top

"Greek-American" - April 4, 1998

Inter-Faith Marriage Study Underway

   By Dino Stamidis

NEW YORK - The future of the Church depends on its people. But what happens when a majority of its people are marrying outside of the Greek Orthodox faith? In an attempt to gain a better understanding of where the Church is heading, Archbishop Spyridon has started a committee on inter-faith marriages to identify the needs of the Greek Orthodox community.

It is estimated that approximately 50% of the marriages taking place in the Greek Orthodox Church are inter-faith marriages. As Greek Americans become more assimilated into mainstream American culture, they are expanding their social circles and becoming less dependent on their Church as a source for social activities. As a result, Orthodox Christians are meeting and marrying people of different backgrounds and faith. The Church recognizes this change, and accepts the integration of the community. Some of the problems which arise, however, are how these non-Orthodox spouses are being received in their communities, and the religious obstacles faced by the couples once they're married.

What may be surprising to many is that the Church allows its members to marry a non-Orthodox in their Church, without requiring him or her to convert. As long as the non-Orthodox spouse is baptized in the Holy Trinity, the Church will perform the sacrament. Clergy are the only ones required to marry Orthodox Christians. Therefore, the study does not examine the issue of permitting inter-faith marriages, but rather intends to better understand the needs of inter-faith couples.

Fr. Charles Joannides, Ph.D. in marriage and family therapy, is heading the study undertaken by the inter-faith marriage committee. He will tour the country ministering the community in workshops and forums while gathering data. The information that is gathered will eventually be accessible through the Archdiocese website under the direction of the Internet Ministries, a division of the Archdiocese in charge of online information about the Church. Fr. Mark Arey, director of communications at the Archdiocese, expects the site to be set up in a couple of months.

Fr. Arey describes that the approach Fr. Joannides has chosen is like "taking a snapshot of the community." Using focus groups, Fr. Joannides will be able to assess the community's feelings on inter-faith marriages. In part, they are interested in finding out if non-Orthodox spouses are being accepted in parishes. Generally, non-Orthodox spouses have most likely not converted to Orthodoxy because they have never been asked, says Fr. Arey. The long-term goal of the committee, according to Fr. Arey, is not to proselytize non-Orthodox spouses, but to educate them in Orthodoxy in order to give them an option. A non-Orthodox spouse may feel out of place, being unable to receive communion or participate in the weddings of friends as a koumbaro.

Illustrating the possible problems arising in inter-faith marriages, Fr. Arey gave the following example. Let's say that Bill, a non-Orthodox Christian, is married to Helen, an Orthodox Christian. When Bill and Helen decided to get married, Helen's parents were not thrilled. Bill was a "good boy," but not Greek. They have a couple of kids baptized in the Church. Helen and Bill keep their kids active in the community by taking them to church every Sunday. The kids go to Sunday school, Greek school, and participate in the Greek Orthodox Youth Association (GOYA). Helen is in the choir. Bill helps out during the Greek festival. Bill's family receives communion on Sundays, but not Bill. Bill likes the community he is raising his family in, but doesn't understand Greek. Since Bill can receive communion in any other Church, he can't help but feel excluded from the Orthodox community. This is the scenario which points to the root of the problems facing inter-faith couples.

Fr. Arey believes that language need not be a barrier. When people like Bill say they don't understand Greek, they really mean they don't understand Greek Orthodoxy, he explains. And, if Bill wanted to learn about his wife's religion, he would have to rely solely on independent book study. Presently, there is no other way for him to learn about the Church. In addition to all this, the exclusionary nature of parents opposed to a non-Greek husband or wife is a problem. Fr. Arey said that the committee's study is really about adult education. A cultural perspective has to be a part of the education as well. "As a Church, we need to start listening to our people," warned Fr. Arey.

Listening is exactly what Fr. Joannides plans to do. Currently, he is in the process of gathering volunteers for his focus groups. Each diocese will participate. The first stop will be in Detroit, where Fr. Joannides will organize two groups. Group One will consist of couples between the ages of 20-34 and Group Two of couples between 35-50. Fr. Joannides is hoping to gather information on "lived experiences." In order to recognize the needs of the community, a dialog must be created. This dialog will give the study more of a direction. Fr. Joannides compares the process to a funnel. In the beginning, there will be a lot of information. In time, the study will produce categories and dimensions, and problem areas will become more defined. Eventually, as does a funnel, the ending will narrow, producing a grounded theory.

Up until now, there has never been a study on inter-faith marriages by the Greek Orthodox Church. Other denominations, such as the Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, have researched the effects of inter-faith marriages, but nothing has been explored concerning the Greek Orthodox community.

Fr. Joannides will use other studies as a guide to his research. He explains that similar problems addressed by other studies, including the raising of children in the Church and the issue of marital stability, also apply to the Greek Orthodox community. Oftentimes, he adds, inter-faith marriages create an unsupportive spiritual environment for children; this disadvantage often leads to a deficiency in religious identity for the children. These are all points that need to be addressed in the Greek Orthodox Church.

Fr. Joannides hopes that communication between himself and the focus groups will allow obstacles to be identified, resulting in positive and productive approaches that can be taken by the ministry to counsel these couples. Ultimately, the Church intends this information to provide seminarians with a guide to their future pastoral responsibilities. In sum, the goal of the study is to generate understanding in inter-faith couples, assist priests in becoming more sensitive to the issues involved, and create "user-friendly" methods of ministry.

The Church has a lot of work to do, remarked Fr. Arey, going on to say that the implementation of the study's findings will fall upon the parish priest, who is the closest to community members. And, the Church intends to provide them with the necessary tools.

Fr. Joannides will post periodic updates on the Archdiocese website (http://www. goarch.org/), including articles and sources relating to the study, for those interested in following his progress.

[ EKKLISIA | www.ekklisia.org/etyp-4-4.htm  -  April 4, 1998 ]