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Resolving Conflicts in Interfaith and Interchurch Marriages
by Abby Mendelson

This article is one of a series on Conflict Resolution in the Faith Community published by the Conflict Resolution Center International. For more information about conflict resolution contact:

Conflict Resolution Center International
204 37th Street
Pittsburgh PA 15206-1859
Tel: 412-687-6210 • Fax:412 687-6232
E-mail: [email protected]

Resolving Conflicts in Interfaith and Interchurch Marriages

Although some clergy denounce interfaith and interchurch marriages as a scourge, citing them as the leading cause of marital discord and divorce, it need not be so. While marriage across religions is clearly not for every person, or every church, there are viable methods to resolve conflicts—even to the complete satisfaction of all parties. Here are a half-dozen examples—and conflict resolution techniques which can help ameliorate problems.

The Church told Satara, "Wait, you're not ready." Was she?
When Catholic Satara and Baptist Jerome decided to wed, they agreed on a wedding mass—just like her eight siblings. While Jerome understood that he did not have to convert to Catholicism, he did have to make a commitment to his future wife's faith. Yet as he was taking classes, the couple pushed up the date to accommodate her terminally ill father. Satara's priest felt that Jerome was not significantly advanced to make a sincere affirmation of Catholicism and refused to marry them. What did she do?

Patty converted to marry outside her faith. Did everyone live happily ever after?
Patty, like Jerome, was born a Baptist. When she married Dave, raised in a traditional Jewish home, she converted. She and her husband are now happily Jewish, as are their two children. But does all sit well with her family?

Faye thought a marriage across religions was fine. Mom didn't. Who won?
Faye and Leo, of different religious backgrounds, decided to wed and called their families for a get-together. At one point, Leo's mom sat next to her opposite number and casually inquired as to how many of her brood had married outside the faith. "Every damn one of them," Faye's mother snapped. After that frosty greeting, where did the nuptials occur?

Richard wanted to marry a Baptist. His mother thought it would cost him his soul. Now what?
Richard, a Jehovah's Witness, found a bride among the Baptists. However, his mother objected fiercely, citing Witness doctrine that even entering a Christian church would defile her son's soul—and cause him to lose his place in heaven. What did James do?

Catholic Kathy married Unitarian. Who gave the bride away?
Kathy wanted to be married in the Church to please her parents. But when her non-Catholic fiance refused to affirm the faith, they were married by a Unitarian minister in a nondenominational chapel. Her parents at first were horrified. But did they attend?

Bill considered marrying his nurse. Then he considered his heritage. Who won?
Cindy had saved Bill from the despair that had nearly taken his life. But when he experienced a reconciliation with his traditional family—and a religious renaissance—Cindy couldn't and wouldn't share it. Which did he chose?

We'll give you a minute to think about how things might have turned out—and how you might have resolved each conflict.

What Happened? Satara's Choice.
Satara followed 80 percent of Christians, by some accounts, 60 percent of Jews, and more than 40 percent of Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists, opting for a marriage across religions, in her case a home-style Baptist ceremony. "It was a hard, heart-wrenching conflict," she says. "I'm still a Catholic—but in the Church's eyes I'm not married.

Find common ground—and build on it.
For people like Satara, says the Reverend Larry Homitsky, a Methodist minister who regularly performs interfaith and interchurch marriages, "It's what we don't know that creates conflict. I counsel people to research the other's position and seize it as a learning experience. I also invite other spiritual leaders into the church and work to blend their traditions into the couple's bond and their expression of love. Whenever another minister and I sit with the couple and their parents to answer questions, the parents leave with a wholly different understanding—in part because their spiritual leader was present. I have performed many such services," he adds, "and I've not had a bad experience."

What Happened? Patty's Family Feud.
Patty's old friends still refuse to accept her Judaism, repeatedly insisting that in her heart she's still a Baptist. Her sister routinely asks about Christmas, knowing Patty does not celebrate it. And when Patty went to her niece's Christening, and her former minister—who abjectly refuses to speak to her—pointedly preached about the eternal hellfire awaiting those who don't accept Jesus, Patty walked out.

Choose one religion—and stick to it.
If her family has problems, Patty doesn't. She continues to be happy with her decision, in part because she knows that her children cannot be raised both ways. "I use the Biblical analogy of creatures having to be evenly yoked," says Reverend James Simms, a Baptist pastor. "In marriage, people should try to pursue similar spiritual goals, to create a family that goes forward. How can they do that if they're not pulling in the same direction? I'm very strong on encouraging couples to worship together, even if one of the members has to leave my church. Because I want to see the faith issue resolved, not tearing people apart." Adds Father Robert Ahlin, the Pittsburgh Diocese's Judicial Vicar, "Children are often used to resolve people's religious relations. To be given a solid faith direction—and taught to respect other people's beliefs and practices—is much more important than being in a tug of war."

What Happened? Faye flies in the face of religion.
After her mother's rejection, Faye decided not to have a religious wedding of any kind, instead waiting until their parents were out of town and opting for a civil ceremony.

Know what you're fighting about.
Faye, like many, faced what Rabbi Yisroel Miller calls "the major issue that people have no argument why the young person should not have a marriage across religions. The child is not rebelling against theology. More often than not, he or she has been raised without it. On the other hand, parents and clergy often act out of deep tribal needs. That may be an excellent motive, but to the child it makes no sense.

"To deal with the conflict," Rabbi Miller continues, "everyone has to ask: how much do principles count? Do I say that love conquers all? Or do I take a stand for what I believe is right? In any event, endless bickering doesn't help. As a parent or clergyman, make your point once, clearly, and let it go. The child will either accept it and act accordingly, or not. But endless whining or pressure to compromise doesn't help anyone."

What Happened? Richard's marriage defies his mother.
Despite his mother's strong theological objections, Richard was married in a Baptist ceremony—but only after his Baptist bride-to-be got her minister to mediate.

Mediate with a neutral third party who can calm things down.
"You see marriages across religions more in an urban ministry," Reverend James Simms says, "where there are more people with varied backgrounds. My technique is to be open; hopefully, we can spread the canopy of faith wide enough to embrace many different positions and beliefs. In this case, the mother-in-law came to my office to talk—despite the fact that many Jehovah's Witnesses believe that if they enter a Christian church they are defiled and lose their place in heaven. She was very cordial—in fact, she even brought breakfast. We talked for an hour and a half, and while her own beliefs remained unchanged, there was far less hostility."

What Happened? Kathy's parents relent.
Her Catholic parents, who at first objected, turned the other cheek, accepted their new son-in-law, and joined in the celebration.

Accept the participants' decisions—and support them.
As the Revered Larry Homitsky says, by the time a couple agrees to have a marriage across religions, there is probably very little that can be done to stop them. In the final act, it may be necessary to call a halt to the hostilities, accept what a couple wants to do, and try to succor them in every way possible. For example, many ceremonies include passages from Ruth, with its thematic acceptance of people of other faiths, and focus on love as the salve that heals all wounds.

What Happened? Bill calls the whole thing off.
Struck by the beauty of his tradition, Bill broke off with Cindy and began living a more traditionally religious life.

The best defense is a good offense.
Innumerable parents and ministers say the same thing: to have children or congregants stay in your church, keep your religion strong in their lives. Show them the beauty of your way of life—so that they could not conceive of living or choosing a life partner without it, or a partner who would not become an active participant. Perhaps your congregants' children will marry out, but at least you'll know you've done your best to keep them.

Copyright 1999 Conflict Resolution Center International, Inc.