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Learning to Appreciate Interfaith Marriage in the Church of England

“Will You Marry Us?”

“How I wish that one or other religion had been willing to bless our marriage.” This remark, more than thirty years ago, made by the Jewish widow of a Christian whose funeral I had just taken, alerted me to the pain and rejection often experienced by couples of different faiths who want to arrange their wedding ceremony. At her husband’s funeral, her rabbi had also said a prayer. But to her continuing sadness, no priest or rabbi had countenanced their marriage.

I had, in fact, already taken one Christian-Muslim wedding, but at the time there was no guidance available and the very idea of a ‘non-Christian’ being married in church was a ‘no-go’ area for most clergy. Even quite recently a television program showed an ‘interfaith’ couple telephoning a dozen or more clergy, none of whom would help. I recall also in India a Jain, who had married a Hindu girl, saying that they were shunned by both families.

Today, interfaith marriages are more common. The Pew Forum’s 2008 report on American religion puts marriages between two religions at 27 percent, a figure that went to 37 percent if different Christian denominations were counted together (such as Catholic and Baptist). The numbers have grown and estimates today differ. Last April the Economist suggested that in America “45 percent of marriages in the past decade have involved either two religions or Christian doctrines that clash seriously."

In ’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America (2013), Naomi Schaefer Riley, depending on her own research, claims that in the U.S. 42 percent of marriages are interfaith. Marriages between people of two different religions, she says, are becoming more common in every area of the country, regardless of a person’s educational status or income level. 

Officiating at Interfaith Weddings

Canterbury Cathedral, the seat of the Church of England – Photo: WikipediaAs a Church of England vicar I usually only get involved when the couple started thinking about the wedding ceremony. Circumstances vary; I have taken part in ‘interfaith’ weddings in church, blessings following a separate legal ceremony, and more informal celebrations.

As a vicar, at a wedding I act both as priest and legal registrar – that is to say, the one ceremony is both religious and legal. By law, if a person (who is not divorced) lives in the parish, the couple have a right to be married in the parish church. The couple could be a Sikh and a Buddhist – but they have to be married “according to the rites and ceremonies of the Church of England,” which, of course, are Christian and include the giving of the ring “within the love of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit” and a blessing in the name of “God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit.”

When I have taken the marriage of a Christian to a Jew or Muslim, I have suggested that the latter makes the promise simply “in the name of God.” The advice I received was that this would be legal and would respect person’s integrity: but some official guidance suggests this may not be the case. This was in no way, as critics suggested, hiding the fact that the wedding was a Christian service – the building itself, with its uncomfortable pews, made that obvious! But simple hospitality requires some sensitivity, just as you would not serve meat to vegetarian guests.

We’ve also included a reading from the Hebrew scriptures or from the Qu’ran as well as the New Testament. The hymns are carefully chosen. At one Christian-Jewish wedding we had a chuppah in church.

Getting to Know Each Other

The important point is spending time with the couple and the families helping them to understand each other and their beliefs and customs. In almost every case the couples say that in preparing for the wedding, they had come to give greater importance to their own faith as well as appreciating their partner’s beliefs.

For various reasons – maybe because they are not resident in the parish – a couple will have a civil marriage and then a blessing service in church, similar to a wedding service but rather more informal. In recent years it has become possible for couples to get married in hotels or stately homes. No mention of God is allowed – although one friend got away with a Latin anthem which referred to ‘Deus.’ It is allowed to have a subsequent informal ceremony with music and readings.

Rev. Marcus Braybrooke in clerical robes.In the same way, after a civil ceremony, a couple may like to have an informal ceremony at home or in another attractive venue and will work out an appropriate liturgy honouring their respective backgrounds.

Again, it is important to emphasise sensitivity and the need in marriage preparation to look at the bearing of religion on the couple’s life together and how they bring up their children. For several years, an annual day conference for mixed faith couples was organised at the Sternberg Centre for Reform Judaism in London – ‘I’m Jewish, my partner isn’t.’ I was invited as a Christian contributor to see fair play. Christmas trees were a major item. I remember one Jewish mother saying that when she went to visit her daughter and saw a Christmas tree in the hall, she walked straight out and ever since has spent Christmas in Israel.

A Christian mother can feel equally uncomfortable when her husband takes it for granted that their baby son will be circumcised. As Khalil Gibran’s Prophet said, “Let there be spaces in your togetherness.” True love respects the other and does not try to remake him or her in our image.

Recently I was asked to take part in a Christian-Muslim wedding by a forward-looking local imam. In this case the man was the Christian, whereas traditionally a Muslim man could marry a Jewish woman but the reverse was not allowed.

It is not just pastoral reasons that make me glad to celebrate interfaith marriages. A report of the Conference of European Churches has suggested “About fifty or sixty years ago mixed marriages between Protestants and Roman Catholics were not highly valued. Nonetheless some of the groups they formed have become important meeting points for the spread of ecumenism. Is it possible to make a comparison at this point with some Muslim-Christian families and hope that they may lead the way forward and become a pattern of future developments in Christian-Muslim relations.”

Some of the material included in this article is drawn from “Interfaith Rites of Passage,” by Marcus Braybrooke in A Great Commission: Christian Hope and Religious Diversity (2000), edited by Martin Forward, Stephen Plant, and Susan White. Go here for more information about Church of England marriage guidance.