Downton Abbey Portrays Reality of Interfaith RelationshipsBy Gerri Miller
Go inside Season 5 Episode 9 where the story line of Atticus and Rose's interfaith relationship comes to a head.Go To Pop Culture
My husband is the son of a Protestant clergyman; his mother was also ordained a couple of years before we were married. I am Jewish. So we always knew that our relationship would be one where religious observance would be on a front burner, so to speak.
Early in our courtship, I began to learn a little about going to church. My husband was singing professionally in a choir in Boston at the time. The first time I heard him sing, I'd gone to a normal Sunday mass at the Episcopalian cathedral, on Boston Common. I was taken aback when suddenly people in the seats surrounding me began to extend their hands to me saying, "Peace be with you." Some people hugged. I had no idea what was going on and responded as politely as I knew how, by taking their hands, shaking them nicely, resisting any hugs of any kind, and saying, "Thank you." How was I supposed to know that I should have responded by saying "Peace be with you!"
After the service, when I found my boyfriend, I said as much, and he apologized, laughing: "I should have warned you, but I forgot about that part of the service!" It's something that members of the choir don't do, after all; they're busy singing. I forgave him for not having warned me of the mandatory social interaction, and the story became a cocktail party standard. He's also since told me that the few times I went to the cathedral, and sort of hid in the pews hoping no one would notice me there, everyone had assumed I was just another one of the homeless people who hang out around Boston Common. "People just thought you were coming in from the cold," he says.
When he's come with me to synagogue, my husband finds it interesting socially, theologically, and musically, and he's had me right next to him to tell him, "Stand up now" or what have you. Going to synagogue holds no scary element for him, but going to church creeps me out. Somehow, growing up, I'd managed to get the notion that Jesus was my cosmic opposite, that Christians who really worshipped were out to get me. A cross became a symbol nearly as scary as a swastika. I'm not saying this is logical; it was just a visceral reaction.
My husband is sympathetic, and, thankfully, he generally doesn't care about my going to church; I think he's more interested in whether or not I'll have coffee and something to eat waiting for him when he gets home. But sometimes something special's going on, and he really wants me to come hear him, even though the few times I've gone to hear my husband sing, I've been somewhat jarred by the experiences.
One such service happened two years ago: it was the Great Vigil, right before Easter. My husband was going to sing something called the Exsultet, a long solo part, and he was excited about it. I planned to attend; this service was an especially big deal because the man presiding over the service was a big fancy bishop. Between my husband's solo and the church's Special Guest Star, I knew I had to be there. But I didn't want to politely attend the service alone--I was sure I'd do something uncouth, left to my own devices--so I enlisted a friend, the daughter of an Episcopal priest, to come with me. If I followed her lead, I thought, all would be cool.
Everything was cool, until a part of the service when the clergy and, if I remember correctly, the choir, marched around the congregation and the bishop began to toss holy water at us, to bless us. All well and good; I'm willing to accept blessings from strangers of different faiths, since I assume the blessings are given in good faith. But I was stupid enough to try to actually watch what was going on, and as a result I had holy water flung directly into my eyes not once but twice. Blinking and wiping water off my face while my friend snickered (not too holy of her, if you ask me), I thought, "Well, I guess I'm extra blessed now."
I would estimate that half of my time in churches has been spent reading novels, waiting for the service to begin so that I can be bored, confused, and then finally thrilled by recognizing my husband's voice. He's doing something he loves, that he's good at, that brings him and everyone in the building peace and joy.
My husband has come to High Holiday services with me almost every year since we moved to Connecticut. He doesn't know the pattern of the service--I still have it mostly internalized from childhood--but he is respectful and, I think, genuinely interested in how the service works. We have attended Conservative and Reform services at various synagogues, because we're trying to find a congregation we can join and be content with, but we've yet to find one. For the last few years, we've attended services at the local university's Hillel, which isn't ideal for us, but is better than nothing, and we are grateful that the rabbi there welcomes my husband.
The funny thing for us about going to religious services is that our reactions to the different styles of services are identical, whether we're in a church or a synagogue. Though we're obviously coming from totally different starting places in thinking about religious observance, it's clear that for us, at some level, it's really about aesthetics and historical respect for tradition. We can't take a religious ceremony seriously if there's someone strumming an acoustic guitar. It just doesn't feel right. It doesn't matter if it's a church or a synagogue: if there's no stained glass, we're not comfortable; we don't feel sufficiently reverent, or something, without the formality that is found at, for example, the Anglo-Catholic church where my husband works, or the Conservative synagogue I grew up attending. It's hard to tell in my case, since I'm not outwardly observant, but the truth is we are both by nature more directed toward elaborate observance, call it orthodoxy if you will, than casual or alternative worship. This may be why we are a good match, in spite of our religious differences. The religions are different but our intellectual ideas (and ideals) about religious observance are completely aligned.
I don't know a lot of other intermarried couples, at least not in my age group. I know they're out there, but somehow I don't know them. I don't know how other couples in our precise demographic--early-to-mid thirties, college-educated, religiously intermarried--have handled religious observance. But I know that my husband and I have agreed far more than we've disagreed about religion and its place in our lives. We acknowledge and encourage each other's observance and practice. If anything, my husband wishes I were more observant than I am; it is he who spurs conversations about how we should join a synagogue. We may be unusual, but I suspect less so than one would imagine. I bet there are many couples like us out there, but we keep to ourselves and are, hence, unstudied and unobserved.
It's a shame, really. We've got some damn good stories to tell at cocktail parties.