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Keeping the faith with humanist weddings

By Nicky Marr

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There is a quote on my fridge from American writer Kurt Vonnegut. It’s food-stained and fading but I can just still make it out. It reads, “I am a humanist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decently without expectations of rewards or punishments after I am dead.”

If I was to ever choose a code to live by, then this would be it. Because despite my parents’ diligent efforts as far as Sunday School went, organised religion never floated my boat.

It is 30 years since Mr Marr and I got together; we started walking the West Highland Way as friends and colleagues and, 100 miles later, phoned work from a phone box in Fort William and begged another few days off. We kept travelling north and west, eventually ending up on Raasay. We moved in together after hitching a ride back to the central belt in a lorry and got married 25 years ago next month.

I guess what they say about opposites attracting didn’t particularly apply to us. We have similar values, came from similar backgrounds and, apart from his early 90s obsession with Kylie, similar taste in music.

When it came to organising our wedding, we were equally clear; neither of us wanted a church wedding. But therein lay a problem. In 1994 the only alternative to a church wedding was a few minutes in a registry office – a perfunctory legalisation of our relationship.

I wouldn’t have changed a word, although with the benefit of hindsight I would certainly have changed my hairstyle…

Where was the ceremony? The opportunity to put a personal stamp on proceedings? It just wasn’t enough.

We started our research. We spent months of Sundays sitting in the back pews of churches, listening to sermons and talking to ministers. Eventually we met the Unitarians, whose thoughtful, open minister offered to marry us. He made us work hard for it; we were sent off to think about why we wanted to get married, and how we wanted our occasion to be celebrated.

We were tasked with thinking about what our ceremony would look, sound and feel like, how we might instil a sense of community among our diverse family and friends, and what readings and music, rituals and rites we wanted to include.

On the day the wedding was undeniably ours; there was music and wine, laughter and dancing – The Pet Shop Boys escorted us back up the aisle once ‘the deed’ was done. And crucially, with the blessing of our minister and out of respect to those among our families and friends who did have faith but knew we had none, there was simply no mention of God or religion.

I wouldn’t have changed a word, although with the benefit of hindsight I would certainly have changed my hairstyle…

That was our 1994 version of a humanist wedding, before humanist weddings were legal in Scotland. That didn’t happen until 2005, and they are still not ‘legal tender’ south of the border.

Last weekend our best man John sent us a story from the BBC website that made us smile – the story that Scottish couples who choose a humanist wedding are less likely to divorce than those who choose other types of ceremony.

The data suggests that the divorce rate for humanist weddings in the past five years is just 1.7 for every 1000, whereas for civil ceremonies it was 7.3. For Church of Scotland and Catholic weddings the divorce rates are 5.8 and 5 respectively. Similar patterns were found for those married between five and 10 years, and between 10 and 15.

Is this just luck or is there something in it? Certainly, fewer couples are married by humanists than in registrar-led ceremonies, but more are married by humanists now than in church. Could it be that having to start from scratch to create a ceremony makes couples think more carefully about why they are marrying, preventing mistakes from happening? Or is it just luck?

I am glad Scotland is open-minded enough to allow couples to marry pretty well wherever and however they choose. I am also glad we found an open-minded, welcoming minister back in the 90s. But most of all I’m glad I walked the West Highland Way with Mr Marr. Despite his ongoing feelings for Kylie…

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