As an atheist, getting married in a church was an absolute no-go for me when my boyfriend and I started planning our wedding seven months ago.
I say 'church' rather than any other religious building, because I'm from a Christian background in the loosest sense, in that I was christened and that's about it.
A wedding is a completely personal event, and there's no right or wrong way to do it. But for me, to make solemn promises in front of a god I don't believe in, using language I didn't agree with, in the kind of building I rarely visit, seemed a pretty insincere way to kick off a marriage.
But there was one thing that religious weddings offer that I really wanted - reflection and preparation. Couples planning a religious wedding often get 'pre-marriage counselling' from their priest, rabbi, or whoever.
I think it's a brilliant idea because, in typical wedding planning, the significance of actually getting married is hardly mentioned. It's all about cakes, colours, dresses, wine and table plans - one glance at wedding magazines shows you that wedding planning means party planning, not marriage planning.
Pre-marriage counselling involves thinking about the seriousness of your commitment, your expectations of each other and their future together. You even look at practical things like whether you want to try to have kids, what you will do when you argue and how you will handle money and family. It's something civil weddings don't even touch on.
I tried to find some secular marriage preparation to complement a non-religious wedding, but had little luck. One company initially seemed good, but turned out to be the largest provider for the Catholic Church. It sessions included training on how to live together for the first time, so given we had been living in sin for four years, it didn't seem the way to go.
So I drew a blank, until I remembered my friend Charlotte who had a humanist wedding to Jim last year. Unlike so many people describing how their wedding went, the thing Charlotte was most enthused about was the ceremony: she said it was moving and personal and reflected them perfectly, and that they had to do a significant amount of 'homework' to prepare for their marriage.
I knew what humanism was - the idea that values and ethics can be found in sources like science, philosophy and the relationships between people - but I had never heard of a humanist wedding. But a week ago, we had one too.
Us with Zena
The process involved meeting Zena (the celebrant who also married Charlotte and Jim) getting to know her over a series of coffees, and planning our ceremony in a lot of detail. This may sound ridiculous if you haven't organised a wedding, but if you have you'll know that rigorous detail is the thing that keeps you from sliding into the conviction that everything will be a complete disaster.
In our case, a humanist wedding meant a tailor-made ceremony, keeping the traditions we liked and tweaking or ditching those we didn't. The first 'homework' was filling out a lengthy questionnaire about how we saw marriage, what our families and friends were like, what we liked about each other, and what we wanted from the day and the future.
Zena helped us work out readings, suggested a running order, and put in elements like mentioning people who couldn't be there and other things that mattered to us.
The final, large, undertaking was to each write 'our story': an account of how we went from meeting to getting married.
This was a pretty overwhelming task - even when you love someone you've got nowhere to hide when someone asks you to tell the story of your relationship from start to finish. But once I got going it was very cathartic and probably the best part of all the wedding planning we did. Mine was 20 pages long - poor Zena.
We weren't allowed to read each others' stories, and Zena wove them together to write the main part of the ceremony, a sort of address-cum-sermon about us, jumping between our two voices and perspectives.
It had personal stories, funny memories and direct quotes from our stories that we would never have been indulgent enough to share with friends and family, but we were glad she did. She picked extracts of poems to read that reflected us and suggested alternatives to conventions we weren't keen on, like my father 'handing' me over to the groom. Instead, Zena asked both of our parents to affirm our choice of husband/wife.
I think the major advantage of a humanist wedding is that you get to know the person who holds the ceremony - rather than having a registrar show up half an hour before. To walk down the aisle and see Zena grinning at me, knowing she knew me and was as excited about our wedding as we were, was pretty special.
You also get to design your vows, and perhaps surprisingly, a section of ours were directly lifted from the Church of England's ceremony - something we couldn't have done in a civil ceremony. We liked the familiar 'In sickness and in health' part, so adapted it and cut the God bit out.
By contrast, in some registrar weddings I've known, the couple doesn't even know what they will be promising each other until they are asked to repeat it on the day.
In fact, our wedding ended up having quite a few religious elements. In a civil wedding, you are not allowed any religious language in readings and songs, but the flexibility of a humanist ceremony means you can have anything you want. We had some lyrics read that referred to 'Heaven' and 'God', which may well have been cut out if we had a civil ceremony.
A humanist wedding is undoubtably a more personal ceremony than a civil one, given that it's specifically made for you. But if you're considering it, the drawbacks you should bear in mind are:
1) Depending on the celebrant, a humanist wedding can be more expensive than a secular wedding. We paid our celebrant around double what you'd pay a registrar to come out to a building that has a marriage licence.
2) A humanist ceremony isn't a legal marriage in most of the UK. Unless you're in Scotland, where they are legally recognised, you'll have to go to a local council office and have a legal, civil wedding ceremony as well as your humanist one.
For us the advantages outweighed these (and we were lucky to be able to afford to have Zena). Guests told us they'd learnt new things about us from the ceremony, and I could see from people's faces how much they enjoyed something a bit out of the ordinary - especially if they got a mention in the 'our story' bit. I think the sheer uniqueness of it, and making conscious decisions that moved us away from a more proscribed wedding format, made us more 'present' in the moment than we might have been otherwise.
It isn't something that's right for everyone, but for us it couldn't have been more worth it.