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Life and love in mixed-faith marriages

by
02 July 2021

Respect, compromise, and celebrating difference are key, says Jemima Thackray

Amy Beeson and Takbir Uddin at their wedding in St Paul’s Cathedral

Amy Beeson and Takbir Uddin at their wedding in St Paul’s Cathedral

ORIGEN’s metaphor of wine mixed with water to describe mixed-faith marriages — “the wine flavours and sanctifies the water, but the water may dilute and corrupt the wine” — is an all too familiar trope for couples who marry across religious cultures.

Although much of the suspicion and stigma surrounding interfaith unions has lessened as its prevalence increases (though still only accounting for one to two per cent of all UK marriages, according to the 2001-11 Censuses), many couples still report feelings of being seen as transgressive, as diluting or corrupting their faith traditions.

The Church of England’s “Work with other faiths” page states: “We help local churches respond confidently and joyfully to all sorts of questions, challenges and opportunities which come up in areas where people of different faiths live side by side,” but there is little on offer for couples negotiating a relationship where people of different faiths live together in a marriage.

My own experience of being married to a Jewish man, having to justify my decision to concerned Christian friends who would quote Paul’s warning against “unequal yoking”, was matched by my husband’s fears about colluding in the work of cultural assimilation and the part it played in extinguishing the Jewish people, especially keenly felt by him as a descendent of Holocaust victims.

Yet our experience, like many other couples, has turned out to be more enriching than impoverishing — finding a shared sense of fulfilment born of overcoming complexity.

This has certainly been the case for Amy Beeson and her partner, Takbir Uddin, who “prefer to look at their situation creatively”, according to Amy, who attends an Anglican church in north London, while Takbir is a Muslim from an observant family, and, though he attends mosque infrequently, prays and fasts regularly at home, refrains from eating pork, and observes Muslim holy days.

“I am half Mauritian, and on the island everyone celebrates each other’s festivals,” Amy said. “For our family, it’s about joy and celebration and respect. We’ve just had Eid — we made stars and rings with the children, and not long before that we had Easter, and we decorated the windows with crosses and eggs.

“Once, we did actually have a big Eid-Easter celebration at my mum’s house; my in-laws were invited, and we had Asian-style lamb and then did a big Easter-egg hunt. Our Vicar has also come to our Eid celebration and said prayers with us.”

The author’s family at their Seder

But this culturally rich picture has been hard won: when they first met, as participants in a young-playwright festival at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Takbir’s parents found it difficult to accept, and they dated for nine years before getting married — “to give the family time to get used to it”, Amy said.

“He was also worried about the repercussions for his sisters still living at home: that life might become more restricted for them as a result of his decisions.”

An aspiring writer, Takbir wrote a play featuring a maternal character with selective amnesia about her son’s marrying a non-Muslim. “It was semi-autobiographical because when I ‘came out’ about Amy, my mother wouldn’t acknowledge it for a long time. I had to keep giving her the same information.”

His parents did not attend their wedding at St Paul’s Cathedral, as they were away in Bangladesh, but his sisters were present and wore beautiful saris for the occasion. “I would have liked a Nikkah [a marriage contract under sharia law],” he reflects, “I spoke to several young imams who were very open and accepting, but they were told ‘no’ by the elders.”

“[At] St Paul’s, we incorporated readings by Bengali poets; there was bhangra dancing and halal food at the reception,” Amy said. “The priest said in her sermon that she had never seen a couple work so hard to bring two families together, which was beautiful.”

 

LUCY and Swapnil Khedekar had a different experience of wedding planning: they managed to have a church service in the UK before flying to India for a Hindu ceremony. Lucy is a regular churchgoer, while Swapnil practises his Hindu faith at home, involving his young daughters in prayers at the family shrine, and cleaning and feeding the gods every month.

The family also celebrate Diwali with prayer rituals, celebratory food and fireworks, and they all abstain from eating beef, as cows are sacred in Hinduism.

Robert Cohen and his children at Hannakuh

Before they were married in Lucy’s church, they were asked to attend an Alpha course: “It was fine,” Swapnil said. “I agreed with the principles and the ethos. All religion teaches you to be good and kind, and these are values we focus on. There was no expectation from Lucy that I would convert, though.”

The Hindu wedding involved three days of celebrations, which included the purification ritual of turmeric rubbed into the skin. “It was wonderful, but quite overwhelming,” Lucy said, “especially because I wasn’t allowed to eat on the day of the marriage, and it was so hot; but it was an amazing experience.”

Now, they wear the symbol of marriage belonging to the other’s faith tradition: a mangalsutra necklace for Lucy, a gold wedding ring for Swapnil.

They also chose to have Christian baptisms and Hindu naming ceremonies for their two daughters: Ani (Anisha), aged 8, and Abhi (Abhitha), six. This was a reflection of their decision to “bring them up in both religions”, Swapnil said, “because children are like sponges, and the more you put into them educationally the better”.

This clashes with the view put to me before my own marriage, when I was advised by both my husband’s Reformed rabbi, and my own Christian pastor, to pick a dominant faith in the interest of stability for any children.

The Mango LabAmy and Takbir with their baby after her baptism

It is a view also challenged by Robert Cohen, who grew up in a Reformed Jewish community in south London, who has always sought to educate his four children about their Jewish heritage while also taking them to church with his wife, the Revd Anne Russell, Area Dean of Bowland and Ewecross, in Leeds.

The pair met as students at Manchester University, and have lived in vicarages in Cumbria and North Yorkshire ever since Anne’s ordination. “Always in the least Jewish parts of the country,” Robert said. “Regular synagogue attendance hasn’t been an option, but we have always found other Jewish or mixed-faith couples locally who have helped us shape Jewish experiences in the home — it has forced us to be quite creative.” This has included writing his own Haggadahs for family Seder meals, which have grown in sophistication as their children got older.

“I have come to realise, though, that their generation do not have the same fixed boundaries around identity that we had,” Robert reflected. “They are more flexible, more able to integrate different parts of their family story than we were.

“Kids no longer have the same language or talk about being ‘half this and half that’ — they have blended identities that are not riddled with the same conflict as older generations. Things we anticipated might be a problem were just us being locked into our own experience.”

 

THE Revd Paul Smith, a team rector, theologian, and author of Intimate Diversity: An Anglican practical theology of interreligious marriage, has been struck by the “creativity and imagination” with which families manage to hold two faith traditions in careful balance, noting in particular that “the children of these couples are being taught to develop a unique set of life skills.

“As a linguistic comparison, kids are OK at learning each language as long as you speak both languages distinctly — children are able to contain it, as long as it’s not a strange, blended religious soup.”

Lucy and Swapnil’s approach is also to preserve the distinctiveness of their traditions while also celebrating points of connection: “It is very much Mummy’s religion and Daddy’s religion, but in our discussions we also talk about the things in common,” Lucy said.

“For instance, we were talking about the coronavirus, and I was saying that God might use the virus to help us appreciate normal things again and restore balance.” Swapnil added: “And I was linking this to three Hindu gods — the Creator, the Destroyer, and the Balancer.”

“But”, Lucy continued, “being in a mixed-faith marriage has also made me clear about what I think and who I am. We were honest from the start about the things in each other’s religion we find odd — drinking the blood of Christ is as weird to him as the elephant god is to me.”

 

THIS sense of the distinctiveness of one’s own tradition is, perhaps, challenged in Christian-Jewish unions in which religious texts and knowledge are partially shared. My own husband has had to refuse politely requests from Christians to offer Hebrew prayers at Passover meals, often organised to mark Maundy Thursday, on the grounds that these events usually bear little resemblance to a modern Jewish Seder table.

Lucy and Swapnil on their wedding day

Rosalind Birstwhistle, a Christian, has been married to David, who is from an Orthodox Jewish background, for 43 years, and has been frustrated by continually encountering “a little knowledge as a dangerous thing”.

“Christian Passovers are put on by people who have never been to a real one. They don’t realise that Passover practices, like all of Judaism, have evolved through the rabbinic tradition and beyond.”

This has extended to comments made by uninformed, albeit well-intentioned, people in church. “I have been asked things like, ‘Why are Jews still waiting for the Messiah?’ and have to explain that messianic theology is not a big part of modern Judaism. Christians have a retrospective view, seeing Judaism solely through an Old Testament lens, as if Jews are still sacrificing lambs in the temple.”

Robert Cohen has generously hosted Passover meals at his wife’s church, but his approach is to lead the occasion “very much on Jewish terms”, without any overlaying Christian narrative.

Despite a warm and respectful relationship with the Christian community on his doorstep, however, he has always maintained an important distance, while fully supporting Anne in its demands.

There have been times of frustration, too: “Like when preachers say things about Judaism from a place of ignorance. Or when at Easter, passages are read without the context that this is a Jewish text talking to other Jews; so it comes across as a collective attitude towards Jewish people.

“There is a lack of sensitivity that these passages have been used as justification for the persecution of Jews for centuries; it is deeply problematic that they are preached on without any reference to this historical context.”

 

ROSALIND’s experience of an interfaith relationship of more than 40 years with a Jewish partner began when her University Christian Union gave her “a stark choice between him or them — and I chose him”, and continued with difficulty when, having opted for the path of least resistance and eschewing both baptism and circumcision for her children, she found that they were then “left out of communion”.

“I raised it as a problem, and then wrote to the Bishop, but nobody would listen. It was as if my children didn’t count, and I found it very hurtful.”

Like Rosalind, I have chosen not to baptise my own three children, as I have not been able to conceive of a church service at which my in-laws would feel comfortable (our wedding was a civil ceremony with an “add-on” of some non-Trinitarian prayers and rituals from both traditions).

Mr Smith believes that we need “more informed pastoral care of interfaith couples and their families” in these situations, to help them to find creative solutions.

“The current Church of England guidelines are very limited in scope. They encourage an attitude of accommodation when it should be a spirit of celebration, especially because of the Church’s civic responsibility to be committed to the good of all people. We live in a global village — what does the Church of England have to say to it?

Robert Cohen with his family at their Passover Seder

“If we understand marriage as a vocation, then, far from being a transgressive relationship, these couples have been called by God into these unions as part of his wider good purposes. We should celebrate them as pioneers of living with difference on a very intimate level, and as creators of greater communal cohesion.

“True hospitality is not just shifting a little to make room, but displacing yourself for the sake of the other. My plea is that we are prepared to joyfully displace ourselves from the centre — and, indeed, this might look like dropping reference to the Trinity in services, and canon-law reform.”

He also believes that there needs to be more constructive dialogue between national religious leaders, a point echoed by Mr Uddin: “I would want to see religious leaders being more vocal and accountable about this issue. The more we acknowledge that mixed marriages are happening, the better — especially in our present political turmoil, when everyone seems so focused on what divides us.

“Love is all we need, and the differences are what make the world a more vibrant place.”

Forthcoming Events

20 October 2021
Does the parish need saving?
Warnings that the parish is under threat date back decades. But are claims that it is now being dismantled accurate? Join our panel for a lively online debate.

21 October 2021
Transgressing Theology
From SCM Press: authors Natalie Wigg-Stevenson and Thia Cooper in conversation.

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