With an increase in interfaith marriages across Britain, support from faith and community leaders is needed more than ever before
“I am basically very angry. I don’t want to have people telling me that God will prove which is right. God doesn’t care.” So says an 18-year-old young man whose parents are divorcing. His mother is converting to Islam and believes that she can no longer remain married to his father, who remains a devout Christian.
This is one of the complex situations facing people of faith today. Rising numbers of interfaith marriages in the UK mean that, for growing numbers, other faiths are no longer remote or “alien”, but include members of their own family. I remember speaking to a lady leaving a Catholic church last year: she regretted she couldn’t stay at an event we were holding there because she had to get back to look after her Muslim grandchild. That scenario, where we have more than one faith (or none) present in a family, is now part of our modern tapestry. One of my own colleagues at the Christian Muslim Forum, the UK’s largest Christian-Muslim interfaith organisation, is a United Reform church minister who also has a Muslim grandson.
The 2001 census (which for the first time added a question about religion) tells us that there were more than 21,000 interfaith marriages in England and Wales and 837 in Scotland.
Sadly, despite this increasing diversity and acceptance of difference, interfaith relationships remain problematic for some families and faith communities. The difficulties and uncertainties felt by religious communities when their members form loving relationships across religious and cultural differences can weigh heavily on couples and families. Muslim women in particular can face opprobrium if they wish to marry a non-Muslim man: while Muslim men may “theologically” marry a Christian or Jewish woman, the same is not true for a Muslim woman.
The couple must choose whether the man converts – leading some to accuse such conversions being in “name” only – or choose a secular service. How should children of such faiths be raised? What happens if the couple divorces? The resulting schisms within families can be extremely painful. One of our coordinators is a Relate counsellor, and herself in an interfaith marriage, who runs a self-help network dealing with hundreds of couples in interfaith relationships seeking reassurance and support.
How should faith communities respond to the ethical challenge of ensuring that religion supports unexpected and messily complex family relationships? How best to “do no harm” to couples, families and children in these situations? This is a difficult but important area for interfaith dialogue, co-operation and conflict resolution. It is also a place where the Christian Muslim Forum likes to be.
And so on 26 November, during National Interfaith Week, we are launching Ethical Guidelines for Interfaith Marriages at Westminster Abbey. The aim is that these will be a helpful resource in enabling religious leaders to support mixed-faith couples. In preparing these guidelines, we have worked in partnership with the Interfaith Marriage Network (IFMN) and Muslim-Christian Marriage Support Group, which have worked with hundreds of couples over the past 15 years. This year alone, IFMN has received more than 100 requests for support from interfaith couples. Yet so far these relationships have received little attention from either Christian and Muslim scholars or faith leaders. Couples in interfaith relationships often don’t know where to turn. Meanwhile, imams and ministers are often not trained to respond to the increasing numbers of people turning to them for help in such situations.
One of the biggest challenges faced by these couples is when they choose to have a religious wedding ceremony (or two ceremonies). In Britain, interfaith marriages are legal: civil (registry office) marriages can be performed without religious conditions, an example of secular provision supporting religious choice. However, interfaith couples often wish to have a religious wedding ceremony, or ceremonies, to validate their marriage. This can be a point of crisis and in some cases disrupts both relationships and families. Sometimes a religious marriage ceremony is only possible if one partner agrees to convert, or accepts terms and conditions, such as in which faith future children will be raised. Of course, unless the other partner is willing to convert then even being asked is a potential source of tension. These tensions do not necessarily go away when nominal conversions are made as they can result in resentment and unwelcome expectations.
So in our guidelines we are urging non-compulsion, proper consideration of the needs and background of both partners in an interfaith relationship, and whole-hearted encouragement and pastoral support from clergy. Couples in interfaith relationships do not need their journey through life made any more difficult and religion doesn’t need to make relationships difficult, either.
Image from: http://muslimvoices.org/interfaith-marriages-spark-discussion
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