THERE was no communion at the wedding service of MP David Alton and Lizzie Bell in Liverpool last summer. Though both devout Christians, the two are divided by denomination he a Catholic, she an Anglican so that, while a ceremony conducted jointly by two ministers was fine, a shared eucharist was definitely.
It was, says Alton, a "great tragedy". On the day he and his wife were united in matrimony, they were unable to be united at the communion table. Like many other so-called "mixed marriages", their gut feeling that this was a time to share their common faith was crushed by the sheer weight of history and theology.
Couples like the Altons are at the sharp end of the splits in the Christian Church. For many people, ecumenism means little more than a special intention to pray for once a year during Christian Unity Week: for the partners in a mixed marriage, it is something to strive for everyday, because its culmination will mean the complete fusing of a relationship.
It's certainly not the case, though, that these couples can only consider their experiences in a negative light. People like Ruth and Martin Reardon — she's a Catholic, he's an Anglican minister — believe their living ecumenism can work as a kind of stimulus to general action.
They are, after all, making use of what is possible and what is available to live as unified a life as they can — playing down the differences and concentrating on shared Christian principles. In addition, they have the chance to pass on to their children what they consider to be the better parts of each tradition — the Reardons have brought up their family to feel at home with both Anglicanism and Catholicism. "In effect", says Ruth, "we feel we've brought them up to be more than just Catholics".
For many Catholics, it is only by personally getting to know someone who is an Anglican, a Methodist or a Baptist that old prejudices about "them and us" are torn down. Inter-church marriage — which has only in the last 20 years become really widespread — has been an important component in this, but so too have the small, ecumenical groups which have grown up in the last few years in towns and villages around the country. Often, these have been set up by an interchurch couple: in other cases, it has been someone whose parents were of different denominations, or who has come into close contact in some other way with a non-Catholic Christian. And once set up, the sharing usually grows and strengthens, as people on all sides realise how much they have in common.
This grassroots ecumenism is on the increase, and will certainly be the main focus for Christian unity over the next decade. The Inter Church Process, discussions ongoing since 1984 aimed at replacing the British Council of Churches from next year with a new assembly to include the Catholic Church, has now published a document encouraging, among other things, more interest in unity in the parishes. Another impetus to grassroots ecumenism will come from the falling numbers of Christians actually attending the churches: as the figure dwindles still further, those who are left in the pews will turn increasingly to others who share their Christian beliefs, if not their actual place of worship.
This kind of local ecumenism is significant because it is based on relationships, not on theological debate. Teresa Riordan, secretary of the Brentwood diocese ecumenism commission, has been involved in parish groups for the past eight years and has seen this in action. "People don't come along because of a deep sense of theology or because they want to look at the divisions. They meet together because they are friends, and this friendship grows in trust over time."
Many believe it is at this parish level that the real steps forward will be taken — not hurriedly, but slowly, over time. "I think it has to he because of a coming together of hearts and that can only happen at the grassroots level", says David Alton. "Local covenants, which are becoming more widespread, are the right way forward."
More controversial is the view that it is at this level that the most difficult issues that divide the churches, such as intercommunion, will be decided. As sociologist Michael Hornsby-Smith points out in his pamphlet The Everyday Lives of Lay Catholics "there is clearly a
considerable amount of intercommunion taking place quiety and unofficially" around the country. Often in ignorance of trhe Catholic Church's ban on it, and at other times in defiance of it, many Catholics accept the Anglican invitation to share their eucharist — equally, Catholic priests sometimes invite Anglicans and others to share Holy Communion at Mass. These are not common incidents, but they do happen. And to quote Michael Hornsby-Smith again: "Over a decade ago a member of the bishops' Ecumenical Commission observed that deviance in terms of the Church's rules was necessary if those rules were ever to be changed, and that changed rules followed changes practices rather than the other way round".
The official forum for changing the rules, of course, is the Anglican Roman Catholic international Commission, or ARCIC, a body of distinguished theologians who meet to examine and publish reports on the doctrinal difficulties which divide their two churches. The commission's next paper, due out within the next two years, is on the subject of communion the line has always been that intercommunion is a sign of final unity, not a step towards it, and that point of view is unlikely to be revised.
It is in the reconciliation of ministries, however, that ARCIC's Catholic co-chairman Bishop Cormac Murphy O'Connor sees most difficulties ahead. The issue of women priests he considers a potential minefield — married priests, he says, aren't anything like as much of a problem.
The existence of ARCIC itself has led some to suggest Catholics are too concerned simply with unifying themselves with the Anglican Church, and have tended to ignore the Free Churches. Equally some within both the Anglican and Free Churches have thought the Catholics retiscent — Dr Lewis Burton, Methodist minister and ecumenical officer for West Yorkshire, thinks this could be partly because shared churches and joint church membership has been possible between, say, Anglicans and Methodists or Methodists and members of the United Reformed Church, but not with Catholics. Shared churches are becoming more common now, sometimes with Catholic involvement, but total fusion is of course out.
Perhaps the most positive face of contemporary ecumenism is to be seen in the "last-orientated" projects. Faith in Leeds, for example, is an initiative concerned with inner-city homelessness and deprivation and involves members of the Anglican, Methodist, Baptist, United Reformed and Catholic churches, as well as the Salvation Army and the black-led Church of God of Prophesy. Explains Carol Burns, the project's coordinator: "Faith in Leeds allows for growth and development between churches in a creative way because we have got a shared task and shared vision. Because of what we believe about justice we often have more in common on these issues with people from other denominations than those within our own." There is also freedom to discuss doctrinal differences without threat, she says: no-one is going to leave the project because of denominational divides when the common purpose of working for justice is so strong.
Where do the clerics stand on ecumenism? Like involved laypeople, the importance they attach to working for unity often depends on whether or not they have been exposed to friendships and sharing with those from other denominations. Overall, though, the noises are positive: last year's National Conference of Priests overwhelmingly committed itself to working for unity, and a majority of 71 to four recognised the ecumenical value of inter-church marriages.
Inter-church groups of ministers around the country are providing a visible sign of clerical unity. Not surprisingly one of the best examples of this is in Liverpool, home of the country's best known ecumenical duo Bishop David Sheppard and Archbishop Derek Worlock. There, the city centre ecumenical team appoint one member to represent all the churches as, say, a theatre chaplain or to attend an event, instead of having denominational representation. Christian Unity Week is also taken seriously in central Liverpool: this year, events included an Anglican Mass with a Catholic preacher, and a Methodist communion service held in a Catholic church.
"When you remember that before Vatican !lit was a sin to go into an Anglican church, that's a tremendous turnaround," says ecumenical team member Fr Philip Inch.
"We've made such huge steps forward over the last 20 years it's hard to see what the future will hold — though I'm sure the pressure to advance will come from the bottom up, from the grassroots".
Quite how far grassroots pressure will push the Catholic hierarchy is, though, unclear. Some feel that, having encouraged great leaps forward in ecumenism in recent years, the bishops will stall at the final hurdle and that any model of officially fully-fused Christian unity is still many decades away.