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This article was published in the January 1997 issue of The Journal.

 

We Went to Virginia

Thank you for your recollections to: Anne and William (Belfast, Northern Ireland), Barbara and Tony (Gateshead, England), David and Fionna (Birmingham, England), Denny and Kay (Ohio, USA), Gianni and Myriam (Milan, Italy), Helen and Philip (Liverpool, England), Jenny and Brendan (Kent, England),Lynne and Doug (Nebraska, USA), Margaret and Peter England), Mary and Chris (Essex, England), Mitzi (Minnesota. USA), Nicola (Lyon, France), Ray and Fenella (Manitoba, Canada), Richard and Helen (Leeds, England), Shirley and Bernie (Saskatoon, Canada).

Coming together in all our diversity

Getting to know each other, sharing laughter, prayer and concerns despite varying backgrounds, cultures and languages was like reunion of a diverse but essentially unified family. Tony

We have been married for 14 years. We present Ecumenical Marriage Panels for engaged interchurch couples. We had no idea what to expect, but were eager to meet others. One of the highlights was this opportunity to meet so many diverse couples and families. We began to develop a global picture of interchurch families with similar pastoral needs, yet different experiences. Lynne and Doug

Seven years ago we joined AIF when we found its address at the baek of a church. Our local group had theological discussions for adults, but social oecasions involved children so, as we have been unable to have any, we tended to stay away. We were the only couple where the wife is Roman Catholic and the husband another denomination, which added to our feelings of not belonging. In we were amazed to find couples like ourselves, with no children, whole couples whose children are grown up. Helen and Richard

The greatest blessing was to meet so many wonderful people from across the world. Through letter-writing and the video from England we felt that we knew many of them and a bond was created, but to meet face to face was the joy. Shirley and Bernie

Would we be two of twenty, or of two thousand? We had no idea. We had a sense that God was at work in our lives, calling us to step out and participate in something that could be a real gift or a real burden, and may well prove in different ways to be both. So we came, having spent the weeks in prayer for a true openness to God. We were not disappointed. Not that all went smoothly. The approximately 130 people present were far too much members of a real family for that, with our own agendas, aspirations, expectations, understandings. We laughed. cried, denounced, rejoiced. But through it all we saw God at work, moving us along toward the unity for which Jesus prayed. We were blessed with a sense that we are not alone. Christian traditions included Anglican at the one end to Walden sian at the other (we didn't see any 'X', 'Y', or each family with its unique story of living as and foretaste of We heard of the pain of working with bishops, pastors, and laity who are only slowly the reality and understanding the needs of interchurch families. We heard stories of joy and excitement, of couples moving from a sense of burden on the church to an of themselves as to the church, and recognised as such. Ray and Fenella

New beginnings

One of the excitements of Virginia was to see the Canadian Association of Interchurch Families come into being, and the accelerated development American AIF. Europeans were amazed at the vast distances involved, and the problem which this poses to national Associations.

The Omaha group is a chapter of AAIF, but we wished there was a better way to network with other groups around the US. The Ark, the AAIF newsletter, was our only source of information about other groups. We have been energised to continue our ministry and to let other groups know that there is a group in Omaha interested in what they are doing. Lynne and Doug

When Ellen Bard came to Canada in 1995 and stayed with families in Montreal, Morden, Saskatoon and Calgary, her dream was to help us form a Canadian Association of Interchurch Families. Because of the distance between groups the idea seemed unattainable, but it was not dropped, rather it was prayed for. At 8.00 in the morning on 26 July 1996, around the breakfast table, the Gushues, Buchanans, Fr Phil Thibodeau from Montreal, the Temmermans from Morden, the Karstads from Saskatoon and the Dungens from Calgary met as one big Canadian family. We decided as a group that we should like to support and reach out to each other on a more active basis. We are very excited about our new Iy formed Association and are working on our commitments to each other and our Charter. Our head office is in Montreal at the Centre for Ecumenism, because of the great support we received from Fr Phil Thibodeau and because the Montreal group has the greatest number of active families. We are grateful to Ellen Bard for being the initiator of our Association. Shirley and Bernie

Not until we went to America were the vast distances there really brought home to us. Listening to the Americans and Canadians telling their stories showed the lack of national organisations and personal contacts with others in the same country. Only by meeting can these can be established, and cost makes this difficult when a plane is needed rather than a tedious car journey. Jenny

Philip and I notice the difficulty of taking part in the life of two churches now we are in rural England not London suburbia, but meeting with our friends in America and Canada showed us how much more difficult was their situation where they had to travel for hours just to meet each other. Helen

The Americans came from the four corners of the United States, as far from one another as New York is from France. Nicola

Friday evening -a "Quaker meeting"

On Friday evening there was an "open forum " in which participants could share anything they wished with one another. Two have used the words "Quaker meeting" to describe the experience.

My abiding memory will be of the experience described by the Canadian, living out in the prairies, who spoke from the heart of his pain in feeling so unsupported in their pastoral need. That outpouring of emotion was a watershed that moved us from head to heart. Margaret

After the heart-rending plea the "Quaker meeting" that followed was amazing and I felt the silence was very telling. Barbara

It was the Canadians who stole the limelight for us, first with their ecumenical commitment and knowledge, but secondly with their openness in expression. This culminated in a most moving and heartfelt plea for understanding from a man in an interchurch marriage [or whom the pain he felt was only recognised at an international conference, and not by the priest in his locality. David and Fionna

Saturday -two eucharists

On Friday evening the need to talk manifested itself in a very moving session, like a Quaker meeting, where people spoke as the spirit urged. The pain and hurt and joys of situations was met by expressions of understanding and solidarity. Even before this people had been feeling the need for a eucharistic celebration and now it became imperative. At 7 a.m. on Saturday couples gathered in the chapel where William celebrated an Anglican eucharist very simply, as befits an early hour. In the evening we burst into song at mass the powerful intoning of the Alleluia was memorable and somehow swept you into the Jewish roots of Christianity. Anne

The sessions with most impact for us were Fr Falardeau's and Fr Orsy's on eucharistic sharing. When we arrived, this was the area of our lives with the most tension. We felt there was little chance of receiving the eucharist together. At the conference, we received the eucharist as a family for the first time. It was very emotionaL yet it felt so right. We fell that the Holy Spirit had ensured that we would be able to receive together -an answer to years of prayer. Lynne and Doug

It was in the area of positive change that we felt that there was not enough emphasis placed. Why not celebrate one victory of unity instead of lamenting not being able to receive communion every time? For some of us, the mass at the chapel was the first time we as husband and wife had ever been able to receive communion together. It was a wonderful experience. Let's praise God for that one instance of unity in his world-wide church! Denny and Kay

Sunday - a final session together

Many were driven to stand up and express personal anxieties ­couples without children, couples who had left babies on another continent, couples desperate for shared worship and communion. Somehow I felt like a privileged member of a most wonderful gifted family, but with many rightly fighting over their place for attention, care and love. Within that one sensed the cries of those wanting to be given courage, and asking not to be forgotten. Tears, fears, love and prayers all offered me the sense of belonging and hope for the future as part of the wider international Christian ecumenical family. Tony

Sunday -Holy Apostles -unfinished business
At the end of the conference participants joined in the Sunday eucharistic celebration of the Church of the Holy Apostles, the covenanted Episcopalian/Roman Catholic parish in Virginia Beach whose members had offered us such warm hospitality. At the beginning of the canon Roman Catholics were invited to follow the Catholic priest to an altar at one end ()f the church; Episcopalians and other Christians to follow the Episcopal priest to an altar at the other. The disorientation experienced by some interchurch families as each struggled with an enforced decision was a concrete demonstration of the suffering which had surfaced earlier and to which Fr Orsy had responded. It is not without meaning. It is, in its own way, a gift within the wounded church, an offering to the divided churches.

We were asked to take up the elements at the offertory, William with the Anglican wife of our hosts to the Anglican table, and I with her Roman Catholic husband to the other table. Fr Philippe told us afterwards that seeing William and me walking in different directions brought home to him the terrible pain of Christian division. The impact of the eucharist at Holy Apostles is something we are still pondering. It would be nice to go the church in the same place and at the same, and could simplify 'belonging' no end. It really required a conference session afterwards. Anne

I can only describe it as the deepest spiritual shock of my life. I thought I had worked it out after 18 years of marriage -we have at times been able to share communion, but generally I receive a blessing whilst the rest of the family take communion in the Catholic service. The important thing is that we all go as a family to one altar. Suddenly I was being instructed to walk what seemed like a million miles in the opposite direction -with my back to the rest of the family. I felt totally distraught. Our wonderfully hospitable hosts expected that we would feel enriched by this experience, but all I could feel were the tears rolling uncontrollably down my cheeks. I went with the family to the Catholic altar but could not stay there -so I slipped back to our pew and wished that the ground would open up below me. The sound of the two priests saying the eucharistic prayer simultaneously, but not in any kind of harmony, was very distressing. Then I realised it is what God is seeing all the time, as we go to our separate altars -it is just that in Holy Apostles it became more obvious. Fellowship is very evident in the congregation and clearly many people derive much support by worshipping in Holy Apostles. Would it be different if we worshipped there every week? It has given me much food for thought, and makes me think that the Called to be One process is more urgent than ever. Margaret

To go to our 'own' altar would have meant dividing the family so we would be at opposite ends of the building at communion. We could not face that. We decided (quickly and with some whispering) that we would go, as a family, to the end nearest to us. We had to move towards the centre of the church. and it was then that the true awfulness of the situation hit us. Standing in the middle of the church, we could hear both celebrants, and the impression was that they were shouting at one another. We were transfixed. The four of us, mother, father and two daughters, simply stood and looked at each other, while the terrible noise went on. The image in my mind was the Tower of Babel, and what can only have been a minute or two seemed to last for ever. Chris suggested, very quietly, that we should not receive communion, The thought was in all our minds, and we agreed immediately. We stood in the middle, refusing to be divided by the two altars, until we could quietly make our way back. Mary

It was very painful for us to be separated from Bernie (a Lutheran) at this time. I can't imagine Jesus making such a distinction and separating a family at his banquet table. However, on the positive side, this type of church makes participating to the fullest in one church community as a family a whole lot easier. This promotes strength in community and a stronger bond with church, For us as interchurch families, unity is a must. Shirley

I did not find the eucharist at Holy Apostles such a harrowing experience as some did but, in comparison to the parallel eucharist at Thamesmead in England, the cacophany resulting from two eucharistic prayers being said simultaneously was distracting. Helen

Our visit to Holy Apostles Church kept us talking for days after the conference ended, as we drove around Virginia, about how divisive it was as people received communion from a Roman Catholic or an Episcopalian table. The service upset our daughters as they felt they should go both ways and not have to make a choice. One of them did not receive because of the dichotomy. We discussed it and explained that that is how we parents had felt at other times. Barbara and Tony

Two couples from Holy Apostles talked of their joy at going to services together, even though communicating at separate altars. The warmth of the welcome there and the enthusiasm were most moving, It was alarming to hear that the church had such a low profile and this is kept deliberately so. We felt that it had something to say to a society where consumerist religion rules. People at Holy Apostles had deliberately chosen a painful route where ecumenical endeavour cost something. They should be proud of what they are doing and not keep their ecumenical work quiet for fear of protests. We had a sense of isolation as we went to two opposite altars. Going back to our seats our son sensed the strangeness of the mood between us and asked if Fionna wanted to sit next to Dad. In fact, we both wanted to stand at the same altar and receive the same elements together. David and Fionna

After Virginia
It blew the mind and lifted the spirits - we are not alone despite our special context (Northern Ireland), and together we can be a force for change. Hearing from many of the couples of what they are doing to raise awareness of the need for change in church attitudes was heartening. Interchurch couples can join the 'movers' and influence by their example and because they know. Anne

We came home with so many ideas, we felt overwhelmed! Our perspective is broadened, our determination reinforced. and our family blessed with wonderful new friends. Lynne and Doug

It was exhilarating. We left Virginia feeling enlightened, positive and bonded with other interchurch families. We certainly brought back a new spark to our group. Shirley and Bernie

Where will all this lead? We don't know. We give thanks for the gift God gave us, and look forward to more. Ray and Fenella

I found the gathering especially encouraging. The opportunity for networking with interchurch families, ministers to interchurch families and involved clergy was truly affirming. It was a testimony to this much-needed ministry in society, and provided inspiration to return to our regions with energy and conviction to encourage the spread of the Association of Interchurch Families. Mitzi

We did a lot of work in Italy, emphasising the meeting in Virginia; we wrote pieces for Riforma, a weekly Protestant paper, for Eco Chisone, a weekly Catholic paper in Pinerolo, and with pleasure also for Regno, the monthly Catholic magazine that is considered the No.1 in Italy. Gianni

So we cannot always receive communion together. At least we can sit together, sing together, pray together, read and study Scripture together. Let's walk in that freedom and work towards fuller freedom through organisations such as AIF. Let's share more of the ways we have solved problems and celebrate those victories! Since the conference we have been interviewed by three local newspapers and received phone calls from people who wanted to tell their stories or voice concerns. We are still giving workshops on interchurch marriage for the local diocese and are adding information we gleaned at the conference. We discussed it with ministers from both our churches. Denny and Kay

One useful outcome of the international conference was the initiation of an international email mailing list for interchurch families. Ray Temmerman (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) has volunteered to forward emails of AIF news to anyone who would like to be added to his email address list. The facility to converse with people throughout the world at little cost is a wonderful development and provides the potential to help many who would otherwise be isolated. Ray is also setting up an interchurch families web page, and is planning a news group. Philip

Alongside all our very necessary activity, the deepest meaning of the conference is the way that we can mutually support one another in prayer, across the globe. Nicola