‘Getting married doesn’t mean the same thing it meant a generation ago.’ Photograph: Jan Kozelnicky / Alamy/Alamy
Civil ceremonies are dry, while traditional weddings symbolise intolerance. I’m choosing the more people-centred option
“Good morning/afternoon and welcome to [venue’s name]. My name is [blank], and I have been authorised by the registrar general for Scotland to conduct civil marriage ceremonies in the district of [blank].”
Planning our civil ceremony was as special as filling in a tax return. There was little magic in the photocopied wedding booklet, on cheap blue paper, with options to circle like a hospital menu. The song we picked was rejected because it said “God” in it, so we had to find something else. When standing in front of 100 friends and family, being married by someone with all the zeal of a headmaster giving out a punishment exercise, I started to have my doubts about weddings.
A year later, as a priest called my friend a different name three times and the magic of the occasion evaporated, I had my epiphany: I am a wedding-hater. After a decade of being a guest and once as a bride, I’ve concluded that traditional ceremonies have no redeeming qualities. They’re impersonal, stuffy and one of the most egregiously dismal-yet-tolerated parts of British life, along with iceberg lettuce, bingo halls and public loos.
It seems I’m not alone. Nearly 6,000 humanist weddings were conducted in 2017, dwarfing the number of religious ceremonies and taking a sizeable bite out of the civil alternative. New figures from the Humanist Society Scotland suggest it could be due to a decline in faith, with 59% of Scots now holding no religious views. Being just one of many friends who grew up Catholic but were unable to reconcile church teachings with the real world, it’s no wonder there’s mass apostasy. It’s no wonder that couples are increasingly choosing a less dated ceremony.
Organised religion is out of step with a modern Scotland. Sectarianism is alive here and continues to cast a long shadow. For that reason, religion is synonymous with violence and intolerance for many, and at odds with our values as a nation. We have a strong desire to uphold human rights and believe wholeheartedly in marriage equality – something most churches are noticeably equivocal on. Default Christianity is over, with more people valuing their identity as an individual over their faith. For more than a decade we’ve had a secular alternative that reflects the diversity of Scotland’s people. Of course more people are choosing humanism.
But I’m not convinced that this is the only reason that humanist ceremonies are outstripping religious and civil services. These numbers reflect a broader change in social attitudes. Getting married doesn’t mean the same thing it meant a generation ago. It is no longer the thing that you have to do to please your parents or to be accepted in society, which removes much of the pressure to conform. Marriage is an option, not an obligation, and today divorce carries little stigma. I’m sure few think they’re imperilling their mortal soul when they open their decree absolute. I certainly didn’t.
On a subconscious level at least, marriage is no longer viewed as until-death-do-us-part, so doing it in a place of worship where that’s the subtext would be disingenuous. I’ll confess to being unromantic enough to have considered the statistical probability of failure before I said “I do” the first time.
The value people place on marriage has changed. It isn’t the first step in a life together or the necessary precursor to starting a family; it’s just a piece of paper that comes when you’re sure you’ve got what it takes to make a life together. That’s why humanist ceremonies are so appealing – they don’t automatically treat marriage as the beginning of something, but as a point on the journey people make together. There are no rules, no judgement, no photocopied menus with a limited set of options.
My partner and I are getting married next year. We were both struck by how person-centred and meaningful a humanist funeral was, and so we’ve chosen a humanist elopement. Craving something simple, personal, free of bureaucracy, formality and religious overtures, it was the obvious choice. There will be no pleasing other people, no pre-marriage classes, no laws to acknowledge. Just two godless heathens in love with the desire to be our uncensored selves. As more discover how liberating it is to do their own thing, the numbers will only rise.
• Vonny LeClerc is an arts journalist and social activist