Love is blind, but not always when it comes to your faith. As the UK becomes an increasingly multi-ethnic nation, what challenges do people face when they fall in love with someone who does not follow the same religious traditions as they do?
In the most recent census conducted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), one in ten couples in the UK were in inter-ethnic relationships, a total of 2.3 million people. The rise of interfaith relationships is undoubtedly a sign of positive integration and a reflection of the more liberal and inclusive approach we take towards religion, but it is not always without its hardships.
Time-honoured cultural traditions are hard to break and often the most challenging aspect for interfaith couples looking towards marriage is breaking the news of their engagement to family: “My paternal grandmother didn’t speak to me for a year after we were engaged.
“Her genuine belief is that an interfaith marriage cannot work,” admits Jeneen, a 30-year-old Londoner who is marrying her Scottish partner Steven in October this year.
Jeneen is Sikh and her partner Steven, 28, is not religious but comes from an extremely pious family.
The couple now live in Scotland and said planning a wedding that accommodates two faiths and pleases both families has been challenging.
They decided against a traditional Sikh wedding following a series of protests at UK temples where interfaith weddings were taking place. “I took the decision that I would not have a Sikh ceremony because there has been a lot of backlash in the UK at temples where interfaith weddings have been planned,” says Jeneen.
“I also feel that religion is a personal thing to me and I don’t need to have the ceremony to be married in the eyes of God.
“I didn’t want Steven to have a religious ceremony that wouldn’t mean anything to him.”
Aside from celebrating their union, the couple hope their wedding will be an opportunity to put differences aside and unite two cultures. Jeneen added: “I don’t think a wedding is just about what me and Steven want, I really truly see it as a joining of two families.
“We have done everything we can to make people feel comfortable, and draw a line under things.”
Accepting the union of different cultures and faiths is a direct result of the more liberal attitudes held by the younger generation, admits Raj Dharar, founder of Secret Wedding Blog. Raj launched the site in 2013 to offer advice to couples planning interfaith weddings: “The main challenges that interfaith couples face is the older generation,” she says.
“They are stuck in their ways and can find change disturbing.”
Raj believes the wedding industry needs to do more to reflect the diversity of couples and mixed-faith weddings: “At the moment it’s either one type of wedding or another, there isn’t a common source of interfaith marriages.”
She also pinpoints the importance for religious leaders to embrace cultural diversity – an inevitability in an increasingly multi-ethnic society: “Instead of protesting and banning [interfaith weddings], religious leaders need to educate people on the importance of their faith and how it can be combined with another.”
With almost 300 nationalities present in the UK, it is inevitable that our social circles widen and we are exposed to a variety of cultures. Co-founder of The Interfaith Marriage Network, Rosalind Birtwistle says the multiplicity of religion and culture can be part of what attracts people to one another: “Religion can be a big issue but it can also be part of the attraction.
“As a couple they might say we’ve got the same attitude to our faith, even if it’s different specific beliefs.
“With some groups and some families, it still creates a lot of shock but as each generation passes, it’s becoming a bit more mainstream.”
Rosalind, who is Christian and married to a Jew, said the obstacles interfaith couples face prior to marriage can make their relationship stronger and encourage them to acknowledge the significance of their commitment to each other: “Other people think about marriage in terms of flowers and cakes and what to wear, but our couples are forced, at an early stage, to think about what matters to them and what’s important about their partner.”
She added: “A lot of girls assume they will have whatever wedding they always thought they would have and they’re finding now that isn’t the case and it’s the marriage that matters more than the wedding.”
While parents might come to terms with their child ‘marrying out,’ the pressure on newlyweds to establish the cultural identity of their unborn children raises further questions. In recent years, many couples have been asked to sign affidavits or prenuptial agreements prior to their wedding in order to determine how a child is brought up and which elements of a specific faith they will follow.
“I think the world at large thinks that children will have a fixed identity and there’s a lot of pressure on couples to get this sorted out before they ever get married,” says Rosalind.
“What we tell people to do is to try and learn to talk to one another rather than to make any ridged promises because sometimes, in order to get the ceremony they want, one will agree to all sorts of things because pleases the partner’s family.”
Inevitably, interfaith marriage remains a sensitive issue for many religious groups who fear that the union of different religions could eventually cut the cord on their spiritual past. Yet, interfaith marriage is an inescapable consequence of our culturally dynamic world and one that should be accommodated for and celebrated.