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An Interchurch Family First Communion:
Our Crisis Point

Enormous division

It took us a long time to decide to get married. How could we hope to have a united family life when one of us was a Roman Catholic and the other a member of the Church of England? Our churches are divided. They have been divided for hundreds of years, with a history of mutual persecution and bitterness behind them. In 1960 it seemed an enormous divide to bridge.

We were already both committed to working for Christian unity. In fact it was in planning a service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity that we came very close together and realised with a real sense of shock that we had "fallen in love". But that did not necessarily mean that we should marry one another. There were far too many obstacles in the way. We both had firm denominational loyalties as well as our commitment to Christian unity. In those days both partners in a mixed marriage had to promise to bring up any children they might have as Roman Catholics, in order to have their marriage recognised by the Catholic Church. Martin could not make such a promise in conscience, and Ruth could not enter into a marriage not recognised by her church.

God's calling to marriage

Yet over the following few years we came to feel a strong sense that it was God who was calling us to marry one another. We didn't then have the language to express it, but now we would recognise it as, in the words of a Catholic theologian, a "baptismal con-vocation " - a call from God to weave together our baptismal lives in marriage. It was a call to live together as an image of the church, loving one another as Christ loves the church, sharing in the love with which the Father loves the Son. We knew we were fundamentally united in baptism - this great re-discovery of the Second Vatican Council was in the air - and the more we explored our faith together and prayed together the more we felt strongly united in our baptismal faith. We had endless theological discussions, sometimes heated ones. We began to see that often things which, on the surface, appeared to be mutually contradictory were either complementary or even different ways of expressing the same reality. We realised that far from being any threat to our faith, marriage would necessarily lead to a deeper understanding of our own as well as of the other's tradition.

We came to feel that we really were called by God to share our lives together as married partners, totally committed to one another in love for the rest of our lives. But to become partners is not the same thing as becoming parents. Parents are far more responsible for the faith of their children, when they are young, than spouses are for one another's faith. How could we possibly decide in which church to bring up any children we might have? There seemed to be no solution. And yet the sense of being called to marry one another persisted.

When we married we hadn't solved the problem. But we were immensely fortunate. With great pastoral sensitivity Cardinal Suenens, Archbishop of Malines in Belgium (in whose diocese Ruth was living at the time) decided that Martin need make no promise about the upbringing of any children we might have, although this was at the time required by canon law. Martin simply made a statement explaining his position and also saying that he would do nothing to cut Ruth off from her church. (Nobody ever suggested that Ruth should make any promise either; it was simply assumed that she would want to share her Catholic faith with any children.)

Parents and partners

It was only the experience of being married, committed to one another in love, worshipping together in both our churches week by week, that helped us to see that a child could perhaps come into this unity which was growing and deepening between us all the time, and be brought up in both our church communities. Our son was born on the very day in 1970 that a motu proprio from Rome was published on mixed marriages. It made the seemingly revolutionary change that no longer was a promise necessary from the non-Catholic partner, while the Catholic partner was to do all that he or she could for the Catholic baptism and upbringing of any children. It was an acknowledgement that both parents are responsible for the religious upbringing of their children, and that a decision on how this is to be done should not be enforced unilaterally. Again we were fortunate. "I don't see how it will work", said our Catholic parish priest when we told him that we intended to bring up our little son within both our church communities. "I don't think it's a good idea. But if that's what you've decided, I shall do all I can to support you in it. "

It was not easy to arrange our little son's baptism. The problems cast a shadow over the second half of Ruth's pregnancy and the first months of his fife. Yet facing those very problems together may well have helped us to grow in unity as a couple during that vulnerable period when we had to begin to learn to be parents as well as partners. In the end we celebrated his baptism with great joy in the way that we had hoped. It had been worth the long wait. Ministers of both our churches took part and we had baptismal certificates from our two churches to reassure us that in some sense both had accepted responsibility with us for our son's Christian upbringing. Two years later when our daughter was born it was all much easier -as measured by the way the baptismal robe was cut down to fit her!

Our pattern of church-going continued - if inevitably in a more haphazard way - when there were children to share in it. We still knew it was very important for us to be together at the eucharist, but church-going twice on a Sunday did not always seem the best way to build up our family life when young children were involved. So it was often a case of being together as a family in one church, with one of us receiving communion and the other sitting with the children or going up with them to receive a blessing at the time of communion. The one who had not been able to receive communion when we were together, went off alone to another service. It didn't seem right - but after all our churches are not in communion with each other, and we had decided to stick with them both. It seemed inevitable. The Reformation divide goes deep. Happily there were occasions when we found we could receive communion together, but they were rare and it never happened in our local situation, week by week, which was where we needed it.

First communion: crisis point

The great crisis point for our family came when our children were due to make their first communion in the Roman Catholic Church. This was at an earlier age am was normal in the Church of England - our son was eight and our daughter six - but we felt that they were ready. They were well prepared at their Catholic school, and we shared in the process as much as we could.

The children were happily absorbed in the preparations, and we shared in their joy, but for us the prospect was daunting. We had managed to keep a balance between our two church communities until now, sharing in the fife of both as much as we could, but now wouldn't our family begin to feel lop-sided? And how would we feel if Martin could not receive communion on this special day for our family? Encouraged by what seemed to be a sermon from our Catholic curate, Ruth tentatively (and unwisely) broached the subject with him. She was reduced to tears by his look of shocked horror and his total incomprehension of what sharing communion on this special day would mean to us as a couple and family. Anger at this complete lack of understanding mingled with the pain of feeling totally rejected. The children tried to comfort her without knowing what it was all about. Martin was away a lot at the time.

The Vatican II Decree on Ecumenism (1964) had said that sacramental sharing was sometimes to be commended, and that the concrete decision with reference to circumstances of time, place and person was to be made by the local bishop. So Martin wrote to our local Catholic bishop asking if he could join his wife and children in receiving communion on that special day. We waited in trepidation for a reply, not daring to hope too much, but determined not too despair too quickly. The bishop was away. It seemed a very long wait. Eventually the answer came. No, he could not give permission. He felt that there had been many such cases over the years and if one started making exceptions now, it could be very much a thing to upset people. We thought it was a strange reason for refusing.

What should we do? The very act of asking had given us hope, and the waiting for a reply had made it more important to get a yes, not less. Ruth couldn't stop thinking about it. After all, it was something which deeply affected our married unity, and the problem was coming from her church, so she felt especially responsible. A thought came. What if we delayed our children's first communion until we were in a situation where we could all receive communion together - of those rare occasions we mentioned before - maybe celebrating in the context of a meeting of interchurch families, which would make a lot of sense to us.

But would it make sense to the children? After all, a great deal of their preparation for first communion had taken place in a group, with their peers, and they would want the celebration to take place in the context of that group. If our needs and the children's conflicted, theirs must take precedence.

Consulting the children

In the end, after much anxious heart-searching, we decided to ask them what they wanted. Was it too much of a burden to put on them? We didn't know for sure; we could only do the best we could in the circumstances. We decided to share with them something of our sorrow that our churches are not in communion with one another; we stressed, too, that we as a family shared a real communion in Christ in our home, and we were enriched by our belonging together in two different Christian traditions -just as they already had two different sets of friends because of it.

We explained that they could decide to celebrate their first communion with the group with which they had gone through all the preparations, or they could wait until Daddy could have communion too, and we could be a family together. We tried not to put any pressure on them; just to explain that they couldn't do both.

They decided differently. For our daughter, the most important thing was that she would receive her first communion with her best friend - they were rarely apart if they could help it. She was sorry about Daddy, of course, but her choice was clear, and she looked forward to receiving communion as a family later on. Our son's choice was clear too. He said that he didn't want to receive his first communion unless his father could receive with him. So it seemed settled for a time.

But it wasn't really. Ruth got more and more anxious. She felt the tension that was building up, as our son realised that he would be the only one of the group not receiving his first communion. He was clearly feeling the strain. And what about the following months when he would have to watch his younger sister receiving communion and he wouldn't yet be able to do so? How would we survive that situation, especially at a time when Martin was away such a lot?

A way through

One day Ruth was in the kitchen. Suddenly it was like a shining light from heaven, which illuminated the whole situation and cut through all the tensions. In an instant everything was settled. We would arrange a pre-first communion, when we could all receive together as a family, and then afterwards the children could celebrate together with all their friends, receiving communion with them too when they celebrated their first communion.

And that is how it was. We set off early on Sunday morning, a week before the first communion celebration was to take place on the Saturday, the children bearing home-made gifts for the priest-friend who was to give them their first holy communion - an egg-cosy, a book mark. It was a startlingly bright spring day, with daffodils in full bloom. The day matched the joy in our hearts. We were celebrating together, as a family should. The little community we joined sang all the songs the children were familiar with. They felt thoroughly at home. They could grasp the meaning of the short sermon. We all received communion under both kinds (very important for Martin) - and that was something not allowed at the official first communion.

The day cast its lingering brightness over the week, including the following Saturday. Ruth thought she should explain the situation to tile sisters at school - in case they heard a garbled version from our excited daughter which they wouldn't understand. To her relief they thought it all perfectly normal. "But", they said, "it would be better not to mention it to the parish priest; he might be disturbed." (He was elderly and conservative.)

Learning from experience

Looking back now, twenty years on, we feel an enormous sense of gratitude to our eight-year old son. If it hadn't been for his decision, we wouldn't have had that experience which was a transforming one for our whole family fife. Because after that, we couldn't go back. It was an Emmaus experience. We had to find a way to continue to receive communion together as a family - and we did, with considerable difficulties and ups-and-downs, in different parts of the country and in different Catholic parishes, right up to the time when our children went to university. That experience convinced us that this was the right thing to do. We knew too that for balance in our family it must go both ways. With less difficulty, but with considerable pastoral adaptation to the needs of children younger than those normally receiving communion in the Church of England, we were able to receive together as a family there too.

Because of our son, we had learned that we must accept our responsibility as parents to do what we decided was best for our family.' We learned that there are some decisions which cannot be left to other authorities, and that when the communities to which we belong and which we love seem to be pulling us in different directions, we must not allow ourselves to be divided as a family or as a couple. We rejoice that over the years which have passed since our children's first communionthe rules in the Roman Catholic Church and the attitudes in all the churches have changed enormously. It is our deep desire that, in the short term, a growing number of interchurch families will be able to affirm and deepen their unity as domestic church by receiving communion together much more freely and openly than we have been able to do. In the long term we pray that our churches will grow together into one family, one church, celebrating together the foretaste of the Lamb's marriage supper to which we are all called, to which all humankind is invited.

Ruth and Martin Reardon