By KATHY SCHMUGGE
WHITE OAK — When Lutherans, Anglicans, Roman Catholics and United Methodists (LARCUM) of South Carolina come together to discuss a spiritual topic, greater respect and understanding is often the fruit produced by the ecumenical endeavor. The 10th Bishops’ Ecumenical Dialogue titled “Supporting the InterChurch Family: Ecumenical Marriage” was no exception.
The topic of interfaith or “mixed” marriage is one which Pope John Paul II addressed in his 1981 apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio. “Marriage between Catholics and other baptized persons have their particular nature, but they contain numerous elements that could well be made good use of and developed, both for their intrinsic value and for the contribution that they can make to the ecumenical movement.”
Pastors, priests and interested laity from the various denominations spent two days exploring those very contributions and collectively sought ways to support the ecumenical marriages. The event examined mixed marriages from three perspectives: theological, spiritual and practical. The sessions were led by two professors from the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, the Rev. Dr. Daryl Everett and Robert D. Hawkins, Ph.D., a complimentary team who have worked on other similar projects together.
Hawkins, who earned his doctorate in Liturgical History from the University of Notre Dame, currently teaches worship and music at the Lutheran seminary. The theologian began his lecture by looking at the fundamentals of the marriage covenant.
“Scripture reveals that God’s creative work is motivated by self-giving, sacrificial love …. We obviously become participant in God’s on-going creation in procreation (because) it is an emphatic affirming of God speaking the good word in what otherwise appears a hostile place,” he said, adding that the couple also bring into being ideas and a relationship. Hawkins addressed the mysterious and sacramental nature of marriage highlighting St. Paul’s insistence that marriage reflect Christ’s relationship to the church.
In a later session, Hawkins explored several applicable marriage rites. “It can be helpful to look at the various rites compared in order to note what biblical images and theological reflections the various traditions raise up to describe marriage,” he said, again focusing on the similarities and strengths found in each rite.
Everett led the alternating sessions, designed to look at the every day challenges of mixed marriages. “Ecumenical marriages should be seen as gifts of grace rather than problems to fix,” he said. With experience in marriage counseling, he was able to give both general and specific advice to the participants about relationships and keeping them healthy.
Areas of improvement, according to Everett, could be special pre-Cana programs for interfaith couples, where for example the instructors could be from both denominations. Everett also felt the need for continued support throughout the marriage, but to ensure the programs are tailored to the individual. Everett reminded everyone to always ask, “Where is God in this?” for proper perspective. “Remember in marriage we are merging two stories to get a third story, and the fourth story is God’s story of humanity. It is the Spirit who weaves together the stories, and we should be always open to that grace,” he said.
After each session, participants eagerly wrestled with new ideas and perspectives on the blessings and trials of the mixed marriages, trying to find ways to reach out to the couples Hawkin’s referred to as “ecumenical martyrs,” because of the suffering they can sometimes endure for their faith.
“We have found a special need to help these couples pray together in the home, to help them discover suitable forms of shared prayer. What is often lacking but vital to the growth of any marriage is praying together on a regular basis,” added Bishop Robert J. Baker, who is committed to assisting the married couples. Presently he is working on a joint statement with the other LARCUM bishops on the topic of interfaith marriage.
Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina Bishop William Skilton was glad to have the opportunity to share in a topic that affects LARCUM members equally. “Assisting couples in interfaith marriages is a need which has been erupting in the South, and I am glad we are working on it together,” he said.
In one of the sessions three interfaith couples shared their marriage experiences, describing some of the daily struggles they endure as people of different faiths. Some of the stories revealed hurts mostly coming from an unknowing spouse or insensitive church members. Language seemed to present the greatest obstacle in the feeling of acceptance. Even the word “non-Catholic” brought a feeling of isolation from some of the spouses even though that was not the intention of the term.
The couples all agreed that greater education especially in marriage preparation courses could eliminate some of the misconceptions. Problems can result from not knowing the vocabulary, rules and purpose of the rules of another faith much less their own.
“We realize much more needs to be done in marriage preparation and beyond to help these couples in their married life and in their faith. As we acknowledge the church’s expectation for the Catholic party to positively commit to raising the children in the Catholic faith (an agreement made prior to their marriage), we want the ecumenical couple to know we are there to help,” added Bishop Baker.
“The church is deeply convinced that only by the acceptance of the Gospel are the hopes that man legitimately places in marriage and in the family capable of being fulfilled,” the Holy Father has stated.
In such cases where the ecumenical marriages are thriving, Hawkins believes that “… they may afford us one of the clearer visions we have of the goal of Christ’s high priestly prayer in John 17 ‘… that we be one.’ They can show others how it works, day in and day out, a greater challenge than ‘the occasional, hospitable ecumenical gathering.'”