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This article was published in the Summer 1998 issue of The Journal.

TWO OCCASIONS OF NEED

Beverley Hollins has recorded the story of sharing communion with Paul on the occasion of their fifth wedding anniversary under the title One Special Day. Her experience on Christmas Day 1997 was not so happy. Because it raised questions for the local communities involved, Beverley wrote an explanatory article for the January number of Contact, the West Slough parish magazine. We reprint it here under its original title, A Christmas Present.

ONE SPECIAL DAY – receiving together 

We wrote with our request to our Roman Catholic parish priest in July 1996, well in advance of our fifth wedding anniversary, which fell on Sunday September 15th. We had the knowledge and support of Catherine, our Anglican parish priest. We were encouraged by Fr Sean (with whom we had raised the subject informally) to think that there might be a breeze, if not a wind, of change blowing. The Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism (Rome, 1993) specifically mentioned the possibility of eucharistic sharing in mixed marriages between baptised Christians. Although the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference for England and Wales has yet to finalise its own norms, our bishop might, Fr Sean felt, be sympathetic to an application from us.

A denial of our oneness

So we wrote. As we considered how we would word the letter, it became clear to us that it would be just too painful for us to attend a eucharistic service of any sort on our wedding anniversary unless we could receive communion together. For us that would be a denial of our oneness in Christ. At our wedding the famous words were pronounced above us: “those whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder”. (In the order for the solemnisation of matrimony in the Book of Common Prayer these words of Jesus are quoted from Matthew 19:6; Jesus was expanding on the view of marriage as making a couple “one flesh”, which originates in Genesis 2:24.) However hard we consider the history of our churches, it seems to us that the canon laws were written by men and that our division at the eucharist is caused by men, contrary to the expressed will of God. This, it seems, must be borne from week to week if we are not to cause difficulties in our churches and damage the forward progress of ecumenism. But there are times when it simply cannot be borne, and this was one of them. We planned to investigate where services of the Word were being held in local Free Churches. Some might accuse us of avoiding the issue by going to a non-eucharistic service, but we reasoned that on a special day like our fifth wedding anniversary we had a right to be happy!

Our parish priest passed our letter on to our bishop, who kindly gave a decision quickly, by telephone to Fr Sean. Yes! We were thrilled and excited. We informed Catherine and decided not to attend the Anglican service on the day. When we arrived at the shared church we attend the Anglican service had just finished and to our joy they had prayed for us and crowded round to offer their congratulations, both on our anniversary but also on having permission to share communion together. Mass follows the eucharist after a coffee break, so we were soon sitting amongst our friends in the Catholic congregation. The service seemed to speed by, and soon Fr Sean was saying the eucharistic prayer. Then the Lord’s Prayer, and then it was time for the words of invitation. Here Fr Sean paused and explained to the congregation that usually he invited members of other churches to come forward for a blessing, but that this was a special day. He went on to explain about our anniversary and that the bishop had given us permission to receive communion together. He offered congratulations and then asked the congregation to pray for us and to pray for the unity of the church. All around the building smiling faces looked at us. 

Like a family 

When it was time to go forward for communion voices whispered congratulations as we passed. As the chalice was offered the words were perhaps unliturgical: “The Blood of Christ – Congratulations!” We felt like a family in a way that we rarely do in church. The barrier, just for a day, was down. I felt as though I was floating! The service soon ended and again we were surrounded by a crowd of well wishers, some of them asking why I couldn’t receive communion with them every week, and complaining at the injustice of the rules. Some members of the congregation had not realised that one of us is Anglican, but saw me as a reader and congregation member like them. It offended them too that I am not in communion with them. We felt very loved and supported, and the occasion held us up for many weeks as we settled back into our normal routine of receiving separately at consecutive services.

We still find separation at the communion table hard - perhaps harder than ever, knowing what was on one occasion possible. For us, like some other interchurch families, there is an on-going need to receive communion whenever we are together at the eucharist. But we have this hope, that in the short term there will be other occasions when our special need will be recognised and fulfilled, and that in the long term the churches will understand that our need as an ecumenical married couple is a model for the churches and that we all need – and will have – communion together, around the same table at the same time.

A CHRISTMAS PRESENT

Church on Christmas Day must be one of the most joyful services you can go to. At St Andrew’s on Christmas Day 1997 there was a lovely feeling of celebration, with a good number of people in the congregation, and a lot of excited children bringing some of their presents and delighting in the lighting of candles and sharing in a birthday cake for Jesus. It was a really lovely service. 

But I couldn’t wait for it to end. For me it was a painful and difficult service. And I know that I was not alone. In churches all over the country (indeed, the world) there were men and women experiencing the same sense of pain as me, because like me they were separated from their marriage partners at a crucial time in the Christian year.

My husband and I are what is known as an interchurch couple – practising Christians with membership of different churches. The key to our pain is that one of those churches is the Roman Catholic Church, which means that when it comes to the vital centre of the eucharistic service, we cannot receive communion together. As a married couple, we believe that we are “one in Christ” and we well remember the moment at our wedding when our hands were bound by the priest’s stole and he said, “Those whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” The Alternative Service Book says, “let not man divide”. Yet Sunday after Sunday we are divided at Christ’s table, unable to accept Christ’s invitation to his meal together because of a rule made by men.

The rule is quite simple, at face value: only a Roman Catholic may receive communion at a Roman Catholic mass, and a Roman Catholic may only receive communion at a Roman Catholic mass. There are exceptions involving the Orthodox churches, but we don’t need detail here. There are also exceptions involving people who are in danger of death, and people who are in mixed marriages. In England the latter exception is interpreted differently in different dioceses, but generally is taken to mean that the non-Catholic partner may receive communion at a Catholic mass on occasions of particular need. There is no exception allowing the Catholic partner to receive communion in another church.

This division at the altar is very hurtful. Normally we have to contain our feelings. We have our own marital and spiritual communion, and a hope for the future, and that helps. On Christmas Day 1997, the hurt got out. Perhaps that was a Christmas gift from God to me, a spur to me to do more about changing an unjust situation, and a help to me in my work as an officer of the Association of Interchurch Families. Out of it I offer this as my gift to you, a sharing in a part of our experience. And I ask for a gift from you, too. Please pray for my family, Paul and me and our daughters, and for all interchurch families, as we try to hold to our unity in Christ in a painfully divided church.

Beverley Hollins