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   Home  > Articles

So what if you aren’t the same religion?

By Rosalind Birtwistle

Facing the challenges

“I don’t think it really matters if a couple aren’t the same religion,” a young man wrote to me recently, “So long as they are in love.” Brave words, I thought, though a tad naïve. Anyone who has a faith knows how it affects their whole life and relationships, so if they marry someone of a different religion, there will be implications. There will be tough questions, and probably opposition from relations and friends. Of course love is important, and in a good marriage a couple’s love will grow and mature over the years, but there are times when interfaith couples face extra issues, frequently with little support from family, friends and worshipping communities

What, then are the issues you will face if you are thinking about marriage to someone of another faith?

Before you even begin to plan the wedding, family and friends may express concern, dismay and even outright opposition to the marriage. You will be told stories of disastrous marriages, unhappy and excluded spouses, and children who are apparently confused by religion. You probably won’t hear much about successful and happy interfaith families, although there are plenty of us about. Remember that in most cases, your families are genuinely concerned for your happiness, and simply cannot understand how you can be happy with someone of a different religion, particularly if there are also significant cultural differences

Some couples at this point decide they have had enough of religion, particularly if ministers have been recruited to dissuade them from marriage, or if members of their local congregation have been hostile or judgmental. However, it is still a good idea to learn as much as you can about one another’s faith; and to attend services and festivals if you feel able. How do you feel, deep within yourselves about one another’s faith? What is important and valuable in your own and your partner’s faith, and which bits do you find difficult or unacceptable? Although you may not be particularly religious now, or even if you feel angry about religion, this can change. On the other hand, if you have a secret desire to convert your partner, think again. It rarely works, and trying too hard to do so can undermine your marriage. Conversion may be an option for either of you, but it should be open, honest and for the right reasons.

The wedding ceremony itself can cause anxiety for couples and their family and friends. Whether or not you have a religious ceremony depends partly on the religions involved. In the UK, rabbis cannot officiate at mixed marriages, while many Jews and Muslims feel uncomfortable in Churches because of the décor (crucifixes, statues and icons can offend) and the wording of the service (particularly the Trinitarian language). A Muslim man may be permitted to marry a Christian or Jewish woman in a mosque, but her religion forbids a Muslim woman from marrying outside her faith, and an imam would refuse to officiate. Some eastern faiths are more flexible in their attitude to religious ceremonies. However, because of the potential difficulties many couples opt for a civil ceremony, perhaps with some prayers or a blessing at the reception. Planning a reception is largely a matter of personal choice, but remember that it may be best to serve Kosher, Halal or vegetarian food

Day to day life contains issues for the interfaith couple or family. For example, you need to decide whether you are both going to follow religious food laws, what festivals you will celebrate, and how. Will you have any religious symbols in your home, a mezuzah on the doorpost perhaps, or a palm cross over the mantelpiece? It seems incredible to outsiders, but some couples have intense arguments about Christmas trees. Some couples need to be aware of the specific gender roles and expectations in different faiths and cultures. “He’ll make you wear a veil and you won’t be allowed to go out alone” was the gloomy warning given to one woman before her marriage to a Muslim. Of course she still goes outside, unveiled, but is careful to dress in a smart style which her husband and sisters-in-law find inoffensive.

What about the children? Some couples are surprised to find that the birth of children stimulates spiritual feelings, and raises new religious questions. You need to decide about how you will bring them up. Their religious status will depend on the particular religious combination of the parents. The children of a Jewish woman are considered Jewish, while Islam specifies that the children of a Muslim man and a Christian or Muslim woman should be raised as Muslims. Circumcision is something else you should think about in advance. Most mainstream churches will welcome your children, but they are not officially members of the church unless they are baptised. Whatever their official religious status, you may want to ensure your children understand both faiths, which can be great fun, as they will have two sets of annual celebrations! Some interfaith families find sufficient common ground for family prayers too

Marriage is a public event with community implications. Ideally, the community is there to support a couple through the joys and difficulties of married life, but in our privatised lives this does not always happen. Where can an interfaith couple go when they experience difficulties ? They may be reluctant to ask close family or religious ministers for help for fear of hearing “We told you so.” Relationships with parents or in-laws may already be difficult, particularly if hurtful things have been said before the marriage. Some clergy find interfaith families hard to care for, perhaps feeling out of their depth when confronted with an issue never foreseen at theological college. “It’s one of the most difficult situations I’ve ever had to deal with” sighed one bishop when asked for advice. Mixed faith couples can find they have a lot of basic explaining to do in their congregations, and often feel marginal. My personal experience with churches has been very variable, while several Christians I know who are in mixed faith marriages have had difficulties with churches, sometimes even leaving them altogether.

So does it matter if a couple aren’t the same religion? Indeed it does, but love, an open attitude and mutual tolerance can go a long way to helping them find answers to the particular questions they face. I’d even venture to suggest that close exposure to another faith may actually enrich a marriage and enhance an individual’s own faith.

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Copyright © 2002, Rosalind Birtwistle.

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