Reaching Out to Interchurch Couples:Finding a Common Spirituality
Upwards of 40% of Catholics marry Protestant, Anglican or Orthodox believers. Significant numbers of our fellow Christians attend Mass at Catholic parishes each Sunday. For those of us involved in Catholic Engaged Encounter this presents an opportunity to encourage the spiritual growth of these couples on our weekends and in our parishes.
Interchurch couples, those we sometimes refer to as being in “ecumenical marriages” [that is, marriages between Christians of two different traditions2] are at the forefront of ecumenical experience these days. The participants in the Catholic-Reformed dialogue express well a sentiment seen in other church documents:
Interchurch families are a gift both for our churches and for the whole Church of Jesus Christ. The creativity and longing for a unity that can be visibly manifest, often expressed by members of such families, can serve as a witness to the whole Church.3
Resource for Christian Unity
In an article published this past spring, Catholic theologian Jason E. King argues that too many scholars focus on the problems to be worked on in ecumenical marriages. He believes that we should see these marriages as a great resource for Christian unity and reflects on how the unifying dimensions of marriage can reconcile differing denominations through ecumenical marriages.
Marriages unite people physically, interpersonally, socially, and theologically, all through the impetus of love. Pair these dimensions with the early Christian understanding of marriage as a domestic church—the smallest manifestation of the church, and one has an example of a church uniting and a vision of a united church.4
How might we emphasize the positive elements—and there are many—in interchurch marriages? More precisely, how might couples grow spiritually in interchurch marriages? In some ways, the answer to this question is that their spiritual growth is similar to that of same-church couples:
- Pray for the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit;
- Attend church each week;
- Set aside time for daily prayer;
- Work together to understand differences and overcome/learn to live with them and
- Perform works of charity together in the community.
Such spiritual practices are important for all couples. We root our Christian life in the everyday virtues of daily living such as patience, civility, honesty, wisdom and justice.
A couple’s everyday spirituality can be lived out in many different ways. Each person is unique. Each is specially called by God. Each is on earth for a specific purpose. Each has a specific life history.
Interchurch couples have their own unique opportunities to grow together spiritually. They have unique talents and possibilities. And they have unique challenges as well.5
Communication for couples—as for all good friends—is always important. Interchurch couples often have much to learn about each other’s Christian faith tradition. They will need to explore the meaning of doctrine. Initial misunderstanding and misinterpretation of concepts is fairly common—even for experts who engage in ecumenical dialogue. Couples need to be aware that they will have to work toward mutual understanding.
Learning not only includes the doctrine of the church. It also includes the personal practices that made that faith come alive in worship, in family life and in the community. All the understandings and emotions—both positive and negative—attached to these past particulars of Christian living need to be explored.
We live out of our hearts and our heads. Thoughts and feelings often manifest themselves as Christmas, Easter or other special days come around each year. These days present couples with opportunities for dialogue, discussion and prayer. They present opportunities to seek the guidance of the Spirit in the development of the couples’ own ways of celebrating special feasts and events.
Unfortunately, such special occasions can also be opportunities to ignore differences of substance or style. Spouses or engaged couples may not want to risk upsetting each other. They sometimes submerge their differences by ignoring them. They prioritize work, recreation, or other activities rather than deal with differences.
This avoidance only creates a greater long-term risk for a lack of unity. Differences need to be worked on—often many times—rather than ignored.
It seems to me that it is best to begin the practice of discussing questions well before the wedding day. Questions such as how to raise the children, for example, are best addressed early on rather than at the last moment. Likewise a couple should consider how to deal with an unfriendly priest or minister, one who is not supportive of their interchurch marriage.
The Wedding Day
The wedding day itself can present particular challenges. Joseph M. Champlin in his popular and quite practical booklet on marriage preparation and the marriage ceremony suggests that it is best for interchurch couples not to have a Mass. Because Christians are not in agreement about the Eucharist, this might highlight differences rather than unity.
A more satisfactory plan involves a scriptural marriage ceremony without Mass. The assisting minister, if there is one, may participate in this service by reading some of the biblical texts, offering prayers, giving an exhortation and bestowing a benediction. 6
This, of course, is only a partial solution. As one friend in an interchurch marriage mentioned to me, Catholics are sometimes disappointed if there is not a Mass. One can explore the possibilities of getting permission from the Catholic Bishop for the non-Catholic spouse to receive communion. This leaves other Protestants, Anglicans, or Orthodox in attendance on the outside, though. This question admits no easy answer.
A solution decided on by some couples for whom it is important to receive communion on their wedding day is to attend Mass together earlier in the day, accompanied by members of the Catholic party’s immediate family.
The participants in the Reformed/Roman Catholic Dialogue note:
Interchurch couples and families are faced with a particular challenge. A holistic and integrated view of the Christian life seeks a continuum between personal spiritual growth and growth that takes place with one’s spouse, children, friends, and fellow Christians. They are mutually
interdependent, and the measure of growth in one area is often an indication of growth in other areas as well. A person’s interior spiritual life cannot ignore the events of work, home, and congregational life.7
Thus on the wedding day itself, we must be sensitive to practical differences and their implications for the common good of family and friends.
More generally, it is important to come to common religious practices. This may happen with the realization that not all aspects of the spiritual journey can be shared because of the differences. This situation, however, is similar to that of Catholic couples of different backgrounds who do not share all religious practices.
…partners can find their way to each other in Christ even as they find their way to each other in mutual love. Various aspects of home and family life that have traditionally been a part of both traditions may be explored. Some of these can be revived precisely because of the challenge that an interchurch marriage poses. For example, family devotions around meals, devotions on special occasions, and even a regular time of sharing and prayer may be appropriated. Both partners bring resources out of their own traditions,
or perhaps discover ways of praying that specifically reflect the family’s own growing tradition.8
Reducing religious practices can create problems later. The study of interchurch marriages by the Center for Marriage and Family at Creighton University9 indicates that couples who practice infrequently are at greater risk for divorce than same-church couples.
The study indicates that participation in joint religious activities can help couples grow together. Today there are many opportunities—such as ecumenical bible studies or social action groups—for couples to live their Christian faiths together. The key here is to do more rather than to reduce religious practices and participation.
The study indicates that better marriage preparation can benefit interfaith couples. Good marriage preparation begins the process of learning from one another and building a common spiritual life.
Skilled clergy and lay leaders can help couples address questions arising from varied religious upbringing and education.
Interchurch marriages are becoming more and more the norm. I believe that these couples can grow together spiritually. And they can bring their experiences to the ongoing search for Christian unity.10 Communion in faith, life, worship and witness among the Christian churches will not grow by pretending differences don’t exist. It will grow by taking them seriously and exploring them forthrightly. Interchurch couples will provide valued insights into this process. They provide the key to overcoming the differences between Christians.
Fr. John W. Crossin, OSFS is executive director of the Washington Theological Consortium and president of the North American Academy of Ecumenists.
1 I originally presented this paper in October 2007 at a workshop for couples who present Catholic Engaged Encounter weekends.
2 We should note here the difference between interchurch and interfaith marriages. Interchurch marriages are between Christians. Interfaith marriages are between a Christian and a non-Christian such as a member of the Hindu or Muslim faiths. In popular language, people often refer to all these relationships as ecumenical. There is, however, a profound difference. Christians share many of their beliefs in common. Christian traditions pray ‘that all may be one’ as Jesus prayed for his disciples. Many Christians are working to restore “full communion.” Other religious traditions differ widely from Christianity in their beliefs. There is no possibility of union between Christians and the believers in these religions. Some authors such as Joseph M. Champlin in his very popular preparation booklet Together For Life: A Preparation for Marriage and for the Ceremony (Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 2002) refers to interchurch and interfaith marriages as interreligious (page 69).
3 Catholic/Reformed Dialogue in the United States, “Interchurch Families: Resources for Ecumenical Hope” Ed. By John C. Bush & Patrick R. Cooney (Washington, DC/Louisville: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops/Westminister John Knox Press, 2002): 1. This book explains the Reformed churches’ and the Catholic views of Baptism [chapter 3], the Church , the Covenant of Marriage , and the Eucharist . These chapters present, both honestly and clearly, the convergences and divergences. The authors note that there is also diversity within the traditions (p. 3).
4 “Ecumenical Marriage as Leaven for Christian Unity,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 42:2 (Spring 2007): 253-62. King’s footnotes give extensive references to ecumenical marriages.
5 See Elizabeth Bookser Barkley, “Interchurch Marriages: How to Help Them Succeed,” Catholic Update, 1990 for a short, practical reflection on many of the questions that arise.
6 Champlin, 69.
7 Catholic/Reformed Dialogue, p. 1.
8 Catholic/Reformed Dialogue, p. 3.
9 “Ministry to Interchurch Marriages: A Summary Report,” Center for Marriage and Family, Creighton University, 1999.
10 It is often remarked in articles on interchurch couples that the couples are dealing with these issues because the churches cannot come to that unity that Jesus spoke of at the Last Supper [Jn 17:18-21].