Interchurch Families: Ecumenical Instruments
From the time we came together as interchurch families in the 1960s, we believed we could contribute to our churches’ moving together towards unity. But I didn’t really think of us as ‘ecumenical instruments’ until I was asked to write a chapter for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Ecumenical Studies precisely on interchurch families as ecumenical instruments. Under ‘Instruments’ we were to stand alongside the World Council of Churches, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Bilateral Dialogues, the Groups des Dombes, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity etc! I was surprised, but ready to try. My chapter has three sections.
Do we recognise ourselves as ecumenical instruments? Do the churches recognise us as such?
The World Gathering of Interchurch Families, Rome 2003, said that ‘we believe we have a significant and unique contribution to make to our churches’ growth in visible Christian unity’. This conviction came from groups and associations of interchurch families from eleven countries. They give a voice to a particular kind of ‘mixed marriage’ in which both partners remain faithful to their original church membership, but are committed to participate in the life and worship of their spouse’s church so far as they can. They share parental responsibility if they have children, and bring them up appreciating both their Christian traditions. It is these groups and associations that I considered as ‘ecumenical instruments’. Over the years, the institutional churches have increasingly recognised their ecumenical role.
How do interchurch families contribute to Christian unity?
They embody unity simply by growing together as partners, parents and families. As the partners grow in married love, sharing their lives together, respecting and forgiving and learning from one another, they find that this attitude can extend to one another’s churches too. They take on a larger identity that includes rather then excludes; they discover that differences can be enriching and are not necessarily divisive. Their children inherit this wider identity. They share their experience of unity with others, taking on responsibilities in each other’s churches, encouraging clergy and congregations of both to join in celebrating family occasions – unity can become for others a living reality in a new way. They host ecumenical house-groups for Bible study or prayer. As ‘domestic churches’ they are one church at home, living under one roof and sharing their resources; in their everyday lives they create a living and healing connection between their ecclesial communities.
How can interchurch families become more effective ecumenical instruments?
Because of their two-church solidarity they challenge the institutional churches, and especially the Roman Catholic Church whose self-understanding includes a sense of being ‘church’ in a fullness that it does not attribute to other ecclesial communities. Challenges to accepted ways of thinking ask for change and so are always uncomfortable. But because change and conversion is needed on the ecumenical journey, challenges can be received as gifts. In their refusal to be divided, interchurch families witness to the priority of relationships in promoting Christian unity, to spiritual ecumenism and the ‘ecumenism of life’. Other aspects of unity are important, but these are central. It is not easy for the churches, and especially the Catholic Church, to receive interchurch families as gifts, but what has been happening over the years is the development of a better pastoral understanding of interchurch families in their concrete situation. In itself this leads to ecumenical progress; a response to pastoral need helps to break down an institutional mentality. However, to be effective, instruments must be put to use. There are signs that this is being recognised, but relevant church authorities need to take action.
Originally written for the British AIF News; reprinted with permission from Ruth Reardon, this article appeared in the May 2012 edition of the ARK, a publication of the American Association of Interchurch Families, Volume 23, Edition 5