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Eleni Kostopoulos

SPecial to The National Herald (12/2008)

More than 60 percent of marriages conducted annually in the Greek Archdiocese of America are interfaith and this trend is becoming increasingly common, according to a report published by Christos and Mary Papoutsy, publishers of Hellenic Communications Service. In the last decade, the Archdiocese has taken various measures to accommodate this trend, said Rev. Dr. Charles Joanides, LMFT.

“The Archdiocese has developed a ministry program specifically focused on meeting the needs of the interfaith and intermarried population,” said Fr. Joanides. “Right now, we are trying to develop a premarital preparation program that will hopefully eventually be utilized as a standard program throughout the Archdiocese. A major component of the program is addressing intermarried couples and communication, urging them to talk about their religious and spiritual backgrounds and to ask relevant questions that would ease potential challenges (i.e., Where will they worship? Which church will they attend? How will their children be raised? Where will they spend holidays like Christmas and Easter?).”

Under the Archdiocese, every Greek Orthodox parish in the U.S. has implemented a successful premarital preparation program for all couples, interfaith or single-church, planning to get married. The sessions are not meant to resolve all conflict among married and engaged couples, however, they do aid in sparking dialogue among partners and the life they create together. During these sessions, couples are accompanied by qualified clergy who help them to deliberate essential life subjects, like challenges involving merging different religions or conforming to one religion.  Additionally, the sessions offer questionnaires developed by the Archdiocese to launch discussion among couples.

Theone Flessas, a 22-year old bank teller from New York is one of many Greek Orthodox  parishioners who are pursuing the idea of marriage with a non-Orthodox partner.

“I’ve been dating my boyfriend, who happens to be Irish Catholic, for more than four years now, and while the issue of marriage has cropped up for some time now, our religious differences are definitely some of the biggest issues in our relationship,” said Flessas, adding that although her commitment to religion isn’t substantial, her family and her partner’s family both feel strongly about the wedding process. “His mother is fairly adamant about us getting married in the Catholic Church, where as my family is just as adamant about us getting married in a Greek Orthodox Church. My 30-year old twin brothers also have experienced similar circumstances-one is engaged to a non-religious Equadorian woman, and the other  married a Protestant Italian-American about three years ago.”

According to Fr. Joanides, the primary obstacle preventing healthy relationships for engaged and newlywed couples is lack of communication.

“The most significant challenge newlyweds and engaged couples face is talking to each other openly,” he said. “Communicating about their different religious backgrounds and often times their racial backgrounds is essential. For instance, engaged couples don’t enter the relationship with a great deal of conversations about religion, spirituality, culture and other aspects for that matter.”

Although the issue of religious differences is difficult for Flessas, she said her brother and his wife who were married in a Brooklyn Greek Orthodox Church, haven’t found it to be significantly challenging thus far in their three-year marriage. After undergoing extensive sessions, the couple agreed to wed in the Greek Orthodox church in a ceremony conducted by a Greek Orthodox priest in conjunction with a Roman Catholic priest.

“Although they have been able to compromise so far in their marriage, the issue of raising children with different religious backgrounds is something that still concerns them and myself as well,” said Flessas. “I’m very undecided about how I plan on pursuing this issue later in life.”

Father Joanides has conduct systematic research to further explore and understand the challenges of raising children with mixed faiths. “Engaged couples and newlywed couples have both similar and different challenges when they get married and during other parts of their life cycle such as when the first child arrives or when they start planning to have children,” he said. “I’ve written several books that meet the unique needs of these couples and have conducted workshops for clergy and leaders to understand these unique challenges. A sophisticated, comprehensive Web site was developed in 2000 and has progressed significantly in the last eight years. These are only some of the ways the Archdiocese has developed policies to accommodate the trend, but the work continues.”

James Kourras, a 40-year old divorcee from New York, said that raising his two children in terms of religious upbringing isn’t as challenging as he thought it would be.

“[My ex-wife and I] agreed early on in our relationship that we would take turns celebrating holidays with each of our families every year,” Kourras said. “We’ve continued this compromise and it’s worked out pretty well so far. Although I would love for my kids to be raised with the same traditions and values that I was brought up with, I think it’s best to teach them different ways of thinking so that when they’re old enough, they can make the best decision for themselves.”

There are no solid statistics to determine divorce rates in the Archdiocese but Fr. Charles said that a “statistically significantly higher divorce rate for interfaith couples than single-church couples” exists based on research conducted by other faith groups. Archdiocese statistics on marriage do not include records of those Orthodox Christians who obtained only civil unions or other unions of Orthodox Christians performed through other religious rites, but rather Orthodox ecclesiastical marriages.

According to “A Perspective on Divorces Among Greek Couples” by Mary and Christos Papoutsy, “If we multiply the total number of Greek Orthodox marriages reported by the Archdiocese during the last 23 years (121,587) by an estimated average of the US national overall divorce rate during that same interval (47%) and then subtract the reported Greek Orthodox divorces of that period (16,981), we come up with a ballpark figure of 40,165. That means simply that there may be as many as another 40,000 Orthodox Christians who have obtained only civil divorces and who have not applied for or received ecclesiastical divorces. Could the figure be higher than 40,000? It is possible, but seems unlikely in the absence of any evidence suggesting that the divorce rate among Orthodox faithful is higher than the national average.

“Furthermore, the divorce rate among Orthodox Christians in Greece is much lower than the overall national average in the US—at 15% it ranks among the lowest of the countries whose statistics are reported. This would lend additional weight to the notion that the rate for Greek Orthodox Christians in the US ought to be no higher than the overall national average.”

“We just don’t have enough resources to come up with accurate figures, but the term ‘statistically significantly higher’ doesn’t mean there’s a big difference between interfaith and single-church couples,” said Joanides, who used focus groups for his research, in which he studied 376 intermarried couples and concluded that while most participants were positive about inter-Christian marriage, they were more negative about inter-religious marriage.

Connecticut-native Effie Spantidos agreed with the notion that an inter-religious marriage is be more challenging. “When I met my husband more than 10 years ago, it was love at first sight,” she said. “But when I heard his Jewish last name, I’ll admit I was kind of scared about how my family would react.. I thought right away, ‘I can never marry this man, am I just wasting my time?’ But, after being together for five years, we knew we had to work out our religious differences to take our relationship to the next level.

It was initially a bit hard for my family to accept, because of the way they were raised and the idea that I wouldn’t be getting married in the Greek Orthodox Church just really got to them. But, eventually, they came around and realized that this was the person I was going to spend my life with.” Spantidos added that although challenges have existed in their relationship, religion is no longer a major issue. “The fact that we don’t have children probably helps the situation,” she said. “But I think it’s a wonderful thing to enjoy one big, loud, happy, diverse family.

Fr. Aris Metrakos, a pastor for the Holy Trinity Church in Columbia, SC wrote in an article titled “The Real Mixed Marriage Problem” (OrthodoxyToday 2006) urging Orthodox Christians to raise their children faithfully from a young age so that they can continue practicing their religion during milestones like marriages. 

“My family's witness confirms what I have seen in parish ministry,” he said. “Whenever the Orthodox partner in a marriage is strong in his or her beliefs, the non-Orthodox spouse develops almost immediate admiration for the Orthodox Church. Very often this esteem leads to conversion and when it doesn't there is usually at least a sense of respect for the Orthodox way. Mixed-marriages in America expose a problem, and it's not that Vassiliki is engaged to a blonde named Bubba. Protestant and Roman Catholic fiancés are not leading our young away from the Church. We are the source of the problem. We raise young people who are lukewarm in their faith.”

According to Greek Orthodox guidelines, Orthodox Christians could remain in good standing with their Church when getting married to Christians of other denominations if their wedding takes place in the Orthodox Church and as long the non-Orthodox partner is  baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity and in water and the couple agrees to raise their children in the Greek Orthodox Church. Conversely, interreligious marriages continue to be discouraged in the Church, but according to Fr. Joanides, they will continue to be explored considering the growing statistics.

Fr. Joanides emphasized that one of the major alleviations of challenges is embracing and learning from differences and experiences your partner brings into a relationship.

“If you’re able to use your differences whether they be religious, spiritual or anything else, to learn and grow from your partner, it’s very positive and healthy,” he said. 

Like Spantidos, Flessas said her family felt pressure to raise their kids to marry Greek Americans.

“Before my brother got married, my parents were somewhat worried he would wind up with a non-Greek girl,” said Flessas.  “But after they met his current wife, that idea went out the window. They realized that the only thing that mattered was that he was happy, and if that meant being with a girl who wasn’t Greek, so be it.”

Flessas added, that other members of her family who married individuals who were non-Christian felt extreme pressure while introducing their spouse to their deeply-religious families, but with time and often, with help from their religious institutions, they were able to surpass obstacles.

Although interfaith statistics remain cloudy, the rate of interfaith marriages is growing annually and such statistics provide observable data to help parishioners. Overall in unions, the 2001 Yearbook released by the Archdiocese revealed that during a period of 23 years there were 121,587 ecclesiastical marriages and 16,981 divorces in the Greek Orthodox Church. In comparison, the U.S. divorce rate continues to soar more than 60 percent. The Archdiocese continues to conduct extensive research on the subject of marriage and interfaith marriage to address the needs of concerned couples and families.

Fr. Joanides received his Ph.D. in Human Development and Family Studies with a specialty in Marriage and Family Therapy. For nearly 30 years, he has served as a Greek Orthodox priest at St. Nicholas in Newburgh, NY. He is married to his wife Nancy and has two children. Fr. Joanides is also  a Licensed Marital and Family Therapist, a Clinical member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (AAMFT) and an AAMFT-approved supervisor. He offers lecture and teaches on the subjects of intermarriage, marital enhancement and premarital preparation.

Some of his works include Attending to Your Marriage (2006),  Ministering to Intermarried Couples (2004), and When You Intermarry: A Resource for Inter-Christian, Intercultural Couples, Parents and Families (2002), all of which address challenges of intermarriage, parenting in intermarried households, problem solving, America's divorce culture, Christian marriage, conflict resolution, spousal abuse and escaping a conflicted relationship. His Web site interfaith.goarch.org, is available to all interfaith couples who are either engaged, married or dating. It includes resources like useful links, information on the Interfaith Research Project, Orthodox Observer articles and pastoral guidelines.