When I get married in September it won’t be in the eyes of God. I am getting married in the eyes of a universe that doesn’t care but in front of friends and family who do.
I have written extensively in support of equal marriage but, until now, I have not focused much on the differences between religious and non-religious weddings. These differences don’t seem particularly acute until you’ve been to a religious wedding and actually listened to the declarations and the hymns, many of which make me proud that my wedding will be distinctly non-religious in nature.
There is an interesting discrepancy in this country between the dwindling number of believers and – in my experience – the thriving assumption that weddings should by definition be held in places of worship. The latter is an interesting societal pressure and is symptomatic of the wider cultural deference upon which religion continues to prey: the notion that signing up to an organisation – even if you don’t really believe in much of what it stands for – is better than not belonging to one at all. It would come as absolutely no surprise to learn that a significant proportion of those getting married in religious institutions hold no specific religious convictions but, instead, consider it important to preserve traditions that have familial and national significance.
I believe that to have a non-religious wedding remains, if by no means a taboo, a choice to which many still react with slight puzzlement. The word ‘wedding’ is so indelibly linked to church-centric images and words that it will be an extremely long time before the automatic association dies out. The link is not quite as ingrained as that between marriage and heterosexuality but it remains potent. Humanist weddings, for example, explicitly non-religious in nature, still do not have legal standing in the UK (except, curiously, in Scotland); but along with the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill came an amendment request by the British Humanist Association that these ceremonies be legalised. This amendment has not been successful, a result about which I’m ambivalent: the discussion about humanist marriages is different to that of equal marriage because two humanists obviously can get married, just as two hardcore Pokémon enthusiasts can get married, by having a civil wedding. There is nothing in a civil wedding that negates the principles of a humanist, and, being non-religious by definition, they seem to me to serve the same purpose. I understand of course that humanists might wish to have a ceremony that explicitly addresses their principles but it is far more difficult to justify an official amendment on these grounds, as its proponents have discovered.
Despite the association between church and weddings, the percentage of church weddings dwindled in recent years thanks to a number of factors, including the insistence that the bride and groom attend church regularly beforehand, and a rule that prohibited one from marrying in a church outside of one’s home parish. In 2010, however, the Church of England moved with the times and sought to apply oil to some of their more inflexible positions. They saw a rise in the percentage of church weddings and established a dedicated website: www.yourchurchwedding.org. The site itself, as you might expect, is a source of great entertainment. It has a charming section about how vicars feel awkward about marrying divorcees – one of the reasons that the majority of second marriages are civil rather than church-ordained; it claims elsewhere that “marriage is good for a society as a whole”, but the smallprint “except if it’s a gay one” doesn’t appear to have been added – which is bizarre, given how central this message is to the Church’s equal marriage stance; there is even a section on the site entitled ‘Marriage provides more and better sex’, disappointingly bereft of clerical exploration.
It also boasts, Carlsberg-style, that “You can only make vows this big in a church”. It’s a bold claim that barely even bothers to disguise what it means: our weddings are more important than yours. The website provides some pleasant vows in its ‘Full Service Sample’ but also has some distinctly creepy features – including the line “The vows you are about to take are to be made in the presence of God, who is judge of all and knows all the secrets of our hearts”. That’s right: all the secrets. Religious or not, I doubt that on our wedding day many of us would wish to be reminded of the secrets sheltered away in the murky caverns of our hearts.
These types of jarring pronouncements have contributed to my feeling distinctly uncomfortable at religious weddings. A memory that immediately springs to mind is the injunction that upon entering into the marriage the wife must ‘submit’ to the husband as head of the household. I will not be asking my fiancée to ‘submit’ to me or my authority as the idea is a disgusting and grossly outdated one. With vows like these still a feature of Christian wedding ceremonies it is no wonder the Catholic Church and Church of England continue to fail so miserably on basic gender equality issues like women bishops and abortion.
When I get married I do not want to hear talk of a crucified Palestinian; I do not wish to be told that a creepy deity watches my every move. No-one will be able to tell me that there is anything more important than the woman I am marrying. If He sees everything, God will of course be at my wedding along with all the other guests. But I hope He doesn’t make His presence felt because, to be honest, He ought to have got the message by now.