Christians, Jews, and Co-Officiation

We sat around tables arranged in a rectangle. The participants were future rabbis and Christian ministers– students from various Philadelphia seminaries– and their teachers. The topic was marriage co-officiation. Specifically, the wedding co-officiated by a rabbi and a minister. More specifically, the wedding of Chelsea Clinton and Mark Mezvinsky. We had been learning together for all of two hours, and already it was clear that there were faith-based differences. Not least in the realm of vocabulary.

As a Jewish voice spoke about the general complexity of interfaith marriages, a Christian hand shot up, flashing a “time out” sign.

“Ketubah?” The Christian asked.

“Sorry,” the Jewish student replied, and quickly explained the traditional marriage contract used in Jewish weddings.

As the conversation continued, differences became more pronounced and a theme became quite clear: co-officiation was a bigger concern for Jewish students in the room than for Christian students. Granted, we were a small sample size comprised of largely religiously-liberal students. And yet it was still striking to hear nearly every Christian student express confusion over why co-officiation would be a big deal, while Jewish students took controversy around it as a given. The Christian Seminarians were excited by the possibility of honoring multiple traditions and glad of a couple’s theoretical choice to keep religion in this important livecycle event. The Jewish Seminarians worried about stakeholders and theoretical children and denomination-wide ramifications. (I should clarify, at this point, that many of the Jewish seminarians in the room fully support interfaith marriages writ large and would be glad to officiate them, but this did not keep the aforementioned issues from being of concern.)

It leads to some questions. What are Jews afraid to lose in marriage co-officiation? What are Christians excited to gain? Does having multiple faith traditions represented in a ceremony diminish the significance of each? Is a couple that is welcomed into marriage by leadership from both partners’ religions more or less likely to continue religious engagement?

Of course, these questions do not have simple answers.

Some seminarians in the class, both Jewish and Christian, shared a suspicion that perhaps co-officiation seemed easier from a Christian perspective because there are so many more Christians than Jews. There may be some truth to that. Jews, after all, comprise less than one percent of the world population. Even for Jews who are accepting, and embracing, of interfaith marriage, seeing a minister beside a rabbi under a chuppah (the canopy beneath which Jewish weddings traditionally occur) could serve as a stark reminder that our numbers are falling.

A Christian and a Jew who commit to marry in an entirely Jewish ceremony read differently than a Christian and a Jew who commit to marry in a Christian-Jewish ceremony. The first says that the Christian partner is willing to set aside his or her practices and traditions. The second says that the Christian partner wants to hold his or her practices as equal to the Jewish partner’s practices. The first allows people who are hoping for a Jewish family life for the couple to easily imagine it. The second could give rise to fears of a future family that has no interest in Jewish continuity.

And yet, is it right to make such assumptions? Every couple is different. What is most important, religiously-speaking, to one partner, may perfectly complement the other partner. Or two partners’ religious priorities may be completely at odds, whether they share a faith of not.

Clergy cannot know at the time of a wedding how a couple’s married life will proceed. Clergy cannot know if there will be children, how those children will be raised, or how the couple might prioritize religious observance in the home in general. Indeed, clergy cannot know at the time of a wedding if a couple will remain married for a month, a year, a decade, or a lifetime. Ultimately, when clergy perform marriages, there is an element of faith that goes along with them.

Does this mean that all clergy should freely co-officiate whenever asked? No. Rather, I would argue that it is upon clergy, and future clergy, to continue to face these questions head on, to sit around tables and explore our fears and excitements together. It is upon us to look at the world not just as it was in generations past, but as it is today and as it could be tomorrow. We may not come to the same answers, but we can, and should, learn from the dialogue.

Image courtesy of Flickr Commons.

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