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This article was published in the Summer 1999 issue of The Journal.

Homily at Heythrop

A spring meeting at Heythrop College, a Jesuit-run college which is a constituent college of the University of London, has become a tradition in the Association of Interchurch Families. It began when the London group of AIF was welcomed to meet at Heythrop in the 1970’s by Fr John Coventry SJ, then a member of the Heythrop teaching staff. This meeting developed later into a national meeting for the whole Association. One of its traditions, as at the Swanwick annual conference, was the celebration of the eucharist, sometimes by Fr John Coventry or Fr Joe Laishley SJ, and sometimes by an Anglican or Free Church minister.

In 1999 there were two things that were different about the Heythrop meeting. First of all, we combined it with the First John Coventry Memorial Lecture. Fr Michael Hurley SJ came from Ireland to give a public lecture in the afternoon of 6th March 1999 on "The New Millennium: an Ecumenical Second Spring". The text will be published in One in Christ. The meeting was chaired by Lord Runcie, former Archbishop of Canterbury, and attracted an audience of 180 people, a good proportion of whom were not members of AIF. (Next year, the Second John Coventry Memorial Lecture, to be held on 4thMarch 2000, will be addressed by Dr Mary Tanner on the subject of Anglican-Roman Catholic relations, and will be chaired by Bishop Cormac Murphy O’Connor.)

Secondly, we were feeling the loss of Fr John Coventry, and Fr Joe Laishley was not well enough to be with us. We wanted to keep the tradition of a Heythrop meeting for members of AIF by arranging a morning session for ourselves, followed by a eucharist. We were immensely grateful to Fr Robert Murray SJ for celebrating mid-day mass for us, and for linking the celebration with our memories of Fr John. We are equally grateful to him for allowing us to print the text of his homily here, together with his opening words.

Homily given at Mass at the AIF Meeting at Heythrop College, 6th March 1999

Opening remarks

Greetings to you all. Several couples among you are my very old friends, but for others I must introduce myself – Fr Robert Murray, former lecturer in Heythrop College, now a Fellow of it; formerly a member of English ARC and someone deeply committed to the principles of AIF, as well as to those of Fr Michael Hurley’s great foundation, the Irish School of Ecumenics. This is, I think, the first year that your annual meeting at Heythrop has not been blessed by the presence of Fr John Coventry, and I know you are all missing him. I miss him too, as my one-time Provincial superior and an old friend, but I hope we shall all feel his spiritual presence with us today.

As a priest of the same Church functioning in public, I have to make a statement, as he used to, about sharing communion at this altar, and all the more so now that the Roman Catholic bishops of England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland have issued a teaching document about the principles relating eucharistic communion to ecclesial communion. The practical rulings in this document have disappointed the hopes of many, above all in AIF. This is not the place to discuss this. Let me just say that I believe the principles are right, but the application of them is subject to pastoral decision, and there is some recognition that there are more than occasional pastoral situations where great spiritual need of shared communion is experienced. Priests who minister to interchurch families know well how deeply they can experience this need, though situations can differ according to the denominational affiliations involved.

In my place here and now I may not offer a general invitation to non-Roman Catholics, but I ask you to exercise your own spiritual discernment. For my part, I believe it is a deeper law for me not to turn away, but to welcome, anyone who approaches this altar out of evident love for our Lord. Of course, the option also remains to come for a blessing if that is preferred, or even to remain in your place.

Readings: Acts 11: 1-4, 11-18, and John 4: 19-26


We have just heard the story of how Peter was taught, first by a vision and then by an evident outpouring of the Holy Spirit on non-Jews, that God could override what Jews understood to be the basic principles constituting God’s covenant people. Then we heard how Jesus spoke of the gift of the Holy Spirit to a woman of the hated neighbour people, the Samaritans, and taught her that the worship which is pleasing to God transcends conflicting traditions about holy places.

I have chosen these readings because I wanted to say that I believe that AIF is a special work of God, not only for you whom it immediately concerns and sustains, but as having a special word to the churches, and as I thought about Bible passages that could underpin this idea, these two stories, different as they are, came into my mind. I expect that many of you have already guessed what way they were pointing. All the better: if God’s word speaks to you directly, there is less need for me to hold forth. But perhaps a few words may help.

Like Jesus, the disciples were all Jews. Jesus had yielded just two or three times to the faith of non-Jews pleading for healing, but his firm principle was that he was "sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel". The disciples gradually grew in understanding of who and what Jesus must be, yet even after Pentecost their horizons did not at first reach beyond the Jewish people, whose identity was established by matrilinear descent (you are a Jew if your mother was a Jew) and by all males bearing the sign of circumcision, while their behaviour and relationships were governed by distinctions of purity and impurity between peoples, just as the torah distinguished between "clean" and "unclean" animals, birds and fish.

And then this amazing thing happened to Peter. On the subject of "clean" and "unclean", God broke through Peter’s defences by means of a vision, but it could only be later that he realised that it wasn’t just about what you could eat, but about who could receive Christ’s gifts, Jew or non-Jew. On this subject, God did not give either a vision or a message, but an act of such power and clarity that there could be no argument or discussion; before Peter could even begin to outline the fundamentals of the Gospel of Jesus, gentiles had been granted the same unmistakable signs of the Spirit’s coming to them, as the apostles had experienced on the day of Pentecost. Peter could only say, "Can anyone stand in the way of these being baptised, who have received the Spirit just as we did?" (Acts 10: 47), and later, to the Jerusalem church, "who was I to stand in the way of God?" (Acts 11: 17). This story speaks powerfully to me, in a way applicable to various situations of inhibition or impasse in the Church today. I offer it for your reflection in your own situations.

Let us turn to the other story, of Jesus and the woman at the well. Jesus had already stepped out of line, both by asking a favour of a Samaritan and by speaking to a woman. But he read her need. (Probably she had been divorced by all those husbands because she could not provide them with a son; now she was living with someone who could love her just for herself, but at the cost of public approval. Probably she had to come to the well alone, in the heat of the day, because she dared not come with the other women in the cool of morning or evening. This interpretation is not mine; a friend heard it from a Caribbean Methodist woman preacher. It cannot be proved, but it immediately struck me as entirely plausible and explaining much.) Jesus read the thirst in her soul – for water, indeed, but for another kind of water, a deeper draught than she had ever known. Gently he demolished her defences, and yet without hurting her, for she immediately and trustfully brought to him a serious religious question that troubled her, about the divided parts of what had once been God’s one covenant people. And Jesus took her seriously, yet offered her a view of God as far above any question of rival holy mountains as his living water is more satisfying than any drink in this world. Incidentally, he slipped in that it is the Jews who are the bearers of God’s plan of salvation; but he said that not to put her down, but to rise above the whole issue between Jews and Samaritans and their ways of worship. Does this story not suggest a message in the situation of ecumenical relationships today? And does it not help us to see the importance of interchurch families as exemplifying a level of Christian unity deeper than denominational divisions?

Finally let me say a few words, not through the parable of these New Testament stories, but directly addressing each couple, each family among you in all your several situations. I speak as if addressing one couple, but it could be any of you. You belong to two Christian traditions which, from original unity in the faith of the undivided Church, have grown apart and no longer hold communion together. And yet, both being already members of Christ through the sacrament of baptism, you have been drawn by Gods gift of love to be united in the further sacrament of Christian marriage. This is discussed sensitively in One Bread, One Body. Yet for many of us the question remains: how can it be Christ’s will for two of his sacraments to unite and yet for a third, which we actually call the sacrament of unity, to divide? Surely the union of hearts and minds in Christ is the good seed which he sows in the field of the world; divisions are the tares sown by the enemy. Christ wants to harvest the fruits of holy lives in full unity, yet, for historical and other reasons, the divisions cannot be violently uprooted without harming the conditions in which growth in grace is fostered in the various denominations.

The bishops recognise that interchurch families are especially important because they exemplify such a degree of mature seriousness in commitment to God’s will and grace, as each partner has experienced it in their respective traditions. Do they not signify even more? Those that I know best seem like a prophetic anticipation of the full union between the Churches for which we hope and pray. Many of us hoped and still hope that interchurch families could be allowed to share in eucharistic communion beyond merely occasional dispensation. Let us all pray for this, and let us all pray for each other. May you all share ever more deeply in your common faith, and point a way for your Churches to follow. Meanwhile, may God’s grace and love sustain you mutually in all you do, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Robert Murray, SJ