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This article was published in the Summer 2004 issue of the Journal.

Interchurch family groups in Europe and the churches

Following the discussions of representative interchurch families with the General Secretaries of the Council of Catholic Bishops Conferences in Europe (CCEE) at St Gallen and of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) in Geneva in October 2003 (see Interchurch Families, 12,1, January 2004 p.9) a paper was prepared for the CCEE/CEC joint committee which met in Opole, Poland, in January 2004. We give the text of this paper below.

A paper addressed to CCEE and CEC expressing some of our concerns

1 European groups and associations
We represent long-standing interchurch family groups in the following countries:
Austria: Interchurch family groups in Austria were formed in the late 1960’s. In 1991 the local groups came together in an Arbeitsgemeinschaft konfessionsverschiedener Ehen. It is now called, significantly, the Arbeitsgemeinschaft konfessionsverbindenderFamilien (ARGE Ökumene).
Britain: The Association of Interchurch Families (AIF) dates from 1968. Since 1990 it has been a ‘body in association’ with Churches Together in England and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. There are about 300 members (mostly couples); many others support its work.
France: Groups of foyers mixtes or foyers interconfessionnels were formed in France (beginning in Lyon) in the early 1960’s. In 1995 regular meetings of all foyers mixtes francophones began, a comité francophone permanent was established in 1998, and at present an association is being formed.
Germany: Local groups met for many years (for example a group that met at Neresheim Abbey celebrated 30 years of annual meetings in 1999). In 1999 a national Netzwerk konfessionsverbindender Paare und Familien was formed under the umbrella of the Arbeitsgemeinschaft Ökumenischer Kreise.
Ireland: The Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association (NIMMA) was formed in 1974, and holds an annual conference. It has particular problems, and its work is valued as part of the effort to create cross-community links. In 1973 an Association began in the Irish Republic, but is not now very active.
Italy: Famiglie miste interconfessionali have met together in Northern Italy, centred on the Pinerolo area, since the late 1960’s. Their initial inspiration came from Lyon, and theyhave met together every few years with French representatives of foyers mixtes.
Switzerland: Francophone Swiss foyers mixtes were in contact with the French in the late 1960’s, and since 1974 groups in Switzerland have organised conferences in turn every 18 months or so. At present a Swiss association is being formed.

The groups and associations listed above represent marriages in most of which one partner is a Roman Catholic and the other Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, Waldensian or Baptist. We have a few Orthodox within our memberships, but not many. There are large numbers of mixed Christian marriages within our countries. We represent those interchurch families who feel called to work for Christian unity. In the summer of 2003 we met for a World Gathering in Rome with interchurch families from other continents, and (following separate meetings in October 2003 with the General Secretaries of CCEE and CEC) we would be happy to follow up this meeting on a European level. We were delighted that the Charta Oecumenica recognised that ‘couples in interdenominational marriages should be supported in experiencing ecumenism in their daily lives’ (II,4). We need support, but we also believe that interchurch families have a unique contribution to make to ecumenism. We would like to ask for pastoral understanding that appreciates both aspects.

2 Developing contacts with interchurch families in other European countries
We have been in contact with interchurch families in Belgium, Scandinavia, Croatia and Hungary, and would welcome opportunities to develop relationships with couples in other European countries, especially in Eastern Europe. Perhaps you would be able to help us in this? Our experience is that a very good way to support interchurch couples and families is to facilitate their meeting with each other for mutual support. They can then use their shared experience to help other couples who do not wish to join a continuing group. From such meeting a commitment to work for Christian unity also grows.

3 The Third European Assembly, 2007
We would be very pleased to explore the possibility of holding a European Gathering of Interchurch Families alongside/in conjunction with the Third European Ecumenical Assembly. We hold ourselves ready to work with you on this, if appropriate.

4 Two issues of concern to interchurch families
As requested we would like to express to you two of our concerns as interchurch families. In both cases the pastoral and the ecumenical dimension are linked.

A The pre-nuptial promise
One concern is about the pre-nuptial promise required of the Catholic partner in a mixed Christian marriage, that he/she will do all he/she can to ensure the baptism and upbringing of any children of the marriage in the Catholic Church.

Before 1970 both partners had to make an absolute promise that all children would be brought up as Catholics, if the marriage was to be recognised by the Catholic Church. The changes made in 1970 were very welcome. But there is still a problem today. Couples still experience the promise as imposing a unilateral demand on a relationship that they are striving to make fully mutual. It can be presented in a way that appears to deny the shared responsibility of parents for the religious upbringing of their children. As such it appears to some Catholics entering marriage to deny the relationship of equality that is required both in ecumenical relationships (par cum pari) and in marriage. Unfortunately the intention behind the promise is not always explained to them in a way they can understand. A refusal to make the promise in these circumstances can lead to Catholics feeling rejected by their church and to great tensions in family and church relationships. It is a bad witness to all concerned for the well-being of the couple, many of whom will not be practising Christians. Certainly many Catholic Episcopal Conferences in Europe have helped by modifying the wording of the promise over the years. In England and Wales the phrase ‘as God’s law requires’ has been replaced by ‘within the unity of our partnership’. The Austrian form of the promise includes the word ‘conscience’. In Ireland all Catholics getting married have to make a promise about the religious upbringing of their children, whether they are marrying Christians from other churches or not. But we would like to ask all our churches to re-consider together (CEC as well as CCEE) the pastoral and ecumenical aspects of this situation, since we hope that both parents can share their Christian heritage with their children.

B Eucharistic sharing
Another major concern is about eucharistic sharing in interchurch families.

Churches have different attitudes to admission to communion. Some, since Christ himself is the celebrant, ‘in his name invite all who love him‘ to receive communion. Some, seeing baptism as orientated to the eucharist, feel able to welcome all ‘baptised communicant Christians in good standing in their own churches’ to receive communion. There are many different positions on the spectrum of admission to communion, although the values behind each one would probably be common to all. The Catholic stress (like that of the Orthodox Church) on the close relationship between ecclesial and eucharistic communion is obviously very important. However, the way it is often applied causes most difficulty for interchurch spouses who feel a spiritual need to express and deepen the unity of their ‘domestic church’ by sharing communion.

Is this really necessary? In principle the possibility of admission to communion in the Roman Catholic Church is established for interchurch spouses. We rejoice that those who ‘share the sacraments of baptism and marriage’ are identified as in possible need of eucharistic sharing, and that by way of exception this need can be met in particular cases, on fulfilment of certain conditions (Ecumenical Directory, 60). We would like to see this possibility much better known, much better understood, and much more widely applied. We would like to see it applied not simply to ‘unique occasions’ (One Bread One Body, norms for Britain and Ireland, 1998). In his press conference of February 2002, Cardinal Lehmann spoke of mixed marriages as ‘a particular life-situation for Christians, whose communion in marriage is grounded in baptism and rooted in the sacramental nature of their Christian marriage.’ Their need, he pointed out, ‘is not so much a matter of unique occasions celebrated in the life of the family, such as First Communion, but more a matter of the constant striving of the couple to live their path of faith together.’

Permission to receive communion in other western churches is not given to Catholics because the Roman Catholic Church does not recognise the ordained ministry of other churches (except the Orthodox) as equivalent to its own. It can and has been recognised, however, that a Catholic who receives communion in the community of his spouse is doing so because of a conscientious decision in his special circumstances, and this decision need not cut him off from the Catholic Church (Synod of the German dioceses, Würtburg, 1976, repeated in the French Bishops’ Commission ‘Note’ in 1983). Again, we would like to see this discussed by the churches together, and much more widely accepted, understood and applied.

We feel that the pastoral understanding of interchurch families is a question that is best tackled by the churches together, since it is a shared responsibility, and not just a problem for Catholics and Orthodox, but for Protestants and Anglicans too. We think it would be good to discuss it at European level, and to share experiences. There is considerable variety in the way in which different European episcopal conferences apply the provisions of the Ecumenical Directory; there is variety in practice from diocese to diocese, and from parish to parish. There is a general uneasiness about the present situation; permissions are given at all levels and decisions are made that cannot be talked about. This is again a bad witness. Interchurch families often find it difficult to speak about their experiences openly, for fear of compromising others. They would like to be more free to witness to the joy of sharing together in church life, because of their privileged situation of commitment to one another in their ‘domestic church’. They feel they have an ecumenical witness to make that is hindered in the present situation, either because they are bearing the crushing burden of being unable to share communion except on rare occasions, or because they are unable to share openly their joy at being able to receive communion together. All Christians are called to suffer on account of divisions that are contrary to the will of Christ, but if growing understanding between churches can help to avoid unnecessary suffering, is this not to be celebrated?

Here we have simply picked out two issues of vital importance for interchurch families. For a wider view we would like to refer you to our paper Interchurch Families and Christian Unity: Rome 2003.