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Why humanist weddings should be legally recognised

A few weeks ago I emailed my MP to ask him to sign Early Day Motion 667 – a call for humanist wedding ceremonies to be legally recognised. Today I received a letter saying no.

Currently, humanist weddings require an additional ceremony at the register office – complete with vows – to make them legal. You can only be legally married in religious buildings, in a register office, or in a licensed venue. The marriage has to be performed by someone authorised, which means either a representative of the religion, or a registrar. Registrars are required by law to be neutral, and their ceremonies cannot express any religious beliefs.

As such, my MP said:

Whilst I respect the right of Humanists to have non-religious ceremonies, I am conscious that registry offices and other licensed venues already offer the choice to hold marriage ceremonies that do not contain any religious content and offer a degree of flexibility regarding content.

Indeed, I am aware that there are thousands of licensed venues across the UK that with the agreement of the attending registrar, can allow individualised ceremonies including for example, non-religious music, readings and personalised vows, in addition to those which are legally required. Consequently, I do not feel able to sign EDM 667.

Which, on the face of it, doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable – if non-religious services are available, why would humanists want something else?

But I think if you come at it from the other direction it seems completely reasonable that humanists should be allowed their own ceremonies – as, indeed, should any group that meets whatever criteria are deemed necessary for performing such events.

Current marriage law is an arbitrary mess. There’s no overriding philosophy to it – it’s just three centuries of exemptions and additions as culture shifted and individual religions became more prevalent. There are specific rules for Quakers. You still have to be a man and a woman. Sometimes you need a registrar, sometimes you don’t. It’s silly, and the whole thing needs massive reform. Sadly, that’s not currently on the cards.

But we can all agree that marriage is about two people publicly declaring their love for each other, and receiving legal recognition of this fact. Why this can only happen in specific places is a mystery to me, but I can see why only specific people should be allowed to perform the ceremonies. It’s an important occasion for the couple involved, and it seems reasonable that there should be a gravitas to the event. A vicar, registrar, rabbi, or whatever, comes with an air of authority. Their job is to make the ceremony an important ritual, with genuine significance for all involved. If we want to keep the institution important in this sense1, I find it hard to escape the idea of state accreditation of officiants (or, at least, the organisations that they belong to).

The BHA’s ceremonies department2 has for decades trained and run a network of humanist celebrants, who officiate at weddings, funerals and naming days. The training process is rigorous, and the network as a whole has a very good reputation. In Scotland, where humanist weddings are legally recognised, the number of humanist weddings now almost matches the number of Catholic weddings (8% are English or Welsh couples who’ve travelled north so they can have just the single ceremony). I’ve been to three humanist ceremonies, and to me they’ve been poignant, dignified and moving. This is obviously anecdotal, but there are countless testimonials to the same effect. We could draw up lists of criteria, and I’m sure the celebrants would tick all the boxes. I don’t see any qualities the celebrants network is lacking in order to perform ceremonies meaningful to the people involved.

So I’m entirely in favour of the celebrants network being granted permission to perform legal ceremonies. In practice, today, this means giving Humanism a special legal exemption, and in general I dislike that on principle. The point of much of the BHA’s campaigning is that everyone should be treated equally, and groups (almost always religions) not accorded unfair privileges. But my point is that any group who take the enterprise sufficiently seriously should be permitted. I wouldn’t like the job of judging some of the fringe cases, but the celebrants network is, in my view, clearly capable and competent.

But ok, sure – even if that’s all true, is there really that big a difference between a humanist ceremony and a registrar-lead non-religious one? Is it worth getting het up about? I would say yes.

A humanist ceremony isn’t a regular service with some different kinds of readings / music. They’re built around the couple (and their humanist ideals) from the ground-up, and can take any form desired (and in any location). Registrars differ in their flexibility, but their ceremonies generally have a set structure. And as their ceremonies are completely neutral, you’d have trouble mentioning Humanism at any point. Also: registrars rightly cannot express any kind of belief, but if I were getting married I wouldn’t want to think the person doing it might privately disagree with the whole thing – I’d want someone genuinely celebrating it with me. Which isn’t to knock registrars in the slightest – the few I’ve met have been professional and lovely. But there’s a difference between someone acting completely professionally and well, and someone you know shares your worldview. I appreciate this might seem subtle, but if I were getting married tomorrow it would make a big difference to me.

All of which I think is a valid argument for my MP signing the EDM. I just need to find a way to express it succinctly…

  1. I don’t mean culturally important in other ways – I’m not suggesting couples should feel they have to get married, and I find the idea of tax breaks etc. bloody weird – but that’s another argument []
  2. full disclosure: I’m interning with BHA Ceremonies at the moment, and spent last weekend photographing at the celebrants’ annual conference. []

4 comments

  1. Sorry Andrew, but I completely disagree. This is why:

    I’m aware that this has been simmering on the back burner for a long time but I don’t believe it has ever been properly debated or “adopted”.

    Civil weddings were introduced in 1837 for non-conformists and dissenters, which benefited the non-religious who’d had to have religious ceremonies until then. They’re available for everyone and anyone, of all faiths and none. Why demand special privileges for a group of people who essentially just want a civil ceremony with frills?

    Humanism isn’t like a religion – it’s different from religion. It’s about independent thought and action. As Andrew Copson made clear in his presentation to our group, it’s persisted around the world throughout recorded history, in a variety of forms. By demanding “equality” with religious organisations in marriage law, you’re encouraging people to think that humanism is a belief system that people subscribe to, which is anathema to most right-thinking humanists. It perpetrates the myth that there is a humanist “community” that’s separate from other “communities”.

    We have common interests, such as challenging the dominance of the church and its privileges, and we tend to share common values, which are generally about human rights and ethical ways of doing things, but we don’t have a common identity. It’s a nonsense to demand legal ceremonies for “humanists”, when we know that most of the people who ask for one don’t have much interest in humanism and wouldn’t describe themselves as humanists in normal circumstances. They just want weddings with some nice poems and music, which they can have already.

    • I agree with much of that. I was more suggesting that the distinction between religious and non-religious marriage ceremonies is more an accident of history than a valid philosophical break. Shouldn’t it, ideally, be managed on the basis of those groups qualified to perform ceremonies meaningful to those involved? Is there any good reason Humanist weddings shouldn’t be legally valid, other than the machinations and implications imposed by the current state of marriage law?

  2. I can think of several. Firstly, the incidence of sham marriages in the UK has increased. As recent cases have shown, it seems to be easier to hoodwink clergy than registrars. Anyone who’s authorised to conduct legal wedding ceremonies has to be especially careful about checking the status of the couple involved, and I’d rather not be responsible for that sort of thing, thank you. I’m currently free to refuse a couple who ask for a humanist wedding, because I’m under no legal obligation. I’ve only done it once, but I prefer the completely voluntary relationship we currently enjoy.

    Secondly, once the dead hand of the state is involved with humanist weddings, there’ll be rules and regulations to observe about the form of words, the venues, etc. We have total freedom to do whatever the couple wants, within reason. We can be more flexible, more creative, as things are.

    Thirdly, if we’re serious about secularism, the simpler the law on marriage is, the better. Once you start offering legal authority to a variety of celebrants or groups, who’s to say where it will end? Who decides what’s “meaningful” to whom? One day, disestablishment will come (maybe not in my lifetime, perhaps in yours). It makes much more sense to have the same system as Europeans do; a legal contract is signed at the Town Hall, or wherever, then you’re free to have whatever form of ceremony you like, if you want one.

    There’s no discrimination involved as far as humanist weddings are concerned. As I said, you’re free to marry without religion. Religious people may argue that there are specific rituals they must observe to make their weddings valid according to their beliefs. We don’t have any such concerns, and a majority of those who choose our ceremonies aren’t humanists. Leave things be.

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