A Blog post about recent consultations on Marriage Law Reform and my personal Identity! I aim to highlight the difference between an Independent Celebrant like me and a Humanist Celebrant like my lovely colleagues and friends Eliza and Caroline and why I’m not going to become Humanist.
Do have a read if you have time and if you’d like to know why ‘Are you a Humanist?’ is not always the best conversation starter with a Celebrant at a wedding or a funeral. If you’ve no time for my ramblings…enjoy my photos of lots of my delicious Interfaith ceremonies. Many people wouldn’t know what an Interfaith Ceremony looks like. So, lets put that right ..Let’s start with this one! God, I love this couple!
A ceremony for a Lebanese Orthodox Christian and a Roman Catholic Italian
Here’s the scenario!
I’m at a wedding reception juggling a Champagne flute with Elderflower cordial with a raspberry in it and clutching a vegan canape. I’m trying not to drop the napkin or end up embroiled in a conversation about why I’ve chosen the cauliflower floret over the miniature roast beef in a Yorkshire pudding. I manage to navigate my way out of intense scrutiny of my dietary choices and land straight in another excruciating conversation which goes like this:
“Are you a Humanist?”, “no”, or “You’re a Humanist, right?”, “no, I’m not actually”, or “we had a Humanist like you for my son’s wedding.”, “that’s great, but I’m not a Humanist”. These are constant conversations for an Independent Celebrant like me. They are awkward. These conversations are becoming more frequent and more important. Right now Marriage Law in England is ‘under review’. This has led to an additional question on top of the others
Can’t you just BECOME a Humanist?
“Can’t you just become a Humanist?” It’s an odd question, right?! No more bizarre than “can’t you just become a Sikh?!” I mean, I could, and I love all the Sikhs in my life….but I’m not one!
I’m going to tell you why people ask this apparently anomalous question. I am also going to tell you why my response is always ‘no’.
No one is trying to offend me. These are basic and totally understandable questions and conversation starters. Mainly people are interested, curious, keen to know more about my fantastically rewarding work. Humanists tend to be high profile and so a natural assumption is that if I am a Celebrant doing ceremonies for fabulous people who happen to be Atheist, then I must be a Humanist too. Humanism has become acquainted with ‘non-belief’ and so it is a natural conclusion. But life is never this dichotomous. The world isn’t black and white for me. I rarely actually talk about ‘what I believe’, in the context of my work at least. This is partly because for a majority of the time I have no idea. But the main reason I don’t talk about it much is because my beliefs are not the point. Yours are!
Here is another lovely Interfaith Ceremony! It was sooooo good. I remember feeling such a rush when so many family members came to thank me for how amazing it all was! This ceremony was a real highlight for me in all my 8 years of Celebrancy. It was incredibly creative and so healing for all concerned. I remember thinking ‘ceremonies like these change the world bit by bit’. They create shared experience and that in turn promotes community cohesion. My work felt intensely important on that day!
Anyway, back to the task in hand! Why I can’t ‘become’ a Humanist?
I’ve never met a Humanist I haven’t liked. I have an affinity with their values. Humanist Celebrants are highly trained and great at their jobs. They are supportive of my work. One of my greatest champions is a Humanist. Her review of my work is on here centre page and she has told her husband that she wants me to do her funeral. I have no issue with Humanism or Humanists, this isn’t a rant against either. But this doesn’t mean I have to ‘become’ one.
Supportive Humanist Friends
These are those lovely words from my Humanist friend….She’s kind, supportive and values my work.
I have just attended a funeral ceremony led by Jess. It was absolutely wonderful and by far the best Celebration of a life wed lived that I’ve ever attended. This was no easy task because it was a complicated and unexpected death. Jess brought a serene authority and exceptional capacity to hold the guests emotionally. There was some (appropriate) humour and her natural, unpretentious style engaged us all. The quality of her writing and eulogy was exceptional and beautiful, while being simple. I was incredibly impressed and have just given instructions to my husband that when turn comes I want Jess to be my Celebrant. I can’t recommend her enough. Well done, you did an exceptionally good job today! Eliza
So, just to be clear, Humanists are good, Humanists are my friends!
As I said throughout this blog post I will be incorporating images of lots of Interfaith work that I have done throughout my career as an Independent celebrant. An Independent Celebrant is not affiliated to any Faith or ‘Belief System’. Humanists UK define as a ‘Belief system’. Independent Celebrants are literally ‘Independent; of institution, hence the name. Nonetheless we are accredited and trained in our craft. A craft which for me at least is an Art Form.
Here’s another juicy pic of my Jain/Christian Extravaganza!
A Jain/Christian interpretation of a Jain Fire-pit ceremony
This is a photograph of a ‘fire-pit’ i devised with my couple from Jain and Christian backgrounds. In a Jain ceremony in the Seychelles, where the groom grew up, the couple traditionally walks around a fire-pit. In central Birmingham venues this is hard to replicate as you can imagine! Here we asked each guest to light a rock salt candle and bring it up as a gesture of prayer and blessing to create a fire-pit of their own by placing them altogether on a round table. They sat glowing throughout and the couple walked around them ceremonially. After the ceremony their guests and families took them home as a ‘keepsake’. Candles work so well for Jain ceremonies and for Catholic ones.
For this couple their personal relationships to their respective heritages was complex but it mattered and their family mattered. It was part of their identities. Identity is so important to us all and I am not an exception. Unlike my lovely Humanist counterparts, I do not define myself as A Humanist. I am not A Humanist. It is not my identity. I can’t make it my identity. It is not where my life experience has led me. I’m not ‘non-religious’, I’m not ‘Atheist’, I don’t feel inclined to stop myself referencing a ‘higher deity’.
Principles & Authenticity
To sign up to Humanists UK I would have to be and do all of these things outlined above at best, or be disingenuous at worst. I could join them and pretend to believe what they believe. I could join them and continue to reference Religion anyway. They are people of principle and so am I and anyway….the central question…why would I?! I’m coming to that…
Meanwhile, meet this wonderful Sikh couple who needed me because I was able to reflect their Religious heritage and Faith. I’ll never forget this day.
My Background & why it matters
For Celebrants, there must be mutual respect of our differences in the way that there must be respect for the differences of our couples. My background is as unique to me as theirs is to them. My background is this: I have a First Class degree in Theology & Religion. I focussed my studies on Contemporary Spirituality in Britain. It took 3 difficult years at a Redbrick Russell Group University to challenge and form my theological views and then lose them again. My degree was one of the greatest achievements of my life. I then spent over a decade trying and failing to become ordained into the Church of England. This was a blessing in disguise if ever there was one. I didn’t fit into that box. I don’t fit into the Humanist one either. I’ve not yet found a box I do fit into. I worked for the Interfaith Advisor to the Bishop of Birmingham and became fascinated by the importance of Interfaith Relations.
While we are on the topic, I can’t resist sharing this photo of me on a clifftop in the Algarve with this pair. The Groom was a Welshman with a Kurdish Muslim background and the Bride was Australian Catholic. The whole thing was utterly mind-blowing. Especially the Kurdish dancing at the Reception on the beach. A sight to behold trust me.
I respect a lot of the great things about Religions and my Religious friends. I have no desire to disavow all of my own personal Spiritual experiences. I cannot deny my interest in the ways that Spirituality, belief in God, Religion and the power of Interfaith work can heal and cement diverse communities as much as they can divide them. I no longer attend Church, but I value my relationships from those times, my mystical experiences, my sense of mystery, my capacity to include prayer and hymns at Funerals and Weddings. I see our Spiritual identity and it’s development as a journey, a mutable, changeable movement through life. I don’t want to fix it here.
Meet this adorable pair! I later created an Interfaith ceremony for their beautiful son. We are still in touch years later!
A committed Christian and a certified Atheist ceremony!
My niche and passion
‘Spiritual but not Religious’, ‘Interfaith’ is what I offer. alongside my ceremonies for people of no faith. It is my specialism, my ‘niche’, my passion and my life’s experience and work has brought me here. I do plenty of funerals and weddings for Atheists because what I’m into is ‘choice’. But I’m simply not a Humanist by anyone’s standards. It would insult Humanists if I became one, and betray my true self if I tried. I enjoy the ‘not knowing’, the ‘being open to possibilities’, the hope of something more. I love to offer my funeral families the chance for the Lord’s Prayer or a favourite hymn. It is important to me as a person. It is a part of my identity.
I promise I will get on to why people keep suggesting I change my mind.
It occurs to me whenever people ask me ‘Why can’t you become a Humanist’? that perhaps I should ask in return, “why don’t you become a Muslim? A Sikh? a Pagan?, have you considered becoming a Catholic, A Hindu, A Protestant, a Buddhist? The answer may well be ‘sometimes’, or ‘never’, but it would be a bizarre question to ask a person with regard to whether or not it would qualify them to pursue their chosen career.
Why becoming a Humanist might be a good career move
So why are people suggesting that it’s a good idea for my career to become Humanist? and why is it not a good idea for me? Why would deciding NOT to become a Humanist be detrimental to my career as an Independent Celebrant. Why are people urging me to do it?
But first a photo! More Gorgeousness!
When you are a Roman Catholic Englishman and a Protestant Irish woman you face a dilemma. You can’t marry in either a Protestant or a Catholic Church. You can’t deny your Christian beliefs either. So what do you do? You book an Independent Celebrant like me. And then you have your ceremony in a lavender farm…OBVS! This whole thing was phenomenal, although she was an hour and a half late on a scorching day and meanwhile the Groomsmen got totally slaughtered on cold beer…but that is a tale for another day!
So: Here’s why people are suggesting I ‘become’ a Humanist. Its a little complicated, but bear with me.
The consultation on Marriage Law reform seeks to help law reformers decide whether or not to ‘license’ Celebrants to be able to ‘Register’ your legal ceremony if you are getting married. It is a great idea. If you are getting married you may want to have your Legal Ceremony on the same date and at the same time as your ceremony with your Celebrant. Well, I mean you WILL! of course you will! At the moment, if you want me to create your ceremony with you, then you have to have your Legal Ceremony at at Register Office on a different time and date. This is because I cannot ‘do the legal bit’. None of you getting married want that. It is a constant problem in your decision making. You want Jess, but you also want the legal bit on the same day, you want it to ‘feel like a proper marriage’. Everybody knows this. Everybody wants it to change in our industry apart form perhaps Registrars!
SO, WHAT IS THE PROBLEM HERE?!
We are getting to that, but first look at this glorious family! This inspiring and stunningly beautiful family were Christians, but they didn’t want to get married in a Church. They wanted a different venue but didn’t want a Registrar and so they had me instead! I lucked out. We are still in touch and there are 2 more additions to the family. Phenomenal people.
It is possible that only Humanist Celebrants will be licensed
The problem is that it is possible that Marriage Law will be reformed to legalise Celebrants to do the ‘legal’ bit at weddings BUT only to authorise Humanists to do this and not people like me! There is a very real possibility, if we don’t challenge this, that instead of offering all Celebrants of any persuasion the opportunity to become trained and accredited to Register marriages legally… only Humanists from Humanists UK will have this privilege. That will exclude me.
If we don’t fight this, and If this happens, if my Humanist friends and colleagues are allowed to legalise marriage and I’m not, then it makes sense on paper for me to simply ‘join them’, doesn’t it?! I mean the obvious outcome of any conversation around this is, “can’t you just become a Humanist?” Unless, of course…like me…you can’t.
Here is me having a hug with this beautiful serene young woman. When you know someone from the age of 11 and they ask you to marry them at 21! nothing beats it really.
Marriage Law Reform is a good thing!
Reforming the law will be amazing for couples. Licensing Celebrants will mean that couples can have one day, one ceremony, one legal ‘proper’ wedding and one ‘anniversary’. It will be less expensive and it will make their marriage ‘equal’ to both Religious and Register Office Marriages because they will be afforded the same rights as Religious Couples of Secular couples having Register Office weddings. They will be able to get married in the place of the choice with the Celebrant of their choice….but possibly, if we don’t make our voices heard, only if that person is Humanist!
Only licensing Humanists and not Independents would be absurd!
Licensing ONLY Humanists and not Independents would be absurd!
If the Law Reformers decide, wilfully or in ignorance to go in this direction and exclude Independent Celebrants from the change in legislation then lots of Celebrants will simply ‘become’ Humanist. Which is fine if you feel able to do that! but, as I think you know by now, I don’t! But if things go this way, and if Independent Celebrants like me don’t become Humanist they will lose the opportunity to do what they do best.. offer maximum choice to all. Many couples will simply book a Humanist for ease. Many of the ceremonies like the ones you see here won’t take place.
What I do best!
Another lovely photo! This 21 year old British bride married her equally young husband on a clifftop in St Ives. We met in Church when she was 11. Her heritage is complex. Her Dad is Christian from a Persian background where he had a Roman Catholic and Muslim influence from his parents. Her Mum is part Iraqi, and grew up there, and is part white British Anglican. This bride married a white British man from an Evangelical family. Everyone was there. There was a Persian marriage carpet donated by her Dad, and an arbour and all the goodwill in the world. This stuff is Interfaith. This stuff matters!
Why I welcome the licensing of Humanist Celebrants & why I want to be licensed too…!
The Marriage Law Reform and the consultation around it are overdue and welcome. To reiterate, at present if couples want something different from a Civil ceremony or a Religious ceremony or they want an Interfaith or ‘Spiritual’ ceremony like lots of mine…they need to have 2 ceremonies. A short one at a Register office and a separate second ceremony with a Celebrant. It isn’t ideal for anyone. If the law changes to accredit and license only Humanist Celebrants to the exclusion of Independent Celebrants like me and many of my friends. It is just not ok. This is especially ‘not ok’ if you are an Interfaith, ‘Spiritual but not Religious’ couple like lots of these couples in these lovely photos. It is also not ok if you are me or any number of the thousands of Independent Celebrants like me!
Spiritual but not Religious
Jasmin and Luke, described their wedding ceremony in a Woodland as their ‘spiritual Ceremony’, Jasmin told me ‘I feel Spiritually married now’, before I only felt Legally Married.”
If only Humanist Celebrants are able to ‘do the legal bit’. what happens to me?!
If only Humanists are licensed, what happens to Independent Celebrants like me and the Interfaith Couples we serve? We are not Humanist, and as outlined above we can’t just ‘become’ Humanist. Firstly we will get much less work and our couples may end up not choosing us even though we’re a ‘fit’ and would be their first choice. Worse still we will be denied the opportunity to do lots of ceremonies which give us so much joy and fulfilment. It feels like being told that we can’t be ‘ourselves’ and at the same time do our job. But I simply will never pretend to be something I’m not.
If we are not persistent in making our voices heard as part of the debate to legalise Humanist Ceremonies, we could be left behind and all our Interfaith and Religious couples with us.
Couples will want the flexibility of a Humanist Celebrant, may be ambivalent about Humanism themselves and just choose a Humanist instead of an Independent because it affords them the legal ceremony they want in the place they want with creativity and on the same day. They might not have the Celebrant they want, or the ‘vibe’ that they want or the religious content they want but they will have to sacrifice that and work with a Humanist Celebrant instead. I will lose out and they will too although i have no doubt that any Humanist Celebrant would do a beautiful job.
I’m sure it will be wonderful but it denies couples choice and it denies me choice.
It denies couples choice, which is the biggest irony of all
This is the greatest irony of all. The Law Reform aims to enable equality and fairness and freedom of choice. But if Interfaith couples and Independents are excluded from either the debate or the outcome, it ends up being prejudicial and discriminatory.
So, for clarity. A percentage of Religious and Interfaith couples will take the same route as Atheist couples and book a Humanist and be forced to compromise their own values. Humanist Celebrants cannot allude to or include any Religious content or reference whatsoever. If you want a wedding ceremony and you are Interfaith and you also want the legal ceremony on the same day done by your Celebrant, the desire for a ‘one stop shop’ may win out over the need for Religious content.
Just in case I’ve not repeated myself enough!
Just to hammer this home…If only Humanists Celebrants are licensed to do the legal bit and Independents are not, it makes not sense. As Independent Celebrants our couples don’t get what they need. We don’t get to do what we do best either. The equality that Humanists UK set out to secure is denied to yet another group of people. It fails in it’s objective to extend equality to all couples by excluding Religious and Interfaith Couples and Independent Celebrants all at the same time.
My plea to the Law Reformers and to Humanists UK is to beg them not to take choice away from me and from my couples in their attempt to give choice to Humanists and Atheists. Both matter and it makes no sense to replace one form of discriminatory practice with another.
And that my lovely friends is why people suggest to me that I ‘just become a Humanist’ and why I never can!