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