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Dilemmas of the Modern Marriage : When Life Styles and Church Practice Sometimes Clash

December 25, 1987|ALEXA BELL | Bell is a free-lance writer who lives in Playa del Rey.

The bride walked down the aisle with a long train billowing behind her. More than 100 wedding guests stood up as she joined her Catholic bridegroom at the altar. Later, during a 45-minute ceremony, a priest pronounced them married under the auspices of the Catholic Church. As a flutist played and a photographer clicked away, both bride and bridegroom strode joyously back down the aisle.

To the casual observer, there was nothing to tell you that the couple were already married. But the newlyweds, both in their late 20s, had participated in another wedding ceremony just the day before. The earlier ceremony, lasting more than an hour and witnessed by 50 people, had taken place in the bride's Russian Orthodox Church.

This double ritual is just one of the ways couples are trying to resolve the dilemmas of modern marriage. Marriage has become a tricky event for many couples, especially those who seek to marry in a church or synagogue. Interfaith marriage, divorce, co-habitation or even non-attendance at church are some of the common modern practices that can put significant hurdles between engaged couples and a religious ceremony.

One result of the clash between contemporary behavior and church teaching may be an upswing in secular ceremonies. Since the Los Angeles County Clerk's office began conducting civil ceremonies in September, 1984, the number of such ceremonies has shot up by about 1,000 a year.

Brief Ceremonies

According to Iris Spencer, county manager of court services, 9,989 couples will be married in the three- to four-minute civil ceremonies this year. In November, the demand for civil ceremonies had become so great that the clerk's office expanded the time it will perform weddings by 12 hours a week.

But if some couples seek to avoid the issue of religion by opting for civil ceremonies, others go to great lengths to assure the blessings of their churches.

Lydia Arthur, the bride with the double ceremony mentioned above (who asked that her real name not be used)--a USC business school graduate now working in San Francisco--felt compelled to marry in her church due to family tradition. Her fiance felt equally strongly about a Catholic wedding.

"For my family, it was very important that I get married in the Russian Orthodox Church," she said. "In the Russian Orthodox Church, if you get married in another church, they don't recognize it."

She first investigated the possibility of co-officiation, in which two clergymen of separate faiths conduct the ceremony together. But while this practice is fairly common in the Catholic Church, it is not acceptable to the Orthodox tradition, which does not allow clergy of other churches to take part in its sacraments. Then she hit upon the idea of two separate ceremonies.

Though Arthur found a way around her dilemma, the issues surrounding marriage--and the reluctance of some clergy to perform ceremonies for individuals who deviate from church guidelines--can be very painful to both clergy and couples.

These issues involve the relevance of church proscriptions in modern society, the struggle of many religious entities to hold onto their flocks, and whether future generations--the children of today's engaged couples--will be raised within a religious context.

Interfaith marriage is not the only circumstance that raises difficult issues for clergy and engaged couples. Laura Baker, a Los Angeles resident in her mid-20s who also requested a pseudonym, is a non-practicing Catholic who planned to marry another Catholic. She went through a prolonged search in both California and her home state of Michigan before she found a church that would marry her. Although her fiance was divorced and shared her apartment, her biggest obstacle was overcoming the fact that she was not a member of any parish.

"No one would marry us because we were not parishioners, and our parents weren't parishioners," she said. "One church that I thought would marry us because I was baptized there . . . said: 'Why don't you get married in California. This isn't your home anymore.' "

Baker and her fiance eventually joined a Los Angeles parish, where the priest consented to marry them if they attended a marriage class, moved apart three months before the wedding and attended Mass regularly.

At the same time, she began to gather the documentation necessary to participate in a Catholic wedding. In her case this consisted of baptismal certificates, her fiance's final divorce decree and notarized statements by witnesses that neither party had been previously married in the Catholic Church. Additionally, her fiance, who had not been confirmed in the church, would have to go through that process.

Looking back, Baker, who has since called off her marriage, labels the wedding preparations an alienating experience.

"I feel a little worse about the church now. I felt, why should I have to be a member of a parish to be married? As long as it's a Catholic church, what does it matter?"

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