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ntermarried couples repeatedly observed that their lives were negatively impacted by the conflicting religious rules that exist between Christian denominations. Participants also indicated that the Greek Orthodox Church's rules are potentially damaging to marital and family stability. The following information summarizes some of these chief challenges.

Conflicting Inter-Church Rules

 

  • This study tried to provide a safe, confidential forum for people, permitting them to share their lived experiences and personal perceptions. To that end, when the subject of church rules was introduced, many impassioned, animated descriptions and pleas were offered. The following comments summarize some of what was shared.
  • While a few participants argued that church rules have value and are necessary to preserve and protect a faith group’s theological integrity, most participants’ comments were of a critical nature. Participants frequently stated that they felt confused and victimized by their church’s rules. This was especially true with regard to Roman Catholic and Orthodox couples. These couples generally believed that they and their families were victims of unresolved theological controversies, together with a host of outdated church rules that had emerged from these controversies. For example, many of these couples stated that, before marriage, both of their faith traditions had asked them to promise that they would baptize and raise their children in each respective church tradition. As a result, participants found themselves caught within a double bind that seemed irreconcilable. They stated that they felt as if they had been thrust into a “religious war” that created many stressful moments and caused them to question their religious commitment. This was especially the case among couples where both partners had high levels of religiosity. That’s because these individuals essentially perceived themselves with two distasteful choices, (1) lie so that they could wed in their church, or (2) wed outside of their church traditions.
  • Fortunately, couples’ desire to retain a healthy connection with their faith traditions compelled them to pursue this issue further. Several resolved to petition their bishops, and in response, received permission to marry without having to make this pledge. In retrospect, many wondered why their two faith groups could not do something to protect others from this potentially toxic experience. Others who had not pursued this option were still embittered. They felt victimized by this conflicting inter-church rule which adversely effected their (1) relationship with their church, (2) their attitude toward religion, (3) their decision to get married, or (4) their future marital relationship.
  • Additionally, some participants indicated that they chose “to pick and choose” which rules they would obey. The rules that were perceived as being divinely inspired were accepted without equivocation, while other rules that were perceived as human constructions, were considered dated. Participants reasoned that some rules were largely the result of certain historical, cultural and political circumstances that had little or no relevance today. They maintained that these rules might have met pastoral needs at one time or another, but were now in need of revision. As such, they chose to ignore them to protect and promote marital and family well-being. While most were not entirely comfortable with this approach, they indicated that they often had no other choice, since following conflicting inter-church rules served to damage marital and family well-being. These couples hoped that church leaders would become more sensitive to their struggles and seek to make some modifications in their pastoral approach to intermarried couples.

Orthodox Church Rules

  • Results from this study suggest that participants believe that many of the Orthodox Church's rules pertaining to intermarried couples are archaic, and diametrically opposed to their needs. Without sacrificing its theological integrity, respondents maintained that the Orthodox Church must be willing to make certain appropriate adjustments that are reflective of the global, multicultural world in which its faithful are embedded.
  • Numerous comments suggested that intermarried couples view many of the Orthodox Church's rules as counterproductive to the church's efforts to cultivate and nurture unity within intermarried couples and families. Participants observed that many of the church's rules were potentially harmful to them and their families because they functioned to create distance and conflict between them. Some typical examples mentioned were the church's rules regarding Holy Communion, together with its rules pertaining to godparents, and sponsors during the sacrament of marriage.
  • Participants observed that the church's rules also functioned to create distance and conflict between interfaith couples and their extended families, between them and the clergy, between them and their church communities, and between themselves and their non-Orthodox friends and acquaintances.
  • They further stated that the church's rules should reflect Christ's love, and that its rules should facilitate religious and spiritual growth and not confuse, irritate, and frustrate the church's faithful. They also hoped that the church’s leaders would seek to make certain modifications to assist intermarried couples in their efforts to worship in the Orthodox Church as individuals, couples and families. Additionally, most respondents did not expect theologians and church leaders to change the rules to suit them. They simply wanted them to recognize their unique needs and modify the rules when and if it is possible.

How Conflicting Rules Affect Greek Orthodox Christians

  • Many Orthodox participants viewed the Orthodox Church's rules as disrespectful to their non-Orthodox spouse. Their remarks also suggested that this observation functioned to negatively impact (1) individual participation and support, (2) couple participation and support, and (3) their nuclear family's participation and support. Many stated that modifications were sorely needed. Moreover, if these modifications did not occur, they often wondered how this might affect their children and their children’s children. Some speculated that if changes did not take place, many potential future members would be lost.

How Conflicting Rules Affect Non-Orthodox Christians

  • According to participants’ observations, the Orthodox Church's rules tended to engender ill feelings in their non-Orthodox partner. They also served to distance and alienate them from their family and the Orthodox Church. Many of their ill feelings and much of the alienation was connected to the non-Orthodox partner's inability to participate in the sacramental life of the Orthodox Church.
  • Additionally, several non-Orthodox participants' comments inferred that first impressions can be lasting impressions. They stated that if a non-Orthodox Christian perceives that the Orthodox Church's rules are disrespectful toward non-Orthodox faith traditions, these first impressions can negatively impact a non-Orthodox Christian's opinion of Orthodoxy, and their future involvement in the Orthodox Church.

Some Practical Suggestions and Observations

  • According to participants' remarks, the Orthodox Church needs to evaluate its pastoral approach toward interfaith couples. One good place to begin, is to evaluate how its rules negatively impact intermarried couples' religious and spiritual well-being. In short, the intermarried couples involved in this study perceived many of the Orthodox Church's rules in a negative light, and maintained that these rules were potentially harmful to them, their marriages and their families’ religious and spiritual development and well-being. They also observed that the rules created marital and family distance and strife.
  • Participants also stated that kinder, gentler pastoral approaches were needed. They stated that more tolerance and greater acceptance of other religious traditions was needed. They also implored church leaders to examine the existing rules, and make modifications wherever possible.
  • For example, according to these couples, some priests may either purposely or inadvertently make intermarried couple feel guilty for choosing to enter or remain intermarried. They further stated that when the priest assumes a dogmatic approach toward intermarried couples without also being sensitive to their special needs, this functions to turn these couples away. Sensitizing the clergy to intermarried spouses', couples' and families' special needs and challenges through additional education and seminars was considered crucial to the church’s efforts to minister to these faithful and their families.
  • Pastoral approaches that seek to respect a couple's freedom to choose resonate more with intermarried couples than approaches that dismiss a couple's free will to make decisions for their marriage and family. The former facilitates interfaith couples’ efforts to make healthy decisions about religious matters, while the latter confuses, alienates, and devalues couples’ perceptions of religion and Greek Orthodoxy.
  • In addition, just as increased clergy awareness of intermarried couple's needs was deemed important, participants also indicated that they also lacked knowledge of the Orthodox Church and this deficiency served to have a negative impact on their perception of the Orthodox Church's rules. Helping intermarried couples raise their awareness through additional adult education classes seemed to be a practical solution to their perception of the Orthodox Church's rules.
  • Participants also observed that the criteria that many Protestant denominations use to determine who is and is not a member are considerably more lenient than the Orthodox Church’s guidelines. As such, this makes the Orthodox Church appear narrow minded, and less welcoming to some intermarried couples than other Christian faith communities.
  • And finally, a consistent application and understanding of the rules was also deemed important. For example, one respondent stated: "When my non-Orthodox father died, he was given a Greek Orthodox funeral·. And my mother has continued to offer memorials in his memory." This, of course, created a rather lively discussion about who is and is not afforded an Orthodox funeral. In another instance, a respondent indicated that his priest "would not allow my wife's non-Orthodox minister to take any part in the marriage service." And yet in another instance, a respondent stated, "Some priests allow non-Orthodox to stand around the font and take part -in some form - during baptism, while others do not…. This inconsistency really confuses people." In another instance a respondent quizzically asked, "Why is it that the church will allow non-Orthodox to participate in the marriage sacrament but will not allow non-Orthodox to partake in Holy Communion? I just don't understand this. It seems like a double standard is at work here. Either the church allows non-Orthodox to take part in the sacraments or it doesn't? You can't have it both ways." In all cases, I suspended my role as moderator and answered each question by simply reiterating the Orthodox Church’s position.