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This article was published in the November 2006 issue of Issues and Reflections.

INTERCHURCH FAMILIES: GIFT AND CHALLENGE

The two terms of gift and challenge suggest there should be two parts to my address. I find it necessary, however, to preface these two sections with an introduction situating interchurch families in the history of our churches.

1. Introduction: before the gift and the challenge
Ever since the disciples of the Lord separated – alas – into distinct groups, there have been interchurch marriages. These have been more or less numerous depending on the time and the place. That is to say, they have been interchurch in their origins, since very often they required the ‘conversion’, or rather the movement, of one of the partners from one denomination to the other. Down the centuries this has been especially true for marriages between royal houses. But where ordinary people have been concerned, even where an official change of denomination was not systematically required, in practice the churches and their ministers by their teaching and practice, pushed couples into choosing a single denomination. Such a decision was presented as a condition for the human and spiritual good of the family and for the wellbeing of the children.

In the early sixties of the twentieth century there came a quiet turning-point, at least in France and in Switzerland. The context was the liberating atmosphere of the Second Vatican Council, its openness to other ecclesial bodies and its respect for religious liberty. Priests and pastors accompanied mixed Catholic-Protestant couples as they committed themselves to recognise, to accept and even to value their mixed character. They judged that it was not necessary, nor even desirable, to put any moral pressure on one of the partners to abandon his or her specific way of living the Gospel and formulating faith in Jesus Christ. There was no need to take on the way of thinking and the rule of life of the other spouse. It was better to help the partners to dig deeper to discover their common roots in Christian faith and life.

This new awareness led to a quite remarkable effort to establish a pastoral approach adapted to mixed couples. These ecumenical experiences that began at the grass-roots were assessed by church authorities. They were able to discern, in this new field of work, the good grain from the less fruitful seeds.

Thus a body of suggestions and denominational and interdenominational recommendations was established over a period of twenty years (roughly between 1965 and 1985). They dealt with the preparation and celebration of marriage between Catholics and Protestants, then with the baptism and Christian education of the children, and with the functioning of these families in their parishes, their communities and the world. This all led to a situation in which these interdenominational families – or rather, the most vibrant among them – could be seen not as a problem to be solved, but as a gift that if well received could bear fruit.

The gift of course is first of all for the spouses themselves, no longer at the mercy of denominational repression but called to collaboration, to ‘spiritual emulation’, on the basis of their shared faith in Jesus Christ. The gift is also for their children, whose education – from their baptism to communion and profession of faith – was open to the enrichment of two Christian traditions that were often more complementary than contradictory. Then finally, it is a gift for the churches. And with this affirmation we come to the first panel of our diptych.

2. A gift for the churches
Once freed – or largely so – from the forces that closed in or repressed their conscience, interchurch families have gradually been able to develop ways of living the Gospel that have been seen to be fruitful for the churches. Among other Christians, but in advance and more fully than others, they have been able to play a bridging role between the churches. Thus for almost half a century, where they have been found they have contributed to the coming together of their churches.

This ecumenism ‘in and through marriage’ would have remained too fragile, too dependent upon the personalities of particular couples and pastors, had it not developed in parallel to, and in relationship with, the many documents of consensus and agreement that most of the churches have worked at since Vatican II. During these decades interchurch families have benefited from the theological convergence texts (on baptism, the eucharist, marriage, catechesis, including joint or ecumenical catechesis etc) and in return have been a valuable stimulus for these research and dialogue groups.

3. A challenge for the churches
Today a good number of these couples have found a voice in the churches, for they have ceased to be simply recipients of pastoral care; they are active partners in the ecumenical process in a way that is recognised, at least to some extent. Today such couples have become a challenge, for they cannot accept what we have to admit is a slowing down of the ecumenical movement.

This challenge does not use force; it is an appeal to our conscience for something that goes beyond warm words, and requires concrete action. To put it briefly, couples who are committed together, though in different ways, in the life of their two churches are a living proof that those churches have to a certain extent ceased to be isolated groups living apart from one another. They have accepted, even if sometimes volens nolens, a degree of shared responsibility in their thinking and action, a certain form of communion between themselves.

In 1993 Pastor Jacques Maury and I, speaking out of our pastoral experience with interchurch couples, made an appeal to our churches, asking them to recognise this new situation and to draw out the consequences. We wrote: ‘Is there not an ecclesial reality where, in a long-term relationship, men and women pray together, listen to the Word of God together, often receive communion together and are committed together within their churches both in service and in common witness? Surely we see here, not some mythical “third church” which is neither Catholic nor Protestant, but rather that domestic church identified by tradition, up to and including Vatican II, in Christian families?’

We asked the churches to question themselves. ‘What has changed in the relationship between two churches if they have members who are common to them both, or at least partially common? How can this reality be expressed in ecclesiological terms?

We were still more precise. ‘Interchurch families seem to us to be “islands of reconciliation” within the one Church, developing the potential contained in the reality of our mutually recognised one baptism. This is a significant and hopeful reality which the churches need to take more seriously in order to draw out the consequences which are so evident.’

More than ten years after we first made that appeal, it is useful to add some precisions. Interchurch families and their activity within the churches are not only a challenge to academic theology, but even to some ecclesiastical institutions. Three routes for reflection and eventual convergence allow me to enlarge my Catholic-Protestant perspective and draw in the Orthodox, whom I have so far ignored.

  1. Interchurch families require the churches to revise their theology of marriage and their pastoral attitude to those who are divorced. In this area, which is particularly delicate today, the positions of the three great Christian traditions are probably less different than would appear at first sight. Does it not seem that each of the traditions has settled upon one aspect of our Gospel heritage? Do not interchurch families call upon these traditions to examine themselves in mutual ‘conversion’ and to rediscover together the fullness of the Gospel message in this area?
  2. Interchurch families show the churches that they are further advanced than they think or admit in their recognition, at least in part, of their ministries. Half a century ago, when pastors and priests set on a journey with interchurch families, no church questioned their authority and whether a certain minister could legitimately have pastoral responsibility for sheep not belonging to his ‘fold’. Certainly we did not speak of a theological recognition of ministries, but there was a mutual recognition in practice of such ministries, at least to a certain extent. Have the churches drawn out the ecumenical consequences of this practice?
  3. Interchurch families should lead the churches to question themselves more seriously about the apparent contradiction between a mutually recognised baptism and a eucharist that puts up barriers to sacramental participation. Do we really give weight to all the consequences of baptism? And why not admit that certain differences might simply evaporate in the fire of a eucharist where mutual hospitality is practised?

The list could be lengthened, but let us be content with these three. They suggest ways in which, far from being Christians who challenge the churches, interchurch families (the groups which have gradually come to birth and the international movement which represents them) constitute – or should constitute – a precious resource within the ecumenical movement.

There remains much work to be done. In many a church milieu there remains a suspicion of these ‘hybrid’ interchurch families, which must give way to trust of those who can light up the way. They are men and women who, without any particular merit on their part but simply in virtue of their ecclesial situation, walk at the head of the pilgrimage. They have already recognised and partially opened up the evangelical way that all the Christians of all the churches must take towards the full and complete communion of the disciples of Jesus Christ our Lord.

René Beaupère OP