A humanist wedding is like any other wedding – it is a ceremony where the partners can express their commitment to a life-long partnership with each other. It takes place in the company of family and friends, the bride usually wears a wedding dress, there is a wedding cake, vows are recited, and rings can be exchanged. However, humanist weddings differ from most in that they do not take place within a religious context. The person who conducts the wedding is not a religious figure (but a humanist celebrant) and the weddings do not take place in a religious building. They can in fact take place anywhere that the partners deem special enough for the occasion.
Humanist weddings are becoming increasingly popular in Scotland where they have been legally recognised since 2005. The Humanist Society Scotland says that they are far outnumbering Catholic marriages, and they could, if trends continue, soon outnumber Church of Scotland weddings. Any couple in the UK can have a humanist wedding, but, outside of Scotland, the marriage must also involve a legally recognised service. In other words, everyone is entitled to a humanist marriage, but to be legally recognised as married, you will have to make a visit to the Register Offices and be married by a civil registrar.
Humanist marriages are only legally recognised in Scotland, New Zealand, Ontario, Norway, Iceland, and Ireland. The British Humanist Association (BHA) is supporting an amendment to the Marriage Bill (going through UK Parliament at the moment) which could give legal recognition to humanist marriages in England and Wales. The BHA Head of Ceremonies has said that, “There’s an obvious unfairness in a law which allows everyone to have a civil marriage but allow only religious couples to have legal recognition for the ceremony based on their most fundamental values and beliefs, conducted by a person who shares them”.
The BHA supports gay marriage on the same grounds that they support the legal recognition of humanist marriages – they say it is unfair to deny both groups a choice which religious couples have. The BHA supported civil partnerships for this reason, although they see civil partnerships as a stepping stone towards the goal of full equality. The Marriage Bill that is going through Parliament is proposing to legalise gay marriage and the BHA want to amend it so that humanist celebrants will be able to conduct legal marriages of all couples. The BHA is urging individuals to write to their MP, explaining that existing marriage laws discriminate against humanists, and to also ask their MP to take this issue to the Ministers.
Recent figures from the Registrar General reveal that over half of the 29,135 marriages in Scotland in 2011 were civil ceremonies. There were 5,557 marriages conducted by Church of Scotland ministers, 2,486 Humanist marriages and 1,729 Catholic marriages. Humanist marriages appear to be on the rise because they can be catered to the couple’s choices and preferences. Couples organising a humanist wedding can accept some traditions, while rejecting others – some brides may walk down the aisle with their father, or both parents, or perhaps walk down alone.
Humanist celebrant Tim Maguire has married couples from many diverse backgrounds, and will meet with the couple before the wedding to make sure that the ceremony unfolds how they want it to, without the necessary formal proceedings that take place in a religious marriage. Perhaps it is time that marriage laws in England and Wales reflect the needs of humanists who, after all, are a rapidly growing group.