When a Roman Catholic and a Southern Baptist get married, how do they reconcile the strong differences of their faiths? Who should marry the couple? What should be said at the wedding? How do the marriage partners keep from dropping out of their churches?

These are some of the questions posed to clerics in a handbook recently approved by the official agencies of the two denominations in Virginia. More than giving answers, it guides clerics on how to approach the questions.

The 59-page handbook, three years in the making, is believed to be the first of its kind in the country for Southern Baptists and Catholics, who have long been suspicious of each other's beliefs.

"It is a real sign of a closer working relationship between our two religious bodies," said Bishop Joseph F. Sullivan of the Richmond Catholic Diocese.

Meetings are being held throughout the state to introduce clergy members and church workers to the free handbook, which was recently endorsed by the Virginia Baptist General Board and the Richmond Catholic Diocese.

"Marriage is tough enough without adding other obstacles to be climbed over, but the hard reality is that an increasing number of marriages today are ecumenical," said the Rev. Timothy K. Norman, pastor of Ginter Park Baptist Church in Richmond and one of the authors of the handbook.

While the Bible teaches that marriage is divine in origin and purpose, the handbook states that there are differences among Catholics and Southern Baptists concerning the role of the church and the roles of the partners in marriage.

Three basic differences include the way in which Roman Catholics view marriage as an official sacrament while Baptists do not, whether children must be raised as Catholics and the church's control over decisions such as family planning and divorce. While some issues, such as who should officiate in a wedding, are relatively easy to resolve, these major faith differences are not.

"In the present state of church teaching, some of these issues cannot be resolved if both parties are not devoutly committed to the teachings of their respective faith heritage," the handbook says. "However, they can be reconciled without compromise of convictions or compromise of the partner's sense of worth and being."

In preparing for marriage, the handbook suggests "ministers are to be instruments to create a climate whereby the couple can work through their differences and come to an understanding of what these differences mean to their marriage."

The handbook was created out of a concern that such marriages frequently result in one or both marriage partners becoming less active in their church. Several representatives from each tradition began to meet in the fall of 1987 in Virginia and soon decided that the most productive thing to do was to create a handbook.

They agreed that proselytizing or attempting to convert the other party to become a Baptist or a Roman Catholic was not appropriate at the time of marriage preparation, but that the main concern should be that each partner be strengthened by his faith in the marriage.