I recently had a phonecall from a lady who was quite scandalised to learn that a Roman Catholic priest had been present in some official capacity at a wedding held in an Anglican Church. I was asked who had given permission for him to participate in a marriage service in a non-Catholic church.
The simple answer is that such permission is given in the 1993 document from the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity ‘Directory for the Application of Principles and Norms on Ecumenism’.
This document acknowledges that increasing numbers of marriages are taking place between members of different Christian traditions. Some readers will recall the pain that such unions caused in the past when the Catholic attitude toward other Churches meant that these marriages were often performed in the sacristy instead of the church proper.
The ‘Ecumenical Directory’ reflects an entirely different attitude:
These marriages, even if they have their own particular difficulties, contain numerous elements that could well be made good use of and developed, both for their intrinsic value and for the contribution they can make to the ecumenical movement. This is particularly true when both parties are faithful to their religious duties. (# 145)
The next paragraph of the document goes on to say that it is the responsibility of all, especially priests and deacons, to provide support for the couples in mixed marriages ‘both in the preparation for the marriage, in its sacramental celebration and for the life together that follows the marriage ceremony’.
How the priest provides support for the Catholic party of an interchurch marriage held in another church is dealt with later in the document:
With the previous authorisation of the local Ordinary, and if invited to do so, a Catholic priest or deacon may attend or participate in some way in the celebration of mixed marriages, …. At the invitation of the presiding celebrant, the Catholic priest or deacon may offer appropriate prayers, read from the Scriptures, give a brief exhortation and bless the couple. (#157)
If an interchurch marriage is conducted in a Catholic Church and the couple so wishes, the local Ordinary may permit the Catholic priest to invite the minister from the other church to participate in the celebration of the marriage, to read from the Scriptures, give a brief exhortation and bless the couple. (#158)
The issue of marriage between Christians of different denominations was the topic of the National Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Uniting Church in Australia in the 1990s. The report of this dialogue is entitled ‘Interchurch Marriages: Their Ecumenical Challenge and Significance for our Churches’. The section of the report dealing with the pastoral care of the couple emphasises the importance of clergy from both Churches participating in the marriage service.
I have used the term ‘interchurch marriage’ rather than ‘mixed marriage’ in this article, as does the RCC/UCA report. I believe it is a more appropriate term as it acknowledges the fact that each partner in the marriage is grounded in his or her own faith tradition.
Interchurch couples ought to be seen as God’s great gift to the Churches in their quest for the restoration of Christian unity and not as a problem to be avoided, ignored or solved.