippa’s and Robert’s First Communion, as we had an on-going permission for Marilyn to receive communion with us on those occasions.

Until the age of 14 we insisted that the children came with us to church, joining us in both church communities. They took communion in both churches. They took part in Sunday School, church activities, carrying up the elements for communion in the Catholic Church etc. None have wanted to be confirmed. When the age of 14 and confirmation classes were starting, they did not want to have to choose between their parents’ churches. Nor were they ready for this next step. (One of them is now thinking of having a full immersion to seal personal acceptance of the Christian faith.) 

In 1993, with First Communions over, there would seem to be no further opportunities for Marilyn and I ever officially to receive communion together. Also, we wanted to receive communion together much more frequently than every few years! Catholic parish priests still felt that they needed the Bishop's permission to give Marilyn communion on a more regular basis. 

Then Marilyn and I attended a local conference on interchurch family life and the Catholic Bishop was in attendance. So Marilyn cornered him and put to him the situation in forceful terms. Thus in 1993 we had a very special letter from the Bishop. He agreed that there would be particular occasions during the year, especially at Christmas and Easter, when it would be right for Marilyn to be admitted to Holy Communion, though he didn't see this happening on a regular monthly basis.

This then has been the pattern of our worshipping lives ever since. Over the past 25 years, Marilyn and I have become very involved in both our Catholic and Anglican communities. We both read the lesson and take part in bidding prayers in both churches. We have held three Alpha courses in our house, which have been led by the local Anglican church. We have attended numerous Lent and renewal courses in the village. We lead a mainly Anglican weekly house group, exploring our Christian faith. Marilyn has been very involved in her church over the years at parish and diocesan level and was for five years a member of English ARC.

In 2002 Marilyn and I were asked to be Mass coordinators for the Saturday evening Mass at the Catholic parish church. This I felt to be a great honour, and a recognition of our ecumenical witness over the years.

When our daughter died in a car accident last summer aged 25, the funeral was held in our village church. I found the outpouring of love and support expressed in so many different ways from the fellowship of the local church and village almost overwhelming. It demonstrated to me the clear value of having roots deeply embedded in a faith community. I was delighted that our Catholic priest from the nearby town was able to join our Anglican vicar in conducting our daughter's funeral. A few members of the Catholic Church community came. It is a commentary about the nature of town churches that we know so little about each other. We come from different directions to attend Mass and go our separate ways afterwards. We feel incredibly blessed by our local village church community. We have a social and faith life here and the two often intertwine. With the pressures of work multiplying and the pressures of just coping with our recent loss, Marilyn and I have, sadly, decided to reduce our formal commitments to our Catholic church community. This, regrettably, will mean a lessening of our ecumenical witness. 

Over our 30 years of marriage, Marilyn and I have tried, in many different ways, to learn to live out an interchurch family life. We have kept our love and loyalty to the faith of our birth; and developed a better understanding of the deeper truths as revealed within our different Christian traditions.

Sharing our story
In the early years of our marriage we went firstly to Spode and then to the Swanwick AIF conferences, and have attended the Heythrop Meeting many times. We were part of a local group that met regularly for many years. The last Swanwick meeting we attended was in 1994 for the Silver Jubilee. We always found it very upsetting having to wrestle with the same issues over and over again: marriage; rejection at communion; problems with baptism; First Holy Communion; what about confirmation. I know we could have been a stronger witness for others by being there. And that is what this article is for. It is the story of one couple’s struggle to find not only their own faith but to share in and reflect on the faith journey of their partner. And so to witness to the unity in Christ of two different church traditions: Catholic and Anglican.