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Married to an unbeliever: living in a faith/non-faith marriage

by
19 November 2021

Jemima Thackray talks to Christians about relationships with non-believing partners

Juan Muino Photography

Mark Walsh on his wedding day

Mark Walsh on his wedding day

IN A 2021 paper “Unequally Yoked? Religion and spirituality in couples in which one believes in God and the other does not”, Lee Williams argues that research “specifically examining these couples is nearly non-existent”.

Although it is often assumed that these unions are “at risk of poorer marital outcomes, much of the evidence for this is inferred from research with religious couples”, he says.

The reality, he explains, is much more nuanced. For those who have embarked on a faith/non-faith relationship (which is nearly one third of marriages, 31.4 per cent, according to microdata from the 2011 UK census), the experience of living with such difference seems to present both obstacles and unexpected avenues of enrichment.

 

THIS was certainly the experience of Stina Kielsmeier-Cook, author of the popular spiritual memoir Blessed are the Nones, which describes her experience of “spiritual singleness” after her husband’s departure from the Church (Features, 27 November 2020).

“If you’re not aligned spiritually, then nothing will match up — or so the Christian marriage messaging goes,” she writes. “Conflicts arise as married couples navigate how to spend Sunday mornings, what to teach their children about religion.”

Indeed, there is perhaps good reason for this final concern given that, according to the same microdata from the 2011 census, children of a mixed none/religious marriage are 49 per cent more likely to be classified as nones themselves, compared with just 11 per cent of children of a Christian/Christian union.

“For Christians like me who are married to non-believers, finding models for living a faithful Christian life is an exercise in frustration,” Ms Kielsmeier-Cook writes. “Add to that the depressing divorce statistics of interfaith marriage (among the highest rates between Evangelicals and ‘nones’) and the future seemed bleak indeed.”

And yet, as her narrative unfolds, Ms Kielsmeier-Cook discovers that an adequate diet of spiritual nourishment can be found outside her marriage.

Matthew Batten, the communications director for the diocese of Llandaff, is in a civil partnership with David, an atheist. He would agree, concluding that they have “actually found it quite healthy to have separate spaces and interests, as long as there is no judgement, and based on mutual respect for each other’s views.

“We just don’t see things the same way, and that’s fine. David is so scientific: if it can’t be proved, he will struggle to accept it. But I have always believed. If we went to the top of a mountain, I would see God in all the beauty but he would see millions of years of evolution. If we go to a religious building, I feel the presence of God, he appreciates the architecture.

“He is quite opinionated, and will challenge my Christian colleagues directly; but that’s OK, as I think people should be able to give an answer for what they believe. He certainly challenges me to think more carefully about my theology.”

Mr Batten, however, expressed feelings of “protectiveness” of his partner. David, he said, is “sometimes careful about checking ahead when we go to church things, so people know we are in a same-sex relationship. I also knew that the diocese I work for is supportive. I really want to protect him from bad experience.”

 

FOR some, there are aspects of being in a relationship with a non-Christian which they regard as not just acceptable, but favourable. Jonathan (not his real name) is divorced from a fellow priest and now engaged to a non-Christian whom he met online. He chose not to identify as a Christian on his online dating profile. He says how “refreshing” he finds the new relationship.

“My ex-wife and I used to fight like cat and dog over theology. She was an Evangelical, and I am more Catholic. But I now find the differing perspectives to be a source of creative tension and a gift. From a reflective-practice point of view, it has been useful to have to defend my faith, and to step outside the Christian bubble and see what the world thinks.”

Lee Williams’s research would support this claim, asserting that a relationship with a non-believer can be “a catalyst for pursuing a deeper exploration of one’s faith. Thus, one should not automatically assume that a believer in a relationship with a non-believer will have their faith weakened.”

Mark Walsh, an LLM in Ely diocese, also met his second wife online. He says that his new partner, Louise, was not “put off” by the fact he included “Christian” on his dating profile — “even though she is a medical chemist and very scientifically minded. Through my Reader training, she has been so engaged in discussions, going through my essays and sermons, with no question off limits. Interestingly, my first wife was a committed Christian, but we never really had any conversations about faith.”

Louise has become part of Mark’s church community, and now plays the violin in a musical ensemble every other Sunday. “She says all the words in church, but I know in her heart she doesn’t believe them. She doesn’t receive communion either, but will have a blessing. As a scientist, she ultimately needs more proof — that’s the line between us, despite all our many other shared values.”

This anecdote is also supported by Williams, who recommends that “doing things of a religious or spiritual nature together can be a protective factor for marriages. Despite their differing beliefs about God, couples could incorporate these activities into their relationship in a manner that is comfortable for both.”

 

OTHERS, however, express a more complex mix of emotions in response to their partners’ convictions. Hannah, a “digital missioner” who helps churches to improve their online activity, spoke of her husband’s “huge support for her faith and faith-based career”. Yet she acknowledged a “sadness that I can’t share faith with him, and when we go through hard times we can’t talk about God. My parents would also love him to become a Christian.

“But I am not resentful. I am grateful he is comfortable with church being such a big part of my life. He also works on a Sunday morning, anyway. It’s one of the reasons why I am interested, as a digital missioner, in church not only being on a Sunday.”

Hannah, a digital missioner, and her husband

The same word, “sadness”, was used by the Revd Eira Hale, an assistant curate in Coventry diocese, to describe her feelings about the fact that her husband and family do not attend church with her. “I do have a sadness, particularly about the kids. They were baptised — which my husband was fine with — but my compromise was that I would never make them all come to church. But then sometimes I look at other Christian families and feel I should be trying harder.”

The support of her husband, Duncan, through the ordination process was unswerving, and included downscaling their house to a vicarage. “He has been great. But his view of my work is that it is just a job you get paid to do like any other. I can imagine at some point this might become an issue, as it doesn’t acknowledge what vocation really means; but at the same time it has been very helpful in creating balance, calling me out when I am working too hard because he doesn’t buy into the language of sacrificial leadership.”

 

IF ONLY anecdotally, feelings of concern or anxiety about their partner’s differing views seemed more common among female respondents. This is perhaps partially explained by the fact that many more women than men volunteered to be interviewed, which in turn reflects the fact that half a million more women than men regularly attend a place of Christian worship every month in Britain.

Julie Fay, an LLM in Gloucester diocese, explained why this has meant that she has never felt judged by her congregation for the fact her husband does not have faith, “because church is predominantly a female space, with lots of women in the same situation. It was the same when I was a child — wives and widows — and the same today. It’s because women are the ones worrying about their family’s moral and spiritual education.”

“I do worry,” agreed Ruth Clements, who is also in a second marriage to a self-declared “none”, having once been married to a committed Christian. “The reality is I don’t think he is going to heaven, which is really hard and heart-breaking. I want him to have faith: not for me, but for himself.

“It’s one of the reasons I always said I wouldn’t marry a non-Christian. But then my experience of a terrible marriage to a Christian has taught me to change my mind. The most important thing is being in a committed relationship.”

Ms Clements and Hannah have both invited their new husbands to Alpha courses. “He came and found it interesting, and he comes along to church now and again because he knows it means a lot to me,” Hannah said.

“But I now don’t think it’s right to badger him about faith — I think it’s better just to live alongside him and be the best Christian I can be. Maybe he will find faith, or maybe it will be a conversation between him and God at the end of his life.”

Ms Hale also came to the same conclusion after a “massive row” with her husband while Christmas shopping. “He said he felt like I was trying to convert him — and I probably was. When we first got together, I was at a very different place in my faith journey. Going to church was just something I did, like going to the gym, and we didn’t talk about it much.

“After I had children, I started going to a new church, and my faith came alive, and I started to speak about it very passionately. I remember Duncan being really concerned that this was what I was going to be like all the time, and that he might not be able to live with it. So, we came to an agreement that I would never try to evangelise him again.”

The same agreement to a “softer” approach can be seen on the other side of the partnership, in people of no faith. Holly, an academic, met her now-husband, Adam, when they were 17; he was a Christian and she was a “staunch atheist” who would “discuss atheism proudly as a kind of faith”.

Over the years, however, she has become “more interested in that part of his life. I remember the journey was helped by a lovely minister who was so generous and open, who said Adam and I had a beautiful relationship, and he would be delighted to marry us. There was such warmth and acceptance from everyone at his church. I began to realise that atheism was too closed off and unquestioning, and didn’t actually suit me.

“I used to struggle with Christian ideas like ‘we are not worthy to eat the crumbs . . . ’, etc., I wondered why Christians always needed to abase themselves. But now I have a greater sense of my smallness and fallibility and of not ever being fully informed, because we can’t be. . . I also experience awe and wonder more now, and I think it must be powerful and valuable to have somewhere to direct this sense of gratitude.”

 

MOST people interviewed spoke of acceptance and welcome in their church communities for their partners of no faith. Interestingly, not a single couple said that they had been influenced or challenged with biblical verses — such as the infamous passage in 2 Corinthians about unequal yoking with unbelievers — although some detected a sense of stigma in church circles if they happened to be cohabiting as an unmarried couple.

Jonathan currently lives separately from his fiancé despite their desire to live together. “It’s because the diocese would not condone it. My fiancé obviously thinks it’s ridiculous, but rules are rules, and my job security isn’t that great; so I don’t want to break them.”

Ms Fay also believes the wider Church needs to consider how welcoming it is for people such as her husband of 16 years, Colin, who, in his mid-sixties, is “still waiting for the road-to-Damascus moment”. “He was rarely taken to church as a child, but he does talk of one bad experience when a sidesman knocked his cap off saying, ‘We don’t wear that sort of thing here.’

“I was mortified when, as an adult, he visited a cathedral with me, and he was rudely told to take off the beanie hat he was wearing. I thought all my good work trying to persuade him that church is not a stuffy place had been undone.

“I think it is very difficult for non-churchgoers, especially those who didn’t grow up in church, to start going, as they perceive it to be an exclusive club to which they can’t gain entry, where people know the language and the rules, when to stand up and sit down, and what words to say. The Church needs to pay more attention to creating a welcoming environment for people who aren’t familiar with it.”

 

THE importance of shared values was emphasised as a key ingredient in making faith/non-faith relationships work. Holly remarked that “the Christian framework of forgiveness and compassion, though not an exclusive claim of Christianity” had been important to their family.

That said, she has struggled with some of the Church’s positions on sexual ethics. “I have heard some very strange teaching in the past on a woman’s position as a support role in marriage, and also the lack of acceptance of same-sex marriage — which makes me feel I couldn’t exist in a church setting as a queer theorist and feminist.”

Matthew Batten and his partner, David

Jonathan says that his partner strongly disagrees with the Church’s — and his own — position on gender and sexuality. “We think very differently about same-sex marriage and trans issues. Last weekend, we also had a big debate about euthanasia, where my views are more traditional.”

For others, the divergence in views is revealed around social and political issues. “We have debates all the time,” Ms Hale said. “One of our favourite things to do is watch Question Time together, as we have very different perspectives. His driver is ‘Will this help or harm us as a family?’ whereas I have more of a social-justice driver, which comes from my faith.”

Similarly, Hannah said that she and her husband “can differ when it comes to judging others. For example, we used to have a lot of people using substances near our house — he would see them as making bad life choices whereas I would be more likely to defend them.”

Differences in opinion, belief, and interests are, of course, negotiated and renegotiated in every relationship. The question whether there is something unique about faith — making it so deeply rooted in a person’s identity that it can only be fully accepted by someone who shares that faith — must be down to each individual.

“I think it can work as long as you are not putting your Christian life in a box,” Hannah said. “In my job, I see people living their online life, being different people to different audiences. The challenge is to try and be Christ-like all the time, whether on social media or in your marriage.”

“I think the most important thing is not judging each other,” Matthew said. “You can believe different things, but judgement would be very destructive. If I had any sense of being mocked, I couldn’t be in the relationship. But David is brilliant. He’s even fine with the fact I don’t want to go out late on a Saturday night because I want to enjoy church the next day.”

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