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Humanist Weddings – Alternative Wedding Ceremonies

As a Humanist Officiant, I was thrilled to be interviewed by the blog Nu Bride to answer questions about officiating humanist wedding ceremonies. In the interview, I shared my experience and insights on the unique and personal nature of humanist ceremonies and how they can be tailored to celebrate the love and connection between couples, making them a wonderful alternative to traditional wedding ceremonies.

Alternative Wedding Ceremonies: Nu Bride article and interview

Earlier in June near the Cotswolds, I had the privilege of performing at one of the most beautiful wedding ceremonies I have ever been to. Ever. And I have been to a lot! It was my very first Humanist Ceremony.

As a bride-to-be, until recently, I had only ever considered a church service or civil ceremony for my own wedding. I had heard of  Humanist ceremonies before and had seen interesting variations on several wedding TV programmes (which shall we say did not give the best representation!) and always ruled a humanist ceremony out thinking that they mocked tradition or were a little bit ‘out there’ or just too informal for my personal taste. Little did I know there is so much more to a Humanist ceremony. Especially one led by Officiant, Zena Birch.

Now, back to one of the most beautiful wedding services I have ever been to, near the breathtaking Cotswolds…

As we arrived at the Manor House Hotel to do a sound check and vocal warm up, we were greeted by Zena and I instantly assumed she was the brides wedding planner. Zena had such an involvement with the structure of the ceremony and knew the bride and grooms needs down to the very last detail. I was surprised when she later appeared in a rather fabulous tailored grey suit and funky green shoes (she already had me at the shoes!) and introduced the ceremony announcing herself as the Officiant. With a background in acting, Zena addressed the guests with such expression, colour, joy and humility. A huge contrast to many of the services I have witnessed, led by the dryest monotone voice with less intonation patterns than a robot! Zena led the service with such grace and poise and what I adored throughout, was that her body language and her words were spoken like she had known the bride and groom for years. Like they were being married by their best friend – Imagine that! Sharing stories, joy, poems and beautiful memories with the audience. I had to fight back the tears and I didn’t know any of them!

It was a real joy to witness such a heart-felt service that was completely tailor-made for the bride and groom – the service followed a traditional format, but with delicious creative input and nothing more and nothing less than a true celebration of the bride and grooms love for each other with family and friends. Couples would need to sign relevant legal paperwork with a registrar for their marriage to be recognised by law, either before or after, nevertheless, a really beautiful alternative to a civil or church ceremony.

I am thrilled to have Humanist Officiant, Zena Birch with us on Nu Bride today who can tell you a little bit more about Humanist ceremonies far more eloquently than I can!

What exactly is a Humanist ceremony?

A humanist ceremony is a non-religious ceremony. Rather than being irreligious (which is some people’s fear) it is simply inclusive for all. The main heart and content of the ceremony is about the couple, which is exactly what everyone gathered has in common. Humanist ceremonies are unique – based specifically on the people involved and celebrate shared human values. Each ceremony is always designed in collaboration with a couple to make sure that what is produced reflects exactly what they mean and what they were hoping for.

Civil ceremonies can also be tailored to a bride and groom-to-be’s personal taste. How does a Humanist ceremony differ to a civil ceremony?

It is important that a humanist ceremony is delivered with honesty, warmth and familiarity, this musn’t be faked so I make a point of getting to know my couples well in advance to the ceremony itself. In consultation with a couple we will use words and music that are personal and appropriate to the lives and the people involved, there are no regulations nor restrictions on what this can include. There are also no restrictions on where and at what time the ceremony itself can take place – it doesn’t have to be in a registered building, so humanist ceremonies can be held in any location of your choosing.

Can couples keep tradition in a Humanist ceremony?

Absolutely. Tradition is a huge part of society, if it is relevant to a couple that they observe certain traditions, I see no reason why they shouldn’t.

As human beings we are very good at discarding what we don’t think works, therefore things that become tradition are often there for a very important reason. Vows are a public declaration, they hold us accountable – which is something we should be prepared to do on our wedding day.

Similarly some traditions change or alter, for example, a woman is no longer the possession of her father to be handed over to become the possession of her husband, that said, having your dad walk you down the aisle is a beautiful and poignant moment, and one that he has probably envisioned since you were a child. Rather than scrapping this tradition we can acknowledge it for what it is, someone who loves and supports you, affirming your choice of husband. Tradition is often a nod of respect to the history that has come before us, it would be sad to see this abandoned.

Talk us through an example of what would happen during a Humanist ceremony

Unless a couple specifically ask for something different or unusual a humanist wedding ceremony is quite recognisable. There is the usual welcome and arrival of the bridal party. There are vows and ring exchanges. There can be readings and musical performances or songs. There can be singing by everyone gathered. I think the biggest difference is that where there would usually be a sermon or the talk about the legalities of marriage, there is instead a reflection on what love and marriage means to the couple and how they met. This can be funny, poignant, serious, enlightening, whatever best reflects the couple. No matter what, it is always personal and informed.

You have such a wonderful way that you deliver your services Zena. What did you used to do before becoming a Humanist celebrant and how did you get into it?

Thank you so much, that is very kind of you to say.

It seems strange, but everything that I did before I started my Celebrant training seems to have helped me in some way. I studied English and History at University, when I graduated I started working in the theatre as an actress. After a number of years I returned to do a Masters in Advanced Theatre Practice, learning how to create and write new theatre. I started a theatre company that specialised in collaboratively making pieces of work that incorporated all aspects of storytelling, from set design and lighting to sound design and performers’ improvisation. I started being more and more drawn to writing plays and exploring how live performance has a direct and emotional influence on its audience. Around this time two friends of mine asked me to write and conduct their wedding ceremony (in California) as my wedding gift to them. I was delighted. And then daunted. What a responsibility! Being rather nerdy, I spent days researching ceremony and tradition on the internet and slowly put together a ceremony that I thought reflected them both individually and as a couple but also had a nod to tradition. It turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life and a real life changer!

During my research I had become fascinated into why we still need ceremony in an increasingly secular society. My research had allowed me to see that human beings have been using ceremony as a marker for important occasions throughout all cultures and religions. We clearly need it, but why? My current conclusion is that it helps us to articulate emotions that we often find either profound or simply just too difficult to express. Births, deaths, coming of age, love and marriage. I looked into becoming a registrar, but discovered there was a long list of things that you weren’t allowed to do or include within a civil ceremony. Readings weren’t allowed to have any reference to god, religion or spirituality. You couldn’t chose music that had any religious connotations so hymns and some choral works or arias where out of the question. It seemed a shame to me that if you have decided not to get married in a church, the only other option available to you was a ceremony centred around legality and not about the things that would make a ceremony special for the individuals and the guests involved.

So I turned to the British Humanist Association, an organisation I had long admired (after attending a humanist funeral which was a real celebration of the life of the deceased). It was a lengthy screening process (which was reassuring, they don’t just take anyone!) and finally I was accepted onto their 4 month training course. The skills I had learnt in my previous career all stood me in great stead for what I was learning about being a Humanist Celebrant. From simple technical details such as projection of voice (which has come in handy when marrying a couple outdoors, in an orchard, directly under Gatwick’s flight path!) and comfort in front of an audience, to writing collaboratively, both creatively and specifically for couples and understanding people’s wants and desires.

Ritual, which is essentially what a ceremony represents, has an element of theatricality to it. I am careful to point out that this doesn’t undo the solemnity or the importance of the occasion nor does it render it a performance, but it does mean that a sensitivity to symbolism and the retelling of stories should be an important aspect of ceremony.

How do you work with couples in the run up to their day?

In the first instance I will always try to meet with a couple face to face over a coffee or something. This way we can get a good sense of each other and discuss what kind of ceremony they would like. Often couples have a clearer idea of what they don’t want rather than knowing what they do, but this is where I come in. I can offer suggestions and talk them through the structure of a ceremony. Questions naturally arise during this which allows us all to get to know each other and the ceremony in a much more natural way.

Once a couple has decided to work with me I have a series of things that I ask them to do, I refer to this as homework, but they really are enjoyable experiences, honestly! The purpose of these exercises is for me to truly find out things about them – I don’t have a set script in which I simply change the bride and grooms name every weekend. I write all my ceremonies from scratch and I would hate to ‘fake’ the information I use. Wedding guests all know the couple and can spot an impostor a mile off! The other purpose of these exercises is for a couple to really reflect on why they are getting married. When organising a wedding it is often easy to get a little overwhelmed in the details and the nitty-gritty of organising an event. It can become about numbers and figures and coordination and money. I hope that my exercises help you to remember what got you to this point in the first place and to help you articulate why it is that you are getting married. It’s the fun stuff!

Once I have all of this information we will usually have another meeting, where I go through the finer tuning of the ceremony, but this time with a much greater knowledge of what the couple want.

How is this different to a co-ordinator or a planning meeting with a registrar or priest?

Although I am very happy to advise on things outside of the ceremony (I have seen so many different weddings now that I have gathered up some experience that could prove useful or helpful), fundamentally the difference between myself and a wedding coordinator is that I am only involved in the ceremony itself. I will make sure that everything to do with the ceremony runs perfectly, but I don’t help organise the catering, the venue or the reception. That said, if you are using live music within the ceremony, it is important that I get to liaise with them for the smooth running of the ceremony!

I can’t speak on behalf of what a priest or a registrar does as I am certain that just as each celebrant is different and has their own approach and way of working, so too do priests and registrars, but if you chose to use me we will know each other and your ceremony will be personalised in this way.

Your favourite service?

I can honestly say that I don’t have a favourite service, I am so lucky that each of my couples are so different that this makes each ceremony unique and distinct in its own personal way. But I can share with you some of my favourite venues.

  • A meadow on a cliff top overlooking the sea in North Cornwall . This field was where the bride had played every summer holiday of her childhood and looked over the beach where she and her boyfriend had their first date!
  • An evening ceremony in a Riad in Marrakech.
  • A public clearing in an ancient forest near Sheffield. We all arrived on a hired coach, as the ceremony was just off the bridleway people wandering by with their dogs stopped and observed, it was wonderful to witness such goodwill. After the ceremony we each picked up our folding wooden chair, packed it into the luggage hold of the coach and travelled back to the parents back garden where a tea party had been laid out for everyone. It was a perfect example of how weddings don’t have to be a corporate affair, but can be highly personalised and affordable.
  • One of London’s oldest halls. The building had been standing since the 1500’s and the stained glass windows had survived the Great Fire of London and both World Wars. It felt truly grand and yet was still a very intimate ceremony.
  • Later this year I will be marrying a couple who want to say their vows whilst we all stand in the shallows of the Atlantic (off the Cornish coast). Their relationship has been a long distance one and they would like their ceremony to acknowledge the moment the sea stopped being the thing that separated them and became the thing that joined them.

But sincerely, whether the ceremony takes place in a town hall, a hotel, a back garden or castle, each ceremony has something uniquely special and memorable to it.

What has been your most unique ceremony?

I am not really allowed to talk about it until it has been aired on CBBC, but I took part in a new series called Marrying Mum and Dad. The entire wedding, from theme to location and reception, was decided by the children of the couple, who knew what day they were getting married, but didn’t know anything else. As I usually construct a ceremony from the information the couple provide, I had to get all of my information from 10 and 13-year-old boys. It was one of the most inspiring and life affirming things I have done. The children’s answers were so earnest and sincere and the parents were amazed to hear that their boys had been that thoughtful and candid about love. The ceremony really was special. With regards to the finer details, all I can say is that the children did an amazing job, the day was completely wonderful and the choice of clothes and location was… interesting and entertaining! It will be aired in the autumn.

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