As greater numbers of couples intermarry between faiths (and between ethnicities), what can Christians and Muslims do to ease tensions when 'two faiths meet'?
On 26 November 2012 at Westminster Abbey the Christian Muslim Forum launched groundbreaking guidelines on Christian-Muslim marriage. With a fine sense of timing, our first fully public event on Christian-Muslim marriage takes place on 26 September in Blackburn Cathedral, followed by a first anniversary gathering on 26 November in Leicester.
During this past year a few people have somehow got the idea that I am in a Christian-Muslim marriage myself (the reality is my wife and I are both Methodists), perhaps thinking that only someone in an inter faith marriage would spend as much time talking about it as I have. Another change over the last year has been the number of people getting in touch with the Christian Muslim Forum via our website: previously we have had the occasional request for help with Christian-Muslim relationships, but these are now becoming a regular occurrence. Some of the situations people describe are quite heartrending - men and women worried that they will have to leave their faith (both faiths) if they are to continue their relationship, or maintain their faith but break-up with their prospective partner. I am relieved that in these cases I can put them in touch with my colleague Heather al-Yousuf who is one of the coordinators of the Inter Faith Marriage Network.
However, what I am unable to do is easily point people in the direction of ministers, priests and imams who are able to offer support. Although I do know a few who have found a place in their own traditions for carrying out Christian-Muslim marriages, I doubt that they have the capacity to support all the couples who are in need of help. It's encouraging to learn of joyful inter faith marriages taking place, a friend told me recently of a Lutheran-Muslim wedding taking place in a Catholic church!
The pastoral aspects of inter faith marriage support have become very important to us as we seek to share with people of both faiths the needs of inter faith couples. In fact we have realised that a pastoral focus is key to many inter faith initiatives, not just marriage, and that there is a great need for caring and supportive work in Christian-Muslim encounters. It was encouraging to learn at one of our recent Christian-Muslim marriage round tables that a London mosque takes care to ensure that Christian women are not disadvantaged when they marry Muslim men. Supporting religious institutions to provide appropriate care is one of our key aims, rather than, as some might think, actively promoting inter faith marriage.
Another reality is that some 'mixed' marriages are not so obvious if one partner has nominally converted (which can happen in both directions). Since the launch of our guidelines a Muslim film-maker has been working on a film 'My Secret Heart', which tells the story of inter faith relationships and conversions. In its principles neither Christianity nor Islam supports enforced conversion and neither God nor people are served by them. If through our guidelines we can create the space for people to realise that they do not have to convert, unless they wish to do so, then it will enable more opportunities for exploration of how Christians and Muslims can respond constructively to inter faith relationships.
One particular Christian-Muslim perception that we are able to challenge through our conversations is that people are not free to be different in their marriages. The Catholic church has issued guidance on the process for Catholics to marry people of other faiths. There is also a clear Islamic position that when a Christian woman is married to a Muslim man she should not be prevented from practicing her faith - in fact this is one of the stipulations of the Prophet Muhammad's Covenant with Christians, which is kept at St Catherine's monastery in Egypt.
A further interesting development in our work has been learning about Christian-Muslim marriage services developed by a convert to Islam. There is work to be done in connecting wider family of both faiths with inter faith couples. This can only be achieved when communities and families feel able to talk about the issues without fears of loss or shame. For us, enabling respectful dialogue, even where there may be some difficult differences, is an essential part of serving both communities and individuals of both faiths. Engaging with the reality of the sensitivity of both faiths when they meet in unfamiliar ways, though increasingly familiar, provides an opportunity for growth, change and reduced tension. One common perception or expectation, in some places, is that when a married woman converts to Islam and her husband remains non-Muslim she is required to divorce him. One of our partners could not square this with the Islamic concern for marital harmony and obtained a fatwa (ruling) confirming that there was no need to divorce. In the early Muslim community some of the men who embraced Islam remained married to Christian women.