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Marriage across Frontiers

A report by Ruth Reardon, honorary secretary of the Association of Interchurch Families (AIF), on a three-day conference held in May 1992. This conference, held in Newcastle, Northern Ireland, offered an opportunity to see interchurch marriage in the wider context of mixed marriages across national, ethnic and religious frontiers. The gathering was held under the auspices of the Commission on Marriage and Interpersonal Relations of the International Union of Family Organisations, and brought together members of 37 organisations from 18 countries. The local hosts were Relate Northern Ireland and the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council (CMAC). The Association of Interchurch Families received an invitation because the subject this year was "Marriage across Frontiers". 

A global perspective

It was a salutary experience. On the one hand, the "problems" of interchurch families seemed to pale into insignificance beside those which face families which span national, ethnic and faith divides; on the other hand, the similarities stood out clearly. For us, it is a question of how the churches together can come to terms with mixed marriages between Christians, just as on a global level nations and ethnic groups and world religions have to come to terms with a situation in which mixed marriages are increasing fast in numbers. Once again it was clear that questions facing divided churches are a microcosm of questions facing a divided world.

As a representative of interchurch families, I was very much in a minority. Some people were at the conference because of the subject, but many others were representatives of family organisations who are at the conference every year whatever the topic. The Commission "brings together people from different parts of the world who have a professional interest in practice and policy matters concerning family life". In that context, interchurch marriage became a very specialised minority interest. "Catholic-Protestant marriages are no problem," everybody said, "except in Northern Ireland, because people don’t practise any more."

A special study by Gillian Robinson of the Queen’s University, Belfast, on Cross-community Marriage in Northern Ireland, had been commissioned on the initiative of CMAC and Relate in preparation for the conference, and a shortened version of it was presented by Professor Stringer. The title "cross-community" itself indicates that in Northern Ireland Catholic-Protestant marriages span both a social and a religious divide. Very few of the couples studied were likely to join AIF’s sister association the Northern Ireland Mixed Marriage Association (NIMMA), but their problems were clear enough.

The second main input came from Professor Barbara, of Nantes University, who has studied for many years marriages between French nationals and immigrants. His stimulating lecture showed the complexity of classifying cross-frontier marriages. Every marriage, of course, crosses frontiers of gender and family culture. But one of the findings of the conference was that differences of nationality, ethnicity and religion can highlight collective aspects of the nature of marriage which are easily overlooked, especially by cultures which stress the value of individual choice. Thus studying them can contribute to our understanding of marriage itself.

Apart from the two keynote papers, most of the conference time was spent in group work, pulled together in a final plenary session. This was chaired by Christopher Clulow of the Tavistock Institute of Marital Studies, who also put together a six-page report on the conference. Here I am summarising its findings under four of his main headings.

Subversive marriage

Marriage is both a social institution and a personal relationship. When individuals in their marriage cross the collective frontiers of nationality, ethnicity and religion they raise issues for the group; they can threaten the security of the group. Marriage can even be seen as an act of treason – for instance, in the case of Anglo-German, Franco-Algerian, Israeli-Egyptian and Serbo-Croat marriages in recent history. Questions of identity are raised – both on the collective and the individual levels. 

Areas of vulnerability

Pressure to conform with the identity of the group may place individual identity in jeopardy. One or both partners may experience social isolation and a sense of exclusion from community rituals and routines which can support family life. In extreme cases, failure to conform with the identity of the group may result not only in discrimination but in physical attack.

The absence of shared history, culture and language may give rise to misunderstandings and poor communication which could destabilise marriage in times of crisis. Children may introduce particular conflicts into the relationship when choices have to be made about parenting practices, education and religious affiliation. Matters that can be taken for granted in same-culture marriages may require difficult negotiations and compromise for partners who come from different cultures. These may have to be managed by the couple unsupported; there will always be a fear (and sometimes a divisive hope) that those who are taken into the couple’s confidence may demand conformity to the social norm.

Areas of potential

The areas of vulnerability are also the areas of potential. Couples may succeed in managing differences that communities have failed to manage, and their success may offer hope to others who wish to bridge the gap in conflicts which threaten to tear communities apart.

In the absence of social support, there may need to be a higher than normal level of commitment between couples marrying across frontiers; no evidence was given that cross-frontier marriages are more prone to breakdown than others. Differences between partners may encourage planning and communication between them, developing their capacity to negotiate, as well as being enriching in opening up new worlds.

The potential for developing a mature relationship may be enhanced in cross-frontier marriages, with partners less dependent on parents and others to define their values for them, and children gaining from a model of partnership in which there is tolerance and an acceptance of differences in others. 

Supporting cross-frontier marriages

The Commission felt it important to support cross-frontier marriages, rather than accepting the point of view that they should be discouraged because of the challenge they represent to existing orders.

International law should take account of the diversity which characterises family life today; a supra-national framework is required so that the outcome of family disputes which cross national boundaries should not depend on the law of any one country.

Educational opportunities exist to break down barriers of prejudice. Children of cross-national marriages can be integrated in the educational system with sensitivity and in ways which respect their differences. Couples planning to marry across frontiers can be encouraged to think ahead and prepare for the challenges they may meet. All religious bodies and denominations have a pastoral responsibility here. Organisations helping couples have a duty to provide training for their staff. The media and the dramatic arts have a part to play in sensitising the community to the predicaments of those in cross-frontier marriages.

Socio-economic policy should take account of cross-frontier marriages. The issues need clearer definition. It is not helpful to see marriage as a solution to obtaining the right to work in, or the citizenship of, a country; nor should those entitled to live and work in a country be socially and economically disadvantaged because of their marital status.

Psycho-social factors affect the capacity of those in cross-frontier marriages to make the most of their situation; counsellors and others need training to develop understanding of the interplay of social and psychological factors affecting partners and children.

The full report by Christopher Clulow and the keynote papers by Professors Stringer and Barbara can be obtained from the Secretariat of the International Union of Family Organisations, 28 Place St George, 75009 Paris. Gillian Robinson’s full survey Cross-community Marriage in Northern Irelandcan be obtained from the Centre for Social Research, The Queen’s University of Belfast, 105 Botanic Avenue, Belfast, BT7 1NN.


Reflections from an interchurch family perspective

It seems to me that interchurch families’ experience has something to offer in the wider mixed marriage context where national, ethnic and faith barriers are concerned. That remains to be seen. In what follows I am simply suggesting that the findings of the conference can help to clarify some of the questions which face interchurch families.

We can’t help being subversive

The conference was clear that cross-frontier marriages by their very existence threaten the identity of the group, subvert the existing order, are a danger to traditional institutions. But, as the report points out, "it is unlikely that couples themselves will attribute these meanings to their choice of partner".

As couples, we tend to think first of ourselves as the vulnerable ones, and maybe need to recognise more fully the threat we constitute to our churches, and especially perhaps to the Roman Catholic Church with its very strong sense of corporate identity. Thus we need to be able to exercise a great deal of imaginative empathy in our relations with the clergy whose role it is to represent in a special way this corporate identity. A very good example of this kind of imaginative empathy is to be found in the spontaneous reactions of a URC wife to a Catholic bishop’s letter, as seen in the AIF video (see * below). It was maybe easier in this case because the bishop himself indicated his own vulnerability, as well as responding positively to the family’s request [for permission for the wife to receive at her child’s First Communion]. We need to develop our understanding of how we ourselves can appear as a threat, in order to exercise imaginative empathy also in situations which are extremely difficult for us.

George Kilcourse’s book Double Belonging (Paulist Press/Fowler Wright, 1992) is very helpful in this respect. It shows the enormity of the paradigm shift which has to take place in the Roman Catholic Church if the insights of the Second Vatican Council are really to be integrated into its life; how essential this is for the welfare of interchurch families, and how interchurch families themselves are contributing to the process.

The magnitude of the task should not be underestimated. But we do contribute to the process, and we can consciously "own" the inevitably subversive character of our marriages. "By challenging the existing order," says the Newcastle report, couples in cross-frontier marriages "may have long-term community interests at heart." It is not so much that we have to do anything; we just have to exist as interchurch families. We have to hang on to what is necessary to us as families, while at the same time being aware that by our continuing existence we can sometimes make life just as uncomfortable for our church communities as they do for us, by remaining divided.

A question of identity: the couple

The conference report brings out the fact that a point of convergence between the public and private meanings of cross-frontier marriage is the preoccupation with identity. At collective and individual levels there is concern to differentiate "me" from "not me", "us" from "them", because identity is marked out by the drawing up of such distinctions. The fear of being overrun operates between groups and individuals alike; similar dynamic processes operate to protect identities. The report notes that at a psychological level there may be no differences between marriages in terms of dynamic and developmental issues; the "foreign-ness" of a partner may only surface as an explanation for problems when the relationship is under pressure.

Partners in interchurch families have often said, "I am a better Catholic (or whatever) because I married an Anglican (or whatever)"; identities have been strengthened because they have had to be affirmed and explained. And yet at the same time many partners have also felt themselves, at least to some degree, to be taking on a new identity, sharing to some extent in the "other" church, within the overarching identity of Christian marriage.

So the subversive question which these couples ask the churches (along with many other Christians committed to the ecumenical movement) is how long we have to go on with exclusive definitions – if this, not that; if a Catholic, not a Protestant; if Orthodox, not Methodist … Catholicism and Protestantism belong together, as Adrian Hastings makes clear in his article "Catholics and Protestants" (Interchurch Families, 1, 1, 1993). All Christians belong together. There is a Christian identity.

Recently AIF had a visit from Rabbi Jonathan Romain, who has worked with Jewish-Christian marriages and wanted to see how far the questions raised by these are similar to those raised by interchurch marriages. He said that within Judaism terminology is changing: "mixed marriages" used to mean marriages between two kinds of Jew (e.g. Orthodox and Reformed), whereas now it is losing this meaning and coming to be used for marriages between Jews and non-Jews.

As in a shrinking world we come to identify ourselves increasingly as members of the one Body of Christ, bound together by the one baptism (whatever the distinctions within this identity), a similar change in terminology will presumably gain ground.

It is worth noting that Roman Catholic canonical terminology already distinguishes between marriages of Catholics with non-Christians, for which one needs a dispensation from "disparity of cult", and those with baptised Christians, where the dispensation is from "mixed religion". It is only in the second case that the marriage is recognised as a sacramental Christian marriage.

A question of identity: the children

Most people at the conference took it for granted that parents should choose an identity for their children – one or the other – and preferably as early as possible. From the experience of an interchurch family, my instinctive reaction was to question this assumption. Of course, many interchurch families do choose one denomination or the other for their children, and would testify that this can work well; but many others have opted for a dual identity, refusing to make an exclusive choice within the overarching Christian identity they seek for their children. They believe that this can make sense in a situation in which the churches have committed themselves to unity, to becoming one church. There cannot in the end be irreconcilable differences between them; differences, yes, but differences which can be held together in communion.

The trouble is that we have not yet reached the end, and to many people in all our communities the differences do still appear irreconcilable. Bishop Vincent Nichols has told us (Swanwick conference, September 1992) that we do no service to our children if we bring them up with unreal expectations; there are at present essential differences between the churches. It is certain that, by not choosing one identity or the other on their behalf, parents place a burden on the children as well as offering them a gift. The question is whether the value of the gift is greater than the weight of the burden. Many would claim that it is.

There are many kinds of marriage across frontiers. Sometimes the identity of the child is settled because of the place where the parents live. The conference noted that it may be hard in these circumstances for the non-indigenous partner to maintain an individual identity.

It seems often to be the case that where children are clearly brought up in one church rather than the other, one partner experiences a real sense of isolation and therefore pressure to join the rest of the family. Sometimes this can be done in good conscience, after mature reflection, and family life can become that much easier, but in other cases the sense of being a foreigner in one’s own family can persist, and special pastoral care may be needed. There is a certain parallel with the situation where "the power balance in a relationship is likely to favour the indigenous partner in terms of language, familiarity with surroundings, networks, procedures, social support and legal rights", as the Newcastle report notes. This is identified as one of the "areas of vulnerability" for cross-frontier marriages.

Where interchurch couples opt for dual identity for their children, they are committing themselves to managing differences that their church communities have so far failed to manage – "an area of

potential", according to the Newcastle report, but equally requiring pastoral concern and support. Professor Barbara remarked that if parents do not choose an identity for their children, society will do so. It remains to be seen if this will happen in the case of interchurch children – whether or not the churches will continue to try to urge them to choose an exclusive identity if they wish to be confirmed.

Good for everybody

In our group at Newcastle we talked about educational equivalencies and how difficult it is for parents who want their children to move between two cultures to move them from one educational system to another. But other families, too, it was agreed, would benefit if this were made easier. "What’s good for mixed marriages is good for everybody," someone remarked.

So maybe what’s good for interchurch families is good for the churches as a whole. It’s an encouraging thought for interchurch families who remain within two communities but struggle to persuade those church communities to express and celebrate more fully that growing unity between them which they already acknowledge.



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