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Dilemmas of the Modern Marriage : When Life Styles and Church Practice Sometimes Clash

<i> Bell is a free-lance writer who lives in Playa del Rey. </i>

The bride walked down the aisle with a long train billowing behind her. More than 100 wedding guests stood up as she joined her Catholic bridegroom at the altar. Later, during a 45-minute ceremony, a priest pronounced them married under the auspices of the Catholic Church. As a flutist played and a photographer clicked away, both bride and bridegroom strode joyously back down the aisle.

To the casual observer, there was nothing to tell you that the couple were already married. But the newlyweds, both in their late 20s, had participated in another wedding ceremony just the day before. The earlier ceremony, lasting more than an hour and witnessed by 50 people, had taken place in the bride’s Russian Orthodox Church.

This double ritual is just one of the ways couples are trying to resolve the dilemmas of modern marriage. Marriage has become a tricky event for many couples, especially those who seek to marry in a church or synagogue. Interfaith marriage, divorce, co-habitation or even non-attendance at church are some of the common modern practices that can put significant hurdles between engaged couples and a religious ceremony.

One result of the clash between contemporary behavior and church teaching may be an upswing in secular ceremonies. Since the Los Angeles County Clerk’s office began conducting civil ceremonies in September, 1984, the number of such ceremonies has shot up by about 1,000 a year.

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Brief Ceremonies

According to Iris Spencer, county manager of court services, 9,989 couples will be married in the three- to four-minute civil ceremonies this year. In November, the demand for civil ceremonies had become so great that the clerk’s office expanded the time it will perform weddings by 12 hours a week.

But if some couples seek to avoid the issue of religion by opting for civil ceremonies, others go to great lengths to assure the blessings of their churches.

Lydia Arthur, the bride with the double ceremony mentioned above (who asked that her real name not be used)--a USC business school graduate now working in San Francisco--felt compelled to marry in her church due to family tradition. Her fiance felt equally strongly about a Catholic wedding.

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“For my family, it was very important that I get married in the Russian Orthodox Church,” she said. “In the Russian Orthodox Church, if you get married in another church, they don’t recognize it.”

She first investigated the possibility of co-officiation, in which two clergymen of separate faiths conduct the ceremony together. But while this practice is fairly common in the Catholic Church, it is not acceptable to the Orthodox tradition, which does not allow clergy of other churches to take part in its sacraments. Then she hit upon the idea of two separate ceremonies.

Though Arthur found a way around her dilemma, the issues surrounding marriage--and the reluctance of some clergy to perform ceremonies for individuals who deviate from church guidelines--can be very painful to both clergy and couples.

These issues involve the relevance of church proscriptions in modern society, the struggle of many religious entities to hold onto their flocks, and whether future generations--the children of today’s engaged couples--will be raised within a religious context.

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Interfaith marriage is not the only circumstance that raises difficult issues for clergy and engaged couples. Laura Baker, a Los Angeles resident in her mid-20s who also requested a pseudonym, is a non-practicing Catholic who planned to marry another Catholic. She went through a prolonged search in both California and her home state of Michigan before she found a church that would marry her. Although her fiance was divorced and shared her apartment, her biggest obstacle was overcoming the fact that she was not a member of any parish.

“No one would marry us because we were not parishioners, and our parents weren’t parishioners,” she said. “One church that I thought would marry us because I was baptized there . . . said: ‘Why don’t you get married in California. This isn’t your home anymore.’ ”

Baker and her fiance eventually joined a Los Angeles parish, where the priest consented to marry them if they attended a marriage class, moved apart three months before the wedding and attended Mass regularly.

At the same time, she began to gather the documentation necessary to participate in a Catholic wedding. In her case this consisted of baptismal certificates, her fiance’s final divorce decree and notarized statements by witnesses that neither party had been previously married in the Catholic Church. Additionally, her fiance, who had not been confirmed in the church, would have to go through that process.

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Looking back, Baker, who has since called off her marriage, labels the wedding preparations an alienating experience.

“I feel a little worse about the church now. I felt, why should I have to be a member of a parish to be married? As long as it’s a Catholic church, what does it matter?”

To the Catholic clergy, however, such issues not only matter but are often determined by canonical law. Furthermore, according to Father John Neiman, a priest at St. John Fisher in Palos Verdes, unwillingness to live by Catholic guidelines may indicate a couple holds no real understanding of what a Catholic wedding is.

“To be married in the Catholic church is more than just having a nice, pretty ceremony. You’re making a commitment to a way of life, to a set of values . . . a commitment to Jesus Christ. And if you can’t or don’t want to do that, it’s a terrible contradiction to be married in the church.”

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Yet Neiman, who says that the majority of marriages he performs are between Catholics and non-Catholics, says he rarely turns couples away, even if they are no longer active in the church. “I’m not going to tell people I won’t marry them, but I do want them to come into the church.

“If you see any spark of faith at all, you go for it. Jesus did it that way,” he said.

Few Exceptions

Catholic canon remains fairly strict on some aspects of marriage. According to Father Joseph Battaglia, spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese, Catholic law demands couples to wed in the geographical area in which they are domiciled and that they marry in Catholic ceremonies. Exceptions are allowed but require a dispensation from the bishop, Battaglia said.

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Divorce remains a difficult problem within the Catholic Church, and prospective newlyweds who have already been married must convince church hierarchy that previous unions were not valid. This decision is ultimately made by a tribunal of marriage judges.

But, Battaglia noted, the Catholic Church has greatly opened its doors to interfaith marriages in recent decades. Church officials frequently conduct mixed-faith marriages and will even co-officiate with clergy in synagogues and other houses of worship. Non-Catholics marrying Catholics are no longer required to sign papers stating that the children be raised Catholic.

Interfaith marriage is perhaps the most painful path for members of the Jewish community. According to Fredi Rembaum, assistant director of the Council on Jewish Life, the occurrence of interfaith marriages among U.S. Jews jumped from 7% in the 1940s to 30%-40% in the 1980s. Yet, she said, Jewish tradition strongly discourages marriage out of faith. Of particular concern is the ability of interfaith couples to create a Jewish home and convey Jewishness to the next generation.

As a response to the increase in mixed-faith marriages, the Council on Jewish Life and other organizations have sponsored a number of programs to help interfaith families stay connected to the Jewish community. Nevertheless, the number of rabbis who will perform interfaith marriages--much less co-officiate in blended ceremonies--remains relatively small.

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“It’s very difficult to find rabbis who will perform mixed marriages,” said Rabbi Richard N. Levy, executive director of the Hillel Council at UCLA and a member of the Jewish Reform movement. Some rabbis who do not perform interfaith weddings are also reluctant to refer couples to those that do.

“There are rabbis who feel it is just as wrong to be involved in the marriage of a mixed couple, and to refer somebody is to give it some credence,” Levy noted.

Levy said he used to perform interfaith marriages but stopped because “it felt increasingly inauthentic. I would require a willingness to establish a Jewish home, but people had no idea of what that meant.”

For Sam Rubin and Julie Anderson, an interfaith couple living in Los Angeles, the search for a rabbi to perform their wedding has proven frustrating, at best. They plan to marry next month in a Jewish ceremony, followed later by a private Catholic ceremony.

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Difficult Situation

“It’s been much more problematic than we ever imagined it would be,” said Rubin, an entertainment reporter. “We envisioned a situation in which we said we want to get married . . . and the religious mechanisms of our faiths would say that’s great and we’ll help you. But essentially, they’ve said it’s not so great.”

The couple found a willing priest through Anderson’s parents. But their initial quest for a rabbi was far less encouraging. Family members had referred Rubin and Anderson to a rabbi who conducts frequent mixed marriages, only to find that they didn’t fit his requirements.

“He was very warm and we liked him a lot,” Rubin said. “But he said, ‘I only ask that the Jewish ceremony be the only ceremony, and that the children be brought up Jewish.’ So we said ‘no and no.’ ”

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Rubin and Anderson have not made final decisions on how they will raise children.

Consultations with an additional rabbi ultimately led the couple to a cantor, who will conduct the ceremony. Cantors, the leaders of public prayer in Jewish ceremonies, usually co-officiate with a rabbi, but will, on occasion, perform wedding ceremonies on their own.

Interfaith marriage, as well as other issues, such as divorce and non-practice of faith, are smaller stumbling blocks for many members of Christian Protestant faiths. The Rev. Tom Choi, a pastor at the Westwood United Methodist Church, said he frequently marries couples who may have difficulty marrying in stricter faiths.

“I show them the (wedding) vows, which are very sacred, and say, ‘If you can say them, I’ll marry you.’ ”

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Choi, who will co-officiate in two Christian-Buddhist weddings this month, alters the vows if the couple is not Christian and attempts to spark a desire among non-practicing Christians to return to the church.

“It is hoped that you as a minister might be able, by the grace of God, to rekindle interest in the church.” He does not require a special class or documentation from couples.

Addie Sinclair, a Los Angeles vocalist and her fiance, Mack Dugger, who is studying for his teaching credential in Riverside, have been shopping for a church to recite their vows. Sinclair, a devout Mormon, and Dugger, who has been attending a Baptist church, do not intend to marry in either of their churches.

“I always wanted a wedding in the Mormon Temple,” Sinclair said. “But Mack’s not Mormon, so that changes everything.”

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Following the Guidelines

Only members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in good standing are permitted to marry in a Mormon temple. Mormon guidelines do, however, allow interfaith marriage in the local Mormon chapels where weekly worship occurs. However, Sinclair has rejected this option because the chapels lack center aisles.

Dugger’s Baptist church is out of the running too, partially because of the negative sentiment Dugger says he has noticed since he announced his engagement to a Mormon. “The way people have reacted has affected how I feel about the church,” he said.

But they have received a warm welcome at a Lutheran church in Riverside and are thinking of asking an Episcopalian minister, who is also a friend, to conduct the ceremony.

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