Plenty of Two-Faith Marriages, Not Many Two-Faith Ceremonies

Many of the words at interfaith ceremonies seem to involve detailed explanations of the promises involved in a marriage. "For richer or poorer" does not seem to suffice in these ceremonies.
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Couple Getting Married at an Outdoor Wedding Ceremony
Couple Getting Married at an Outdoor Wedding Ceremony

"The Rev. John Patrick Duffell, a Roman Catholic priest, led the ceremony, at which Rabbi Roger Ross officiated and the bride's sister, Alison Christopher, sang 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow.'"

That's how The New York Times recently described an interfaith wedding. Reading such announcements, you could get the impression that ceremonies representing more than one faith are common. But while interfaith marriage is on the rise (45% of couples married in the last decade were interfaith), dual faith ceremonies are still rare.

In July 2010, I commissioned a survey from the polling company YouGov. Almost 2,500 people were surveyed, including 400 members of interfaith couples. According to my survey, more than half (53 percent) of people in interfaith couples report that their wedding was conducted by someone representing only one religion. But weddings with religious leaders from two different faiths are hard to find: only 4 percent of interfaith couples employ them. Instead, interfaith couples are much more likely to have used a civil official (43 percent). In other words, interfaith couples rarely try to incorporate both religions. Rather, they compromise by picking one or neither.

One reason for this is that many religious leaders refuse to co-officiate. Mark Brewer, the pastor of Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Southern California, told me that his denomination doesn't prohibit him from officiating at interfaith ceremonies with other clergy. Indeed, he used to do so fairly regularly. But he says it "became strange" for him at some point. "What weirds me out," he explains, "is when I'm riding shotgun." Most rabbis are prohibited by their denominations from co-officiating. Rabbi James Gibson of Pittsburgh tells me, "I don't co-officiate ever. Sometimes people will say, 'Well, Uncle Jack's a priest. Can he say something?'" The most Gibson will allow is for the other clergy member to offer a blessing at the meal following the ceremony. And while Catholic priests may take part in such ceremonies, a number of couples I spoke with told me that the priests they asked turned them down.

Of course, interfaith ceremonies are not just about who is doing the talking, but what is being said. Many of the interfaith couples I interviewed over the past couple of years told me that they asked the officiant to use the words they would at a same-faith ceremony, but avoid mention of Jesus or Allah, and just stick with God so as to avoid offending anyone.

But many couples choose to start from scratch. Many of the words at interfaith ceremonies seem to involve detailed explanations of the promises involved in a marriage. "For richer or poorer" does not seem to suffice in these ceremonies (though certainly the same can be said for some same-faith ceremonies in which the couples insist on writing their own vows).

Here is a sample statement (to be offered first by the groom, then the bride) from Interfaith Wedding Ceremonies:

I [Groom], take you, [Bride], with all my heart and soul to be my wife, my friend, my love and my lifelong companion. I promise to respect that our ideas and opinions may differ, and to remember that yours hold as much truth and value for you as mine do for me. I promise to support you in times of trouble, and celebrate with you in times of happiness; to care more about your feelings than about being right, and to listen without judging....

Someone who has been married for a few years might wonder about the feasibility of the promise to "listen without judging." But these are vows that young men and women seem to be creating out of whole cloth. If a same-faith wedding ceremony is a way for a couple to agree to live by a religious community's rules for marriage, interfaith couples seem to be trying to make their own community and their own rules with each new ceremony they write.

Many interfaith ceremonies involving Christians and Jews aim to scrupulously avoid any mention of a Judeo-Christian notion of religion. It is then odd to see how it is also not uncommon for interfaith couples to turn to religious traditions other than their own as a means of compromise.

Some wedding officiants have at the ready Eastern or Native American blessings to be used in the ceremony. Take "The Blessing of the Apaches," for instance. I thought the Justice of the Peace who married my husband and me was a little strange when she suggested it, but then I realized that it is standard fare at many interfaith ceremonies.

Other interfaith books and websites feature a Buddhist blessing: "Do not deceive, do not despise each other anywhere. Do not be angry nor bear secret resentments; for as a mother will risk her life and watches over her child, so boundless be your love to all, so tender, kind and mild."

Lovely sentiments, no doubt, but the decision to co-opt a third tradition instead of using readings from a religious tradition represented by the bride or the groom suggests just how delicate these negotiations over interfaith ceremonies must be.

People want to hear certain things at a wedding -- eternal things, things about God, things about people who have passed away, things about the future generations. Weddings are supposed to have meaning beyond the husband and wife. What community are you a part of? What does marriage mean to you? Whose family are you trying to emulate? Why don't you just live together indefinitely? How do you know this is the right person for you?

To explain all this outside of the context of a religious tradition is harder than it looks. When all else fails, there's always "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

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