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Asking the Clergy: Collaborating with clergy of another religion in interfaith ceremonies

Rabbinic Chaplain Joni Brenner, the Rev. Natalie Maxwell

Rabbinic Chaplain Joni Brenner, the Rev. Natalie Maxwell Fenimore and the Rev. William McBride. Credit: Israel Brenner; Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock; Interfaith Community Religious Education Program

More than a third of U.S. marriages during the past decade have united couples of different faiths, according to a recent national survey. Rarer, perhaps, are marriage services involving clergy of two different religions. This week’s clergy discuss officiating at ceremonies that combine Jewish, Christian, Unitarian Universalist and other faith traditions.

Rabbinic Chaplain Joni Brenner

Volunteer Huntington Hospital chaplain

While I was studying to be a chaplain, my Jewish son was engaged to a Catholic woman, and they spent easily seven months trying to find clergy who would perform their wedding ceremony. I vowed to make it part of my mission to open doors for couples who want to have an interfaith marriage and to see how both faiths can collaborate on the same path of spirituality.

It turned out that there are many people who are unaffiliated with a synagogue or church who want to have a wedding that is spiritual in nature, and they do not have a clergyperson to call. So I am one of the people that gets the phone call. About 25 percent of the time, I am asked to collaborate with clergy of another faith. If they want Jewish rituals, we talk about the history of weddings; I explain from A to Z why we have the different prayers, why there is a chuppah (the canopy beneath which Jewish weddings are performed), why we break the glass and how the blessings are done.

One of the wonderful things that I have learned from my Christian colleagues and the couples is the lighting of the unity candle, which is not a Jewish tradition. I’ve also done a few jumping-the-broom ceremonies, which I’ve learned from my Baptist colleagues.

The Rev. William McBride

Religious director, Interfaith Community Religious Education Program, Brookville Multifaith Campus

The simple answer to the question is “as friends at a table.” This point was made by a Presbyterian minister named Bill King in preparation for my first ecumenical wedding experience. He wanted to share a meal to get to know me so that when we led the service expressing unity and friendship, we could be true to our words.

I have learned that you can count on quality friendships to help ease the fears of congregations dealing with unfamiliar faith traditions, symbols and languages. This has been particularly helpful in interfaith weddings. For example, I was working with Jewish Cantor Irene Failenbogen preparing for an interfaith wedding. The Catholic parents were worried about their daughter marrying a Jewish man. When we met for a cup of coffee, the parents discovered that Cantor Irene spoke Spanish, and an exciting conversation began.

The communication of common values and experiences transformed their fears. The worried faces of the parents became radiant glows of anticipation. The warm embrace at the end of the encounter sealed the unexpected bond of love. When Cantor Irene sang the traditional Seven Wedding Blessings in Hebrew during the wedding ceremony, the tears in the eyes of the parents symbolized, for me, the depth of meaning possible when clergy gather as friends at a table true to their words.

The Rev. Natalie M. Fenimore

Minister of Lifespan Religious Education, Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, Manhasset

Unitarian Universalist clergy often find themselves in interfaith gatherings. Our belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, the right of each person to a free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and the interconnectedness of us all, means that we welcome an open dialogue with all faith traditions.

I have shared with other religious leaders in weddings, memorial services, child dedications and worship services — uniting families of different faiths during these important rites of passage. Annually, ministers from our congregation stand with clergy from Manhasset to commemorate 9/11. I have had the opportunity to offer a prayer and show solidarity with our Muslim neighbors after anti-Islamic activity in our community. Our congregation has engaged with the Islamic Center of Long Island to educate about our faiths and find ways to work together in interfaith dialogue.

I have also been in prayer and celebration with local Jewish leaders during High Holy Days and Thanksgiving celebrations. Our congregations also joined to make clear statements against anti-Semitic incidents in our community and our larger world.

When I am with leaders of other religious traditions, I feel honored to learn more about the wisdom of their faith heritage. When we share the stage or the pulpit, I listen deeply to the commonalities in our thoughts and prayers. My awareness of our related faithfulness is deepened.

DO YOU HAVE QUESTIONS you’d like Newsday to ask the clergy? Email them to LILife@newsday.com. Find more LI Life stories at newsday.com/LILife.

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