Planning the Interfaith and Intercultural Wedding with a Humanist Officiant

I’m no wedding planner. However, as a Humanist Officiant, I do plan, build, write and conduct Humanist weddings and other life cycle ceremonies in a collaborative and creative way with couples and families. These ceremonies are grounded Humanist principles; a philosophy of egalitarianism and, the notion that, as human beings who can think and reason, that we have a duty to lead ethical lives of compassion, care and respect, for each other, and for the world we share. These values of course apply to marriage and therefore, in the construction of these life cycle ceremonies, Humanist values are applied in a way that honours those ideas.

One way we do that is by ensuring that we celebrate, respect and honour our increasingly diverse backgrounds and histories which are often articulated in life cycle ceremonies through the use of ritual or rituals. Often families or couples feel that for example, if they come from different faiths or cultural, spiritual or religious traditions, that a sort of mash-up service may seem incompatible and will just complicate things. So as a result, everything gets cancelled out and they end up abandoning all historical ritual in the name of so-called modernism without realizing that there are “modern”or alternative approaches to ritual that are beautiful and can speak to the values and practices of cross cultural couples in contemporary societies.

So, how to do that in an authentic way?

This brings me to an article I recently read from someone who it seems is indeed a wedding planner . The article and its author acknowledge that “When a couple blends traditions, cultures and religions when planning a ceremony, that [it] can be a harrowing obstacle [that can add even more stress to the occasion]…or it can be the perfect opportunity to share your spiritual beliefs and begin to blend your two worlds”.

The author offers several tips on how to plan an Interfaith [or an intercultural] wedding for or with a couple. Please note that I have added my own thoughts and examples to some of these. Generally we agree that these steps can help with the process.

1) It seems the planning stage is important in trying to get it right. He suggests and I agree, it is important early on to discuss with your partner the values each of you feel are most important to you. Be sure to identify the most meaningful aspects of your wedding ceremony for instance and your background — be it cultural or religious, etc. From there you can work out ways to compromise without giving up the things that are most important to you and your partner. Weddings are tough enough for couples to get through. This could prove to be an excellent exercise in problem solving — which is great practice for married life.

2) It is important to do some research before deciding on what you will or won’t do. What resources are available to help? What can an officiant like myself offer in terms of options or in what ways can we facilitate this kind of dialogue?

3) Consider having your ceremony in a culturally neutral setting (I’m not sure if parents’ backyards are considered neutral — but they can be depending). The wedding planner from this article suggests a hotel or country club. I also suggest parks, at home, historical buildings and restaurants. It is also easier logistically when ceremony and reception are in one place. I often ask couples who are wondering where to marry, to consider a spot that has some meaning to them so that it gives us a way to add a more personalized element to the ceremony through place. I most often talk about the couple’s choice of venue because it speaks to their passions, style and values. This can range from their decision to get married in Toronto or their home town, or in their favourite restaurant or in a special park or in the home they just bought or built.

4) Consider incorporating traditions or rituals from both cultural backgrounds or faiths. This idea presents opportunities to pay respect to historic traditions, but in ways that respect the blending of this couple’s backgrounds and perhaps more closely adheres to their current belief system or practices that may not exactly align with tradition. I have conducted many cross-faith and intercultural weddings that do just this. For example, I recently conducted a wedding ceremony with a couple where the bride was Jewish and the groom was Greek Orthodox. Neither considered themselves religious but they both wanted the traditions incorporated. Together, we figured out how to do that but in a way that respected Humanist principles of egalitarianism and for many Humanists, secularism, for example, which was important to them both. For instance, in the crowning or Stefana ceremony, which is deeply symbolic in the Greek Orthodox tradition, we talked about the the wedding crown or Stefana as symbolizing glory and honour. In this ceremony, the bride and the groom are crowned as king and queen of their home – a home they will rule or govern with justice, integrity and wisdom. It is also symbolic of the new phase of the couple’s relationship — as a married couple – representing the giving or profound sharing of one’s life with the other. The crowns are connected with a ribbon – symbolizing that connectedness. The bride wanted to have a breaking of the glass ceremony as well to conclude the ceremony. This is deeply symbolic in the Jewish tradition. It symbolizes many things including the fragility of life and human relationships and therefore the importance of taking care of those relationships. While Jewish tradition has only the male break the glass, in this wedding (and many others I have conducted), both partners are responsible for the broken glass and therefore they both step down on the glass, breaking it together.

5) Consider holding two different ceremonies or asking an officiant like myself to co-officiate. I have also taken part in such ceremonies. In one instance, the bride was Italian Catholic and wanted to be married in a Catholic church. Her partner considered himself secular and a Humanist and so while the legal portion was taken care of in the church, later that day, all the guests came to the second beautiful location in the city) for a more personalized ceremony that made reference to the Catholic ceremony and also spoke about their ability to make their backgrounds work through positive problem solving. It was an adorable wedding and they wrote their own vows. Another wedding included a more religious, traditional Jewish groom and a secular Jewish bride. Here, the solution was to incorporate a Chuppah or wedding canopy as a symbol of home and family. They included the breaking of the glass and other Jewish rituals but instead of it invoking God’s name which the bride did not want, such rituals were discussed in terms of how they apply to a couple’s decision to come together to become a family as well as the responsibilities that go along with such an important commitment. Such solutions usually also please both sets of parents if this is an issue.

6) Incorporate different traditions through food, music and decor. Of course this is the job of a planner — not an officiant but in a city as diverse as Toronto, this should not be a problem!

Remember to be fearless and open. This is your day. Good luck everyone!

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