The Interfaith Marriage
By Kristen Molloy
For some people who are forced to make a choice between their religion (which often incorporates their family and community) and the person they love, marriage is fraught with challenges and heartache. For others, however, marriage is the ultimate reconciliation ceremony - bringing together the best elements from two religions and cultures.
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Mark*, a Christian, had no qualms about marrying Jocelyn, a Buddhist, in a traditional Buddhist marriage ceremony. "The day was all about celebrating our love and the symbols we used to illustrate this were appropriate and inoffensive. Buddhists don't prevent people from marrying if they aren't both Buddhists. I liked the attitude. Our friends participated in the traditional ritual of pouring water on our hands to unite and support us. We had a group of Thai monks who led a wonderful chant. I think our friends enjoyed the novelty and were surprised that a ceremony that was completely different to anything they had seen before could still be so moving. However you choose to do it, marriage really boils down to two people making a commitment to a life together."
Whereas Mark's parents were supportive of his decision to forgo the traditional Christian wedding ceremony, for others the decision to marry a person from a different faith is not so easy. Sarah was brought up by her orthodox Jewish parents to understand that she was expected to marry a Jewish man. But she met Peter, a Catholic, and fell in love.
"When we first started going out, I kept it a secret from my parents," recalls Sarah. "I knew they would be devastated, especially my mother. She had said to me on numerous occasions that she wouldn't be able to cope if I ever decided to marry out of the Jewish faith. She'd made it very clear that if I went down that road, I would be going it alone."
The would-be marriage posed a problem for Peter's parents, too, who are strict Catholics. "They were worried that many of the traditions that we take for granted, like celebrating Christmas, would be impossible. My mother was concerned that we had decided that our children would be brought up knowing both faiths but practicing neither. We believe by giving our children the facts and celebrating all the important rituals of both religions they will be able to make a choice for themselves," says Peter.
While the road to matrimony was not always smooth, Peter and Sarah won both sets of parents over with their determination and obvious love for each other. Sarah explains, "Basically there was a point where our parents realized if they made us choose between them and each other, we would choose each other. Once they really understood we were going to get married and spend a life together and have their grandchildren - with or without their blessing - they all realized they'd better shut up and accept it. It made it easier that we had been going out for years before we got married so they had a lot of time to get used to the idea. Also my parents came to realize they absolutely loved Peter and they could see how much I loved him and how happy he made me."
For their wedding, Peter and Sarah decided a celebrant would marry them and that they would include components of both the Jewish and Catholic traditions. "We got married in a park by a celebrant. During the ceremony, Peter's father read a Christian prayer and my father explained the significance of some of the Jewish elements like the significant of the Chuppah (the wedding canopy) and the smashed glass."
When Jeanette, a Christian from Australia, married Taddis, a Shinto Japanese, they didn't just incorporate elements from both cultures - they held two separate weddings. They had a Shinto marriage ceremony in Japan where Jeanette wore the traditional Japanese wedding kimono, wig and make-up, and a Christian ceremony in Australia where, although already legally married, she walked down the aisle on her father's arm wearing the white wedding dress and veil.
"My wedding preparations took me a year," remembers Jeanette. "The Shinto ceremony was followed by a party with all our Japanese friends and the Christian wedding was a big reception with about 200 of our Australian friends. We'd kept it secret from our Australian guests that we were already married because we thought it might seem weird to them."
For Jeanette, the different traditions that accompanied her two weddings were important. Both cultures and religions were acknowledged. Neither Jeanette nor Taddis felt that their own culture was being compromised or unrecognized. It was also an opportunity for both sets of parents to celebrate the marriage of their children in a way with which they were comfortable.
But would she do it again? "We are still paying off my weddings," Jeanette laughs. "When you add together the dresses, the traveling, the receptions - we could have bought a house. But I do think it was worth it. For me, marrying a Japanese man and deciding to live permanently in Japan has been both fantastic and challenging. When you are personally living the "cross cultural" lifestyle it is important that you respect the other's past and traditions. You can't just ignore it all in the name of love. Nor, I think can you take on one of the other person's traditions at the expense of the other's."
That's not to say, you can't change. When David and Elise first started dating, the fact that he was Christian and she was Jewish was irrelevant. As they became more involved and starting talking about marriage, David realized that Elise's "Jewishness" was a fundamental part of how she saw herself and the world. "Elise never said to me 'convert or we're over'," explains David. "And if I hadn't decided to convert, I know that we would still be together. But it would have made her life much harder. My own religion meant nothing to me and I admired her commitment and the sense of family and tradition that the Jewish faith offers. While undertaking the conversion, I really started to appreciate the Jewish religion and I also believe it's important for kids to know where their parents stand on the issue."
Elise and David were married in a traditional Jewish ceremony and celebrated afterwards with a traditional Jewish reception - kosher food and all. Did he feel he was the one who'd made all the sacrifices? "Not one bit. My conversion wasn't a 'sacrifice' - I feel as though my life has become so much richer because of it."
Religion and culture are inextricably entwined, and watching children marry out of their culture and into the unknown can be scary for parents. Bihn came to Australia in the late 1970s as a refugee from Vietnam and has four daughters, none of whom have married within the Vietnamese community. "Three of my daughter have married Aussies and one has married a Chinese," she says. The faith issue doesn't bother her, but the different cultural expectations do. "In traditional Vietnamese culture, you look after your children and then your children look after you. I worry that my daughters, now they have married outside our culture, will not take on this responsibility. Australian men are not used to respecting their elders and taking care of their parents.
There is no easy answer for those who choose to marry out of their culture or faith. Understanding that it may be difficult for parents and loved ones to accept and keeping the lines of communication open (if possible) is important. Learn as much as you can about the religion or culture you are entering. Not only will it help you understand where the parents are coming from - it will also help you understand your partner better.
Some names have been changed
Planning an inter-faith wedding? Consider these tips:
Go for counseling. There's a lot you need to work out as a couple when you've come from such different backgrounds: how you feel about customs, religion, and how you want to raise your family. Working these differences out before you make things official will create less tension within your marriage, and will give you a good foundation from which to work when you decide how to plan your marriage. It also helps when you can present a united, thought-out front to both sets of parents.
Find the right celebrant. Not everyone is thrilled about joining two religions together. Find someone who really understands where you're coming from and has suggestions about marrying you that you can relate to, and which are inspiring.
Prepare, prepare, prepare. An inter-faith wedding can take more forethought than a regular one because there are no foregone conclusions about how everything will take place. Leave yourself enough time to really work this one through; don't have a short engagement if you can help it.
Don't leave out the other family. If you marry out of the religion in which you were raised, you are at least partially rejecting the values your family gave you. Don't make them feel even further rejected by having a wedding which doesn't recognize your roots at all. Try to incorporate rituals that are extremely meaningful to them, and that will also explain where you came from to your groom, his family, and your guests.
Keep the theme going. The inter-faith wedding doesn't stop at the ceremony. It can continue through the dancing, choice of music and menu options. Try and incorporate both aspects of each culture as cohesively as possible. Weddings are often about combining the traditional with the modern; so don't be afraid to mix things up.
This article is reprinted with the permission of theLounge.com.au, the women's website - www.theLounge.com.au