Like the monarchy, marriage is an institution, and they’ve both had their share of troubles. Inherently sexist and patriarchal, by the end of last century marriage had become so unpopular in the UK that there were more families living outside the bonds of wedlock than within. Humanists were the first to spot this, and they campaigned for 20 years in Scotland to revitalise the institution by allowing couples to make their vows in their own words.
My mentor, Ivan Middleton was instrumental in this, and it was he who told me that our unlikely ally was the Prince of Wales because his civil marriage to Camilla Parker-Bowles at Windsor Registry Office was one of the factors that minded the then Registrar General of Scotland to authorise humanists to conduct legal marriage.
Ivan conducted the first humanist wedding in Scotland at Edinburgh Zoo in June 2005, and as they say, the rest is history. Within ten years, humanist weddings had become the second most popular form of marriage in the country: now as then, civil ceremonies easily retain pole position. What made humanist weddings distinctive at the time was that couples were actively encouraged to write their own ceremonies, and it’s striking that of all forms of marriage in Scotland, humanist weddings are still the only ones that continue to increase with every passing year.
Conducting legal marriage is a great privilege and I take my role seriously. Being able to say why you’re getting married is an extraordinary freedom, and that’s why I don’t write ceremonies for my couples: instead I help them to write them themselves. My approach is not for the faint-hearted, but it is rewarding and when my couples look back on their wedding, months or even years later, what they tell me time and time again, is that the ceremony was the best part of the day.
Under Ivan Middleton’s guidance, I trained as a celebrant in the autumn of 2005, and since then, I’ve conducted more than a thousand legal marriages. Weddings on beaches, where the bride arrived on horseback, weddings in castles where the rings were flown in by owls, weddings in peoples’ back gardens, and weddings on top of Munros, where the couples climbed their way to the summit. What made every one of those ceremonies unique was that it was written by the couple themselves, and that’s why when wedding guests tell me, ‘that’s the best wedding I’ve ever been to!’ my reply is always the same, ‘that’s because they wrote it!’
I’ve written about weddings on my blog for more than a decade, freely sharing my ideas with anyone who takes the time to read it. The couples I’ve married have often told me that my blog inspired and helped them, but that a book would be even better. I eventually took the hint, and We Do! is the result – a collaboration between them, me, and the many talented photographers who captured their big day.
I finished writing We Do! not long after the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and it was their ceremony that made me realise how profoundly even royal marriage has changed in my lifetime. I’m not talking about the pomp and circumstance, the millions spent on security or the media circus that accompanied it, I’m talking about the little things that most of the commentators seem not to have noticed.
Meghan and Harry got married on a Saturday, just like the rest of us. Although the service was religious, they spoke their own personal vows. And Meghan didn’t just walk down the aisle on her own: she didn’t promise to obey her husband either. In many ways, they were just catching up with reality, but because of their fame, the influence of their words and actions rippled around the world.
Not all revolutions are violent. Some happen so slowly you hardly notice.
When our present queen took the throne in 1952, premarital sex was forbidden, divorce meant disgrace, and nobody who was anybody had children out of wedlock. Fast forward a generation, and everything has changed. Premarital sex is a given, one in three marriages ends in divorce and involving your kids in your wedding is the new normal.
In that time there was another even more significant revolution in attitudes, towards the love that once dared not speak its name. In 1952, homosexuality was taboo, and gay men faced the very real possibility of a life in jail: now #LoveisLove and same-sex marriage is legal in 23 countries around the world.
It didn’t happen without a struggle. It was only while researching We Do! that I discovered that the first same-sex marriage in Scotland was celebrated not in 2014 by a humanist, but in 1972, by an Episcopalian priest. The ceremony was held in secret and it wasn’t legally binding, but Richard Holloway demonstrated a real commitment to gay rights at a time when they were barely considered, and his courage deserves to be remembered.
Marriage has changed even since I became a celebrant in 2005. Today, religious and civil weddings are more open to ‘user-generated content’, and not just in Scotland where registrars encourage couples to make their own contributions to the ceremony, and include symbolic gestures like handfasting, remembrance candles or the well-known Scottish tradition of drinking from the quaich.
It’s just over a year since I married Rhian and Kenny. As their names suggest, it was a Wales v Scotland fixture, appropriately scheduled for the opening day of the Six Nations and the wedding kicked off at one, so they and their guests could watch the match later. Over the half-time oranges, some of the Welsh guests told me they’d enjoyed the ceremony but that it wasn’t that different from what they were used to back home: even in Wales, I discovered, registrars let couples tell their stories in their own words.
I wasn’t that surprised. I’d already had similar conversations with Americans, who’d told me that although they hadn’t come across the H word before, humanist weddings seemed very similar to what they call ‘non-denominational’ ceremonies across the pond. I’m glad we have so much common ground. Humanism is about the things that unite, rather than divide us, and that’s why the proposition of We Do! is simple: whatever your belief, the way to have the best wedding ever is to tell your guests why you’re getting married in your own words.
Whether the monarchy or marriage, institutions have a choice: they can either become irrelevant or they can evolve. As the Turner Prize-winning artist Grayson Perry said in his Channel 4 series last year, “All rituals were invented by somebody. They didn’t just come out of the ether from God! What we’re doing is making meaning.” Marriage is evolving, and I hope that We Do! will help that evolution to continue.
Tim Maguire is a celebrant with the Caledonian Humanist Association and the honorary humanist chaplain to the University of Edinburgh. We Do! How to Create a Meaningful Wedding Ceremony in Your Own Words is published by Luath Press at £25, out now