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The Pastoral Dimension of Mixed Marriages

The Pastoral Dimension of Mixed Marriages

Rev. Dr. George Tsetsis
Ἐκκλησία-Οἰκουμένη-Πολιτική , Αθήνα 2007, σελ. 599-611

Until the beginnings of the 19th century, Orthodox populations living in the traditional "Orthodox lands" of the East Mediterranean, of the Balkanic peninsula and of the central and eastern parts of Europe, had little opportunity to encounter peoples belonging to other Christian traditions, and to have social, or even commercial relations with them. With few notable exceptions, Orthodox living in their ancestral lands from time immemorial, had knowledge of other Christians generally through apologetic books and writings, or from anti-heretic homilies of their pastors. The "heterodox" was a creature to be avoided at all costs! Even in cities and lands of a cosmopolitan character and inter-faith synthesis, such as Constantinople, Smyrna, Alexandria, Damascus, Beirut or Jerusalem, Orthodox believers, although they were neighbors to Latins, Copts, Armenians, Chaldeans or Syro-Jacobites, as well as to Jews and Moslems, deliberately lived in isolation, within their own "Orthodox fortress", in an endeavor to preserve their ethnic, cultural and religious identity.

The real encounter of the Orthodox with peoples of other Christian traditions and cultures happened when masses of Orthodox populations left their home-lands in order to escape political oppression, slavery and misery, and find better living conditions in prosperous host countries. First, in the Americas, (particularly in the USA ), in the 19th century, and later on, in the mid-1950's, in Australia and Europe, (mainly in Germany, Great Britain, France, Sweden, Belgium ).

In this new multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-confessional setting of the host countries, Orthodox from Greece, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, or from Asia Minor and the whole of the Middle East, had the opportunity to meet the "other": the Roman Catholic Irish and Italian, the Swedish and German Lutheran, the Dutch and Swiss Protestant, the Episcopalian of English origin. The natural outcome of this coexistence m these "melting pot" societies, was the progressive breaking down of "wall's of separation" and the gradual establishment of contact between peoples from different ethnic and religious horizons; a "getting together" with a wide spectrum of social and ecumenical implications. One of them was, the contraction of mixed marriages, this most important and challenging pastoral problem, that the Churches around the world are facing today in their daily ministry.

For the Orthodox Church, however, mixed marriages are not a problem affecting only Orthodox communities living in the multi-ethnic, multi-religious societies of the "West". With the gradual enlargement nowadays of the European Union towards the Balkans, with the consequent abolition of national borders, and the mixing of European peoples, the Orthodox believers of Greece and Cyprus today, of Romania and Bulgaria tomorrow, of Ukraine and Serbia in the foreseeable future, who were accustomed to live so far in their own Orthodox "stronghold", will encounter the "alien", the foreigner. Not necessarily the ephemeral, passing by tourist, but the "European citizen" who will emigrate to a traditionally Orthodox country for scientific, commercial or affective reasons. In this perspective, traditional Orthodox lands will inevitably lose their "compact" homogeneous Orthodox character, and will gradually develop a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional social environment, with non-negligible cultural and relational consequences. This new reality will quite naturally generate new social relationships, which will inevitably end up with inter-Christian, mixed marriages, as happened in the USA early 20th century, or in Australia, Germany, France, Switzerland four or five decades ago.

This new situation will compel Mother Churches living and witnessing in the historic Orthodox lands of the East not to consider mixed marriages as a problem affecting only the so-called Diaspora area. This phenomenon sooner or later will become an unavoidable problem in traditional Orthodox Countries like Greece, Cyprus, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, or Russia. It is worth mentioning at this point that mixed marriages have been a common phenomenon in Egypt or in Syria and Lebanon for many decades now. This being the case, there is an urgent need, I believe, to examine this issue on a Pan-orthodox level. Not only in its canonical perspective however, as is the case with the present agenda of the planned Pan-Orthodox Synod, but also, and mainly, in its pastoral dimension and in the light of the developments in today's society. Because, whether we like it or not, even if a mixed marriage starts as a private affair of a loving couple, it inevitably implicates the Church.

It is known that although the early Church discouraged exogamy for religious reasons, it nevertheless tolerated marriages between a Christian and a pagan. In doing so, the Church followed St Paul 's maxim that "the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband" (1 Cor. 7 ;14 ). Early Christian literature gives evidence that marriages between a Christian and a non-Christian were not rare, though they were problematic. Only when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, was the celebration of such marriages forbidden by the Church.

From that moment, endogamy, namely marriage between two Christians, became the normal practice of the undivided Church during the first millennium. And following the Great Schism in 1054, marriage between two Orthodox, become the praxis of the Orthodox Church, until very recently.

With the adoption of Christianity as state religion of the Roman, and later of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, the Church formulated Canons condemning mixed marriages. Thus, the Council of Laodicea (343), with its 10th Canon, forbade members of the Church to marry their children to heretics. While its 31st Canon specified that "it is not lawful to make marriages with all sorts of heretics, nor to give our sons and daughters to them; but rather to take of them, if they promise to become Christians". We see that during that time, conversion to Christianity was a precondition for the celebration of the marriage. From its side, the Council of Carthage (394), with its 29th Canon, stipulated that the children of clergy should not be allowed to marry women who are heretics or pagans.

The canonical directives of the above two local Councils were reaffirmed later by Ecumenical Councils. Thus, the 4th Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451), with its 14th Canon, prohibited marriages "with a heretic, or a Jew, or a pagan, unless the person marrying the Orthodox shall promise to come over to the Orthodox faith". And it is worth noting that this Canon confirms the above mentioned 31st Canon of Laodicea, namely that conversion to Christianity is a prerequisite for the celebration of a marriage.

The fullest and most explicit directive of the Church over this issue, however, is the 72nd Canon of the Quinisext Ecumenical Council in Trullo (692). This particular Canon not only spoke about impediments of mixed marriages, but it also prescribed the sanctions to be applied against those who would transgress the rules of the Church. This Canon reads as follows:

"An Orthodox man is not permitted to marry a heretical woman, nor an Orthodox woman to wed a heretical man. And if anything or this sort should appear to have been done by anyone at all, the marriage is to be considered null, and the unlawful wedlock is to be dissolved. For it behooves not to mingle together the things that ought not to be mingled, nor it is right that the wolf be joined with the sheep, nor the lot of sinners with the portion of Christ (« μερίδι Χριστοῦ », namely the Church). But if anyone shall transgress what we have decreed, let him be excommunicated".

This rigid canonical measure continued in the post-Byzantine period, and until the beginnings of the 19th century. Thus, a decree of Patriarch Dositheos of Jerusalem in 1706, ruled that "from now on, any woman marrying an Armenian, should not be allowed to enter the Church, and should be deprived of Holy Communion, as well as of proper Orthodox burial “ (1) . One century later, in 1806, the Ethno-martyr Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory V, with an encyclical letter, instructed diocesan Bishops "not to issue marriage licences to those Orthodox intending to marry a heterodox or a heretic" (2) .

In spite Patriarch Gregory V of this rather rigorous stand of the Church in relation to mixed marriages, however, we ascertain a tendency to tolerate such marriages. For example, as early as 1782, during the pontificate of Ecumenical Patriarch Gabriel IV, the Church allowed by "economy" Orthodox migrants in India to marry Armenian and Papist (sic) women and virgins, because of the total absence of homogenous ( ὁμογενήν ) women in this country, on condition that both the marriage and the baptism of future children would be performed by an Orthodox priest (3). It is quite interesting to note that this measure was taken in order to prevent the "perdition" of these men, in case they consorted with prostitutes and other disrespectful women.

With time we see that the strict application of the Canons regarding mixed marriages is no longer observed and that the Church appears more relaxed and tolerant in such cases, having a tendency to apply " oikonomia ". This new tendency is even validated by a decree issued by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1887. With this decree the Patriarchate granted to Diocesan Bishops the freedom to judge with discernment and pastoral wisdom the emerging cases, and bless such marriages in a "non-scandalizing manner" (4). By this last term meaning that such marriages ought to be celebrated in a way that would not hurt the religious feelings of the wider community.

It goes without saying that the leniency observed during the second half of the 19th century over this issue, paved the way for the de facto abolishment of the centuries old rules forbidding the celebration of marriages between Orthodox and heterodox. And no doubt this new ecclesiastical praxis was dictated by the new social conditions prevailing in modern society, and mainly by the frequent association, and even osmosis, of Orthodox believers with non-Orthodox neighbours or professional partners.

The inclusion of the subject of mixed marriages in the agenda of the forthcoming Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, almost four decades ago, precisely reflected this new "ecumenical" reality, and demonstrated the willingness of the Local Orthodox Churches to find viable solutions to this burning and crucial pastoral problem.

A first exhaustive discussion on this subject took place in 1971, in the framework of the Inter-Orthodox Preparatory Commission of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, during which the delegates of the Autocephalous and Autonomous Orthodox Churches attending the meeting expressed their views as far as the solution of the problem is concerned. Quite revealing was the position taken by the Church of Poland, a Church living in minority situation in a very conservative Roman-Catholic environment, but obliged, nevertheless, to coexist in social and political harmony with the overwhelming majority of the Catholic citizens of their homeland. The view of this Church was that in the light of present day ecumenical evolution and improved local inter-ecclesial relations, the Orthodox Church ought to accept mixed marriages with all those baptized in the name of the Holy Trinity (5).

Equally conciliatory was the position of the representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate. "The Church of Russia ", they said, "recognizes that the marriage of a Christian Orthodox with a heterodox Christian could be celebrated, provided the non-Orthodox side recognizes the significance of the blessings bestowed by the Orthodox Church". It is interesting to note that within the same context, the Church of Russia went a step forward by making a rather daring proposal with regard to marriages of Orthodox with non-Christians and even atheists. "The present day conditions under which the Church exists on earth"-, they remarked, "compel us to return to the ecclesiastical praxis of the first three centuries, concerning mixed marriages, during which the Church, following St Paul (1 Cor. 7;12-14,16), accepted such weddings". The Church of Poland was also of the opinion that the Great Council ought to debate whether the Orthodox Church could bless a marriage if one of the spouses is atheist (6).

Curiously enough, the same position was also taken by the rather conservative Church of Greece. Its delegates believed that in cases of the marriage of an Orthodox with a member of another religion, the Church could consider applying " oikonomia ". They added, nevertheless, that mixed marriages should be blessed only in exceptional circumstances (7).

It is interesting to note that few years later, and within the framework of a Conference held at the Holy Cross Orthodox School of Theology ( Brookline ), Professor Dimitrios Constantelos adopted a similar position with regard to inter-faith marriages, pleading for the return to the ancient practice of the first Christian centuries. "As the Church stands now", he said, " no solemnization of a marriage between a Greek Orthodox and a non-Christian is possible. It is my opinion that the Church should act and allow the blessing of such a marriage, provided the Orthodox member wants it and the non-Christian has no objection to such a blessing. The practice of the early Church, which believed that the unbeliever is sanctified through his/her union with the believer, should come back in to practice" (8).

The recommendation of the Inter-Orthodox Preparatory Committee was that the First Pan-Orthodox Pre- Conciliar Conference ought to tackle this issue with due attention, taking into account the living conditions of the Local Orthodox Churches in each place, and to consider giving them relative freedom in seeking solutions to the issue of mixed marriages, according the circumstances and the pastoral needs of particular cases (9).

The wish expressed by this Preparatory Committee was finally fulfilled eleven years later by the Second Pan-Orthodox Pre- Conciliar Conference, held at Chambesy in September 1982. After a long debate, and subject to approval by the Great Council, this Conference took some courageous decisions, deviating from the centuries-old canonical praxis of the Church and proving at the same time that the Orthodox Church is not a fossilized remnant of the past, but a living organism capable of innovating, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit. And in doing so, this Pre- Conciliar Conference acted indeed in conformity with earlier practices of the Church.

The related decisions of this Pre- Conciliar Conference are as follows:

"I. The marriage of Orthodox with the heterodox is forbidden according the canonical akribeia (accuracy). It could be blessed nevertheless by consent and philanthropy, and with the explicit condition that the children to be born from this marriage should be baptized and elevated in the Orthodox Church. The local Orthodox Autocephalous Churches could decide about the use of Oikonomia, according the cases and the prevailing special pastoral needs",

II. The marriage of Orthodox with non-Christians and non-believers is strictly forbidden according the canonical akribeia. In cases, however, of such (civil presumably) marriages, the local Orthodox Autocephalous Churches, can decide about the use of pastoral oikonomia towards the orthodox spouse, according to his/her pastoral needs".

Today, mixed marriages between Orthodox and non-Orthodox are allowed, with the following conditions:

1) The wedding should be blessed by an Orthodox priest.

2) Children born to the couple should be baptized and brought up in the Orthodox Church.

3) In cases of conflict, the spouses should address themselves to Orthodox ecclesiastical courts.

There is no need to mention that mixed marriages are the end result of the division of the Churches. This is why nowadays, Churches cooperating in the framework of the wider Ecumenical Movement in order to restore Christian unity, try to jointly assess the difficulties of such marriages, and struggle together to find mutually-acceptable pastoral solutions to this rapidly growing phenomenon.

Anglicans and Protestants of different denominations generally recognize all marriages, civil and ecclesiastical, as valid marriages, provided they have been freely contracted by persons capable of marriage.

The Roman Catholic Church for its part also recognizes as valid marriages of its believers with other Christians. However those Catholic believers who intend to marry a non-Catholic, and in case the marriage is going to be blessed by a non-Catholic clergyman, should obtain a dispensation from their ecclesiastical authority, in order to ensure the validity of their marriage. If the marriage, however, is contracted with an Orthodox and blessed by an Orthodox priest, the procedure from the Catholic side is different. The Roman "Decree on Catholic-Orthodox Marriages', issued in 1967 two year after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), affirmed that for a marriage between a Catholic and an Orthodox, the permission of the Bishop, as well as the double registration, were necessary only for "legitimacy", as the presence of a priest of either Church, was sufficient for the validity of the sacrament. This measure was taken after the recognition by this Council of the validity of Orthodox priestly orders and of the sacramental character and validity of Orthodox marriage.

The Orthodox Church does not formally pass judgment on the validity of marriages performed outside her body among non-Orthodox. It is interesting to note, however, that if two Protestants or two Roman Catholics, previously married in their Churches, are converted to Orthodoxy, they are not remarried in their new Church. In this way the Orthodox tacitly recognize Roman Catholic or Protestant weddings. Nevertheless, for a mixed marriage between an Orthodox and a believer of another Church to be valid, it should certainly be celebrated in the Orthodox Church by an Orthodox priest and according the traditional Orthodox rite. In this connection it is interesting to note that the two historic Greek Orthodox Patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch that live in close vicinity with Copts and Syriacs, obliged by the social conditions prevailing in this part of the world, (Christian minority in a Moslem environment), and for purely pastoral reasons, signed bilateral agreements with their Oriental sister Churches, regulating mixed marriages.

Thus, in 1991 the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and the Syro-Jacobite Patriarchate of Antioch agreed that a mixed marriage will be celebrated, after Episcopal permission, in the Church/Parish of the bridegroom, while the best men and witnesses can be chosen from the Church of the wife.

The agreement signed in 2001 by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and the Coptic Patriarchate is much more elaborate and, indeed, daring. The major points of this agreement are the following:

1 - Marriages between Orthodox and Copts should not be performed simultaneously or in con-celebration. Both Patriarchates agree to accept the sacramental nature of the mixed marriage that is blessed in either Church.

2- Those to be married should present a certificate from their own Church, stating that they are free to marry.

3- Both Patriarchates shall agree to perform all their sacraments to the new mixed family (11).

4- The Church that blesses the marriage, shall also be responsible for the pastoral care and other problems of the new couple.


After having briefly presented the historical evolution of the phenomenon of mixed marriages, I wish to develop below some considerations regarding the pastoral aspects of this acute problem.

In all marriages, the primary concern of the Church is to uphold the strength and stability of the marital union and the family life that flows from it. It goes without saying that the perfect union of a man and a woman, and the full sharing of life that constitutes the married state, are more easily assured when both partners belong to the same faith community. But, mixed marriages are today a common phenomenon. And in view of their proliferation, the Church cannot but include in its pastoral solicitude couples preparing to enter, or already having entered such marriages, and show solicitude in assuring the harmonious development of this '"mixed" family. The abiding responsibility of those in charge of a pastoral ministry, (Bishops, Priests, Spiritual Fathers), is to provide special instruction and support to this couple, taking into consideration the concrete spiritual needs of each partner.

Generally speaking in today's society we have three distinct categories of mixed marriages, each of them having their own characteristics, and necessitating therefore a proper pastoral approach.

1) There are mixed marriages of people coming from different church and denominational backgrounds. People who are religiously indifferent, but who opt for a Church marriage, in order to please their practicing parents and relatives, or because a solemn marriage in the Church is " à la mode" or because it is dictated by the socio-cultural environment in which they live. In other words, marriage is looked upon as social obligation and not Sacrament. In such cases this new family needs, above all, "evangelization".

2) There are marriages (and not only between Orthodox and heterodox), in which one member of the family is a practicing and believing member of his/her Church, consciously participating in her sacramental life, while the other member is religiously indifferent, if not an atheist. In such cases the pastoral responsibility of the Bishop, of the priest is to initiate this indifferent member into the life of the Church that blessed the marriage, and made him/her "one flesh" with the other member of the family.

3) Finally, there are mixed marriages where both spouses happen to be devoted and practicing Christians, who for family or reasons desire to remain faithful to the Church in which they have been baptized and raised. It is this particular category of conscious Christians, who do not consider marriage merely as a social obligation but as a Sacred Mystery they mean to experience that offers the Church enormous and challenging pastoral perspectives. Simply because the Church by accepting, even by " oikonomia ", the heterodox member of the family in her bosom through the Sacrament of marriage, it considers him/her as "flesh of her flesh". Let us not forget the magnificent prayer of the wedding liturgy, in which the celebrant after having prayed that God "the Priest of mystical and pure marriage and Ordainer of the law of the marriage of the body" unite the couple "into one flesh", categorically rules that "those whom God had joined together let no man put asunder", ( οὕς ὁ μΘεός συνέζευξεν, ἄνθρωπος μή χωριζέτω ). In these particular cases the pastoral duty of the priest is not simply to periodically visit this "mixed" family in a social relationship framework, or to assure the Orthodox education of the children of this home, but to confer on this "ecumenical" family those spiritual necessities that will enable it to become a "house church" ( κατ ' οἶκον ἐκκλησία ), in spite of the existing theological and ecclesiological complications.

It goes without saying that the particularities of this type of inter-church marriage raise the rather delicate question of the participation of the heterodox spouse in the sacramental life of the Church of adoption, particularly in the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist.

It is known that different Churches and Christian Communities have differing perceptions, attitudes and rules concerning Eucharistic Communion, (or "Eucharistic sharing" and "Eucharistic hospitality", as many Protestant Denominations prefer to define "inter-communion"). Anglicans, Lutherans, Presbyterians, as well as other Churches of Protestant background, apply inter-communion, considering that the Table of the Lord is open to everyone, and therefore invite members of other Christian traditions to "share" communion with them.

The Roman Catholic Church does not authorize the Catholic member of a family to receive communion in the Church community of his/her spouse, in cases where there is no recognition from the Catholic side of the validity of the orders and the sacraments of that Church. This implies that Catholic believers married to an Orthodox are allowed to take communion in the Church of their spouse, as after Vatican IT the marriage performed in an Orthodox Church is considered valid and canonical by Roman Catholics.

The interesting aspect of this situation is that the Orthodox Church does not so far accept the heterodox member of the family in the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist, nor does it allow the Orthodox member to take Communion in the Church of his/her spouse. And here we face a major pastoral problem, as many orthodox believers living in the so-called Diaspora area, have difficulties understanding the reasons of exclusion of the heterodox member of the family from Holy Eucharist, -this Sacrament of unity par excellence-, considering that with such a disciplinary measure, the Church contradicts itself. For in fact it "disunites" and separates those that it united "in one flesh" , during the celebration of another of its Sacraments, namely the Wedding Service.

This pertinent and vexed question of Orthodox believers around the world should not be left unanswered by the Church. It is imperative therefore that the planned Holy and Great Synod, besides dealing from the canonical perspective with the question of the "impediments of marriage" (« κωλύματα γάμου »), as its agenda foresees, should also deal, as a matter of priority, with the multi- dimension at liturgical, pastoral and ecumenical aspects of mixed marriages. The more so as the prophetic ministry of Bishops and Priests is supposed to touch the soul and mind of human beings who are under their pastoral care and responsibility.


1. K. Delikanis, Patriarchal Documents, vol.3, Constantinople, 1905, p.684. ( in Greek).

2. M. Gedeon, Canonical Instructions, vol. 2, Constantinople, 1889, p. 111. ( in Greek).

3. M. Gedeon, Canonical Instructions, vol. 1, Constantinople, 1889, p. 265 (in Greek). One could assume that before the rather common practice of sending to America brides (« νῦφες ») from the home country, early 20th century, such a directive could also be valid for those Orthodox settling in the USA, the more so as the emigrants in their overwhelming majority were single men, with no chance, at least at the beginning, of finding in the "New World" spouses of the same ethnic and religious background.

4. M.G. Theotokas, The Legislation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, Constantinople, 1897. p. 358 ( in Greek).

5. Towards the Great Council, No. 1, Chambesy -Geneva, 1971, p. 45 (in Greek).

6. Idem, p. 46

7. Idem.

8. See in Anton Vrame, ( ed.). Inter Marriage-Orthodox Perspectives, Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1997, p. 70.

9. Towards the Great Council p- 46.

10. See Episkepsis , no. 279, 15 September 1982, p. 12.

11. From an ecclesiological view-point this decision is quite interesting, for in fact it implies a de facto unity between the two Churches!



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