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When Two Faiths Meet

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.

"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. A sadly familiar refrain. Yet in 'Jo's' case, his mother is converting to Islam and believes that she can no longer remain married to his father who remains a devout Christian.

Such are the increasingly-complex situations facing people of faith today. Theological tracts written in times when mixed marriages were far less common - or based on very specific circumstances (such as a Muslim man marrying a Christian or Jewish woman) - can come into headlong conflict with our modern life, where we meet partners from all backgrounds (and faiths) and may even experience more than one marriage in a lifetime.

Rising numbers of inter faith marriages in the UK mean that for growing numbers other faiths are no longer remote or 'alien' but can include members of our own family. The 2001 Census (which for the first time added a question about religion) tells us that there were over 21,000 inter faith marriages in England and Wales and 837 in Scotland.

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 is now part of our modern tapestry. One of my own colleagues at the Christian Muslim Forum is a United Reformed Church minister who also has a Muslim grandson.

Sadly, despite this increasing diversity and acceptance of difference, inter faith 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: whilst 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 co-ordinators is a Relate counsellor, and herself in an inter faith marriage, who runs a self-help network dealing with hundreds of couples in inter faith 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 inter faith dialogue, cooperation and conflict resolution. It is also a place where the Christian Muslim Forum, the UK's largest Christian-Muslim inter faith organisation, likes to be.

We have built up a body of experience in dialogue and shared reflection on a range of issues, including matters of ethical concern for both faiths in our plural society. Our Ethical Witness Guidelines (2009) focused on the thorny issue of how two 'missionary' faiths can live, work and build friendships together and not fall at the first hurdle (over whether we should be converting each other). Our experience exploring questions of mission, conversion and dialogue and offering our reflections to other Christians and Muslims encouraged us to offer these new 'pastoral' (practical) inter faith marriage guidelines. Although they are focused on Christian and Muslim clergy, the principles they enshrine are applicable to any faith or minister.

And so on 26 November 2012 we launched Ethical Guidelines for inter faith 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 Inter Faith Marriage Network (IFMN) and Muslim-Christian Marriage Support Group which have worked with hundreds of couples over the last 15 years. This year alone IFMN has received over 100 requests for support from inter faith couples. Yet so far these relationships have received little attention from either Christian and Muslim scholars or faith leaders. Couples in inter faith 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 relationships.

One of the biggest challenges faced by couples is when they choose to have a religious wedding ceremony or ceremonies. In Britain inter faith marriages are legal: civil (registry office) marriages can be performed without religious conditions, an example of secular provision supporting religious choice. However, inter faith couples often wish to have a religious wedding ceremony, or ceremonies, to validate their marriage. This is often 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.

Therefore in our guidelines we are urging non-compulsion, proper consideration of the needs and background of both partners in an inter faith relationship and whole-hearted encouragement and pastoral support from clergy. Couples in inter faith relationships aren't seeking to have their journey through life made more complicated, religion doesn't need to make relationships difficult.

Launching the guidelines is just the beginning we are now developing training seminars for ministers and imams. Please get in touch if you're interested.

Julian Bond is director of the Christian Muslim Forum, the UK's largest Christian-Muslim inter faith network

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