24 December 2009


Report by Marjorie Holmes to the Eastern Archdeaconry Synod,
Pendeli Monastery, Athens, 3-7th October 2001

Eight years on, it's hard to remember the stir caused by Marjorie Holmes's paper on inter-cultural marriage.

My original posting of this paper on December 17 kicked off with an amusing intro, putting it all in perspective and generally dissing those for whom it had been a little too near the knuckle and hence had squirmed with annoyance and embarrassment at the time.

Now that it has been accorded the honour of a listing in Google Alert, I have been my usual cowardly self and removed those witty biting observations.

Here is the paper.

At last year’s Synod, our chaplain spoke of the difficulties foreign women have when marrying into the Greek community.

To be fair to the Greek male, I don’t think he treats his foreign wife any differently from how he would treat a Greek wife.

The difference is that Greek women know what to expect, having from childhood deferred to the males of the family, even siblings, and that marrying means marrying the whole family, in particular the mother-in-law, usually deeply resentful and distrustful of any woman usurping her place as the only woman in the life of the adored and worshipped son.

And so the cycle repeats itself – the ground-down daughter-in-law in her turn becoming a dragon mother-in-law, having poured all her love into her sons in place of the dominating and usually philandering husband.

How much worse when the new bride is a heretic foreigner and can’t even speak the language?

And what a horrible shock for the new wife to find the attentive summer holiday lover turn into a jealous and possessive husband, discouraging or forbidding any outside interests or having friends beyond the family circle. Even reading books can provoke a frenzy of rage.

Of course this is a generalisation and happy unions do exist, more often when the couple live in the wife’s country, and she has the security of her own background, or marrying into a reasonably affluent and educated family, but unfortunately most of the men these girls marry are artisans with a village mentality who can quickly turn into bullying husbands.

I don’t want to sound like an Agony Aunt over the many problems and miseries most of these girls face, but the Orthodox Church into which they marry and in which their children must be baptised is no help whatsoever in their hardships, and is often just another stick with which the husband can, and often quite literally, beats her.

Now, I’m all for Orthodoxy myself - in a superficially intellectual way; I love the ritual and, for me, the real sense of holiness of their services.

I am on very chummy terms with my village priest who is a lovable and educated man, and I have had the privilege of chatting amiably with the Bishop of Corfu who I suspect likes to show off his excellent English, but these are purely social encounters, and I am not after all married to a Greek.

My Anglicanism is never likely to be questioned or criticised because I would not be considered one of the them.

One of the problems of these mixed marriages, and indeed for the very existence of our Church, is that the Anglican Church is not recognised officially by the Orthodox Faith.

A foot wrong in our Church could easily result in it being closed down altogether. As it is, the foreign wives who attend are often accused and abused by their spouses of being heretics and devil worshippers, often aided and abetted by the local peasant priest.

I am not making this up or exaggerating.

It’s ridiculous that an established Church such as ours should have to walk a humiliating politically and theologically correct tightrope when we hold the same beliefs, and even the Communion service and most of the prayers in the Divine Liturgy are, in translation, word for word identical.

It’s not good enough merely to be socially affable to one another. It’s easy to bond with someone of the same intellectual class, but that solidarity has got to filter down to the humblest village priest.

Perhaps a translation of our own Book of Common Prayer could be presented to every Orthodox Church? It would be an eye-opener to some of the more bigoted priests. Just an idea. How about it?

Meanwhile, what can the Church do to help these women?

At Holy Trinity Corfu, we have a really thriving little community and visitors are always struck by the enthusiasm and co-operation of everyone involved. Many of the congregation have never had any religious education before, and although they have to be extremely circumspect about their attendance, there have been adult baptisms and confirmations.

There is a well-attended Sunday School Bible class, an excellent and much-used library, a garden for children to play in, and a regular time for young mothers and their toddlers to meet.

There is tremendous support for each other and now even a few Greek husbands attend the occasional festive service – quite a break-through.

But the heavy hand of Orthodoxy still bars the door to recognition.

Already the feedback feeds in:

From PK ~ "I agree with what your mother says. It's true for us all but in different degrees depending on our situation.

But we're all in it and nothing has really changed.

The worst is when our situation is coupled with fear, then there's no escape."

"When our situation is coupled with fear."

Don't those words themselves strike fear into you?

Τίποτα δεν έχει αλλάξει.

Goodness this is attracting attention.

Look at this further contribution from 'Fugitive' via a pal in the UK.

Clearly a lady who has no intention of being caught squealing ~

"It's not that they [Greek men] can't understand. It's just that they view the world differently, in an inverted way, particularly when it comes to relationships between couples. Even if you do your best to change that point of view, the psychology is completely different between the sexes. I can only guess what it's like for a man in that situation.

It's impossible for a man to imagine how it is to be a woman, everything is so very different, even the logic.

Their points of view, the positions they take, their strengths - particularly when you're a foreigner in a place like Greece.

I too now feel fear but it wasn't at all that way to start with, of course.

It comes slowly, and for different reasons: he becomes angry over little things you didn't expect, then for other silly little things. That's when you go on the alert, constantly trying to avoid problems, avoiding anything that might create discussion.

You start having a double life, trying to keep him happy; you become conditioned because you never know when he's going to become angry. One day over one thing he'll be ok, the next day he'll flare up at the exact same situation. That is when you lose perspective and confidence and are constantly stressed.

I read somewhere that this keeping someone constantly off balance and disoriented is a popular and effective technique in breaking someone's spirit and resistance to interrogation (!)

So, you see, it's not visible violence as such, but something more effective and subtle.

Someone else might not feel it that way, we all react differently according to our backgrounds and history.

But if you were not brought up to defend yourself in a rough world, this is the terrifying situation you could find yourself landed in.

I'm sure Greek women are used to this because they've seen their fathers and know how to act; Greek women are very aggressive.

In my case, I'd never come across this before. I was brought up in a quiet environment, taught to be polite and so forth - recipe for disaster if the other person doesn't happen to play by the same rules.

I was an only child and not so used to fending for myself in this way so I was not in a strong position.

Everyone should have the chance to grow up knowing they have the right to speak back.

But don't get me wrong: my husband is a nice enough person, if perhaps a little too Greek at times.

We met, I was a little too UN-Greek and without the mental robustness that all Greek women acquire from the womb.

It was a terrible mix.

I'm not surprised we met the problems that still beset us."

Related sites - by the spats of St Spyridon! The internet abounds with 'helpful' sites.


Anonymous said...

So far I am agreeing with the piece about Anglican wives being 'heretics and devil worshippers'. Eastern Christianity thinks Protestants protest too much.

Simon Baddeley said...

My late Dad, John, and now late Greek stepmother, married in 1949 in the little church Καλαμιώτου in Ermou street, Athens. In those days what Dad and Maria, who'd also been married before, liked about the Greek Orthodox Church was that unlike the Anglican, under whose roof he'd been wedded to my mother in Clavering in Essex in 1940, it allowed both of them a second chance of a church blessed wedding. In a more tolerant age it's easy to miss the significance of that indulgence.

Busker said...

Thank you for this.
I was hoping for just such valuable comments to add weight to the post and make it a living dynamic source of reference.
Interestingly, the same muttered opposition that greeted her paper when my mother first delivered it are surfacing again.
I'm telling the whisperers that, since they're wired enough to have seen the posting, go right ahead and post a kick-ass comment and put the subject in its place.
No sign so far, but that's what I'm urging everyone - here's their forum! Three cheers for the 'Net.