Oh, happy day
Sally Feldman, a humanist wedding celebrant, welcomes a rational breakthrough in the marriage laws
Rejoicing and relief greeted the passing of the Same Sex Marriage Bill that became law in England and Wales in July. It means that as early as next summer, the first gay and lesbian wedding ceremonies are expected to take place.
But rather less attention has been paid to another aspect of the debate. An amendment has been passed which will empower the government to give legal recognition to humanist marriages. The Marriage Act makes it mandatory for the Government to hold a consultation and publish a report before the end of 2014 on whether and how they will exercise this power.
This move is a huge victory for the British Humanist Association, who have been pressing for the change for years, and who have lobbied hard to get it included in the latest legislation. However, the campaign for humanist marriages is not over yet. "We must ensure the regulations that the Government brings forward give us what we need," warned Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the BHA. "And on the terms we need it."
Nonetheless, he welcomed the development, which he felt would pacify those who feared the consequences of legalisation. “Humanist weddings are popular and meaningful,” he commented, “and legal recognition for them would be fair, timely, and not at all controversial.”
And it’s great news for those of us who conduct weddings on behalf of the BHA: no more having to explain to baffled couples that if they’d like a humanist wedding they’ll have to have a register office one as well. Often, they’ll ask us to provide a marriage certificate, which has no legal value at all, so that at least they have something to sign in front of the guests. And couples routinely ask the celebrant not to let on that the ceremony isn't a legal one. So as the bride sashays down the aisle in full white regalia to meet her nervous dinner-jacketed groom, no one will have any idea that actually they’d got married the day before – in jeans.
It’s increasingly absurd to have to perform these clumsy manoeuvres at a time when, according to the last census, over a quarter of the population declared themselves to be non-religious. Especially as there seems to be a growing appetite among younger people for ceremonies to mark significant rites of passage. The BHA conducts between 600 and 900 weddings a year, and has noticed a marked increase in demand for baby namings – around 500 a year, up from 300 three years ago.
Maybe it’s a generational phenomenon. As children of the ‘60s, my friends and I recoiled from ritual. No one even bothered to attend graduation ceremonies, let alone weddings. And the idea of creating ceremonies for babies would never have occurred to us.
Now, though, the couples I marry say they want to declare their love publicly, in front of friends and family. In some cases there’s an almost Oprah-like atmosphere as they sob through their vows. Even the most stalwart groom will be seen wiping away a tear in the grip of overwhelming emotion. It’s as if now that ceremonies have been severed from their religious associations, people have been released to express their feelings: joyfully and uninhibitedly.
And couples are often quite happy to include some of the traditional rituals, even those associated with religion. The groom might stamp on a glass, for example, in recognition of his Jewish heritage. Mendelssohn’s Bridal March, so often heard in churches, is still the favourite for the bride’s entrance. People sometimes request a hand-fasting, where the couple’s hands are bound together to create a chain when they separate. Or – even more of a nightmare for the celebrant – they’ll want white doves to be released at the moment that they are declared man and wife. We try to discourage the release of butterflies, though. They’re not very trainable and may even refuse to emerge from the chrysalis.
So it’s perverse that something so seemingly in tune with today’s pro-marriage Government should have taken so long to be recognised, and have met so many obstacles.
When the Marriage Bill was discussed in Parliament in May, an amendment was put forward by the Labour MP Kate Green-Mover, which would allow humanist weddings to be recognised as legal marriages in England and Wales. In Scotland, where they were legalised as long ago as 2005, they are now the third most popular form of wedding.
The amendment had been formulated through extensive consultation with the office of the attorney general. It was as a result of these discussions that it proposed strict limits on the sort of organisation that could be authorised to conduct weddings – indeed, it specified they should be confined to humanist organisations. This is rather different from how the law operates in Scotland, where any credible organisation might be approved.
The idea of the limitation was to prevent the influx of large numbers of unregulated organisations. So it came as a complete surprise when Dominic Grieve, the attorney general, raised the objection that the amendment would fall foul of equality legislation, as any "belief organisation" would be able to claim they were being discriminated against if they weren't able to perform marriages.
His intervention came out of the blue, and directly contradicted the advice his office had originally given. And it was something of a double whammy. On the one hand, he was arguing that to favour one group would be discriminatory. On the other, he suggested that to open the possibility more widely was dangerous, and might pave the way for what he called "tiddly-winks" societies.
Several MPs pointed out that this objection didn't have any grounds, since only belief organisations with charitable status would be eligible, ruling out Jedi Knights and other dubious groups. But what seemed to be clear was that the Government wasn't at all keen to allow humanist weddings.
And the Government isn't alone in its discomfort. Registrars, for example, have a vested interest in retaining their sole right to conduct secular weddings. It’s an important source of income at a time when local authorities are struggling with diminished budgets. So they’re unlikely to welcome a rival.
Even more anxious is the church itself – not just because of a natural resistance to any move away from religion, but because, like the council registrars, vicars don’t want to have their own income stream diluted.
So it seemed improbable that the House of Lords, with its troop of unelected Bishops, would be inclined to support the humanist amendment. But the BHA was determined to give it one last try, by lobbying sympathetic members as hard as they could.
And the result was that the amendment proposed by Baroness Stowell – requiring the Government to take action on humanist marriages – was passed by the Lords and later given royal assent.
Dozens of supporters of the humanist marriage provisions spoke in both the Lords and the Commons welcoming the Government’s amendment, as legalisation of humanist marriages has had overwhelming cross-party support.
Among those in the Lords who fought the corner for humanist weddings were Baroness Thornton, Lord Harrison, Lady Massey, Baroness Meacher and Lord Birt, who made a passionate speech in support not just of humanist weddings but of humanist values. "Humanism is a movement. It is not bound together by belief in a supreme being or a formal body of doctrine, but by ethical conviction, a belief in rationality and the virtues of science, respect for nature and a commitment to optimise the sum total of human happiness here on earth," he said. "Anyone who has ever attended a humanist ceremony of any kind will attest to its spiritual power, to the sense that it viscerally captures and conveys a strong sense of community feeling and the wonder of human existence."
And with this amendment, he pointed out, the Marriage Bill extends two freedoms: not just the freedom of gays to marry, but also the freedom for humanists to marry as they would wish, too. "Like everyone else, I congratulate the Government," he concluded, "and I look forward to the first gay humanist wedding!"