At the beginning of 2016 I was accepted onto a British Humanist Association (BHA) training programme to become a humanist wedding celebrant. It’s been a fascinating experience and I’m looking forward to working with couples to help them shape meaningful and memorable, non-religious wedding ceremonies. You can find me at humanist.org.uk/suewalder.
As someone who loves words, perhaps it’s not surprising that I’ve become interested in the words humanism, humanist, and celebrant.
For as long as I can remember (well, since the age of 10 or 11), I’ve identified myself as an atheist, which is defined as:
A person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.
I’d been aware of humanism but hadn’t really grappled with the concept until my father died in 2009 and we arranged to see a humanist funeral celebrant. Even in the midst of my grief, I was deeply impressed by the whole process, which placed my lovely old Dad centre stage. Talking about Dad with the celebrant helped us all to start to deal with our loss. The funeral service itself (which ended with us walking out to the strains of The Goons’ Ying Tong Song) felt very much like a celebration of my Dad’s life. It was a relief to begin thinking about how wonderful he was, rather than the desperately ill man he had become.
Fast forward a few years and through a number of life experiences and I came to realise that while I am an atheist, I am also a humanist and have been living my life according to the priciples of humanism. I just hadn’t found the word for it.
Humanism is an ethical philosophy of life that is based on respecting and caring for one another and the world we live in, without the need for a god, or gods. Humanists use reason, experience and shared human values to make sense of the world. Humanists believe we have only one life and that it is up to all of us as individuals, as well as society as a whole, to live with purpose and meaning.
Stephen Fry describes the humanist approach to life in this video clip:
So, what is a humanist celebrant? Wikipedia gives us this:
A humanist celebrant or humanist officiant is a person who performs secular humanist celebrancy services for weddings, funerals, child namings, coming of age ceremonies and other rituals. Some humanist celebrants are accredited by humanist organisations…
The Online Etymology Dictionary defines celebrant as coming from
the French célébrant, “officiating clergyman”, or directly from Latin celebrantem, the present participle of celebrare.
Humanist celebrants help people celebrate and mark the important rites of passage – birth, marriage and death. Sharing these moments with family, friends, and the wider community, seems to be a vital part of being human. Traditionally, of course, these rituals take place within the context of a religious service.
Yet we live in an increasingly secular society and many people are looking for non-religious ceremonies that truly focus on the individual. Couples planning a wedding often want a more flexible and personal ceremony than that offered by a register office. The latest figures on marriage in England and Wales from the Office for National Statistics, as reported by the BBC, revealed that while the number of marriages declined by 8.6% in 2013, civil ceremonies accounted for 72% of all marriages that year.
BHA celebrants have been conducting humanist weddings since 1896 – that’s 120 years. Strange, then, that humanist weddings are not yet legal in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, humanist weddings have been legally binding since 2005 and over the past decade have increased from about 50 per year to well over 4,000.
The BHA is actively lobbying government to legally recognise humanist wedding ceremonies. In the meantime, the BHA’s Humanist Ceremonies™ network of more than 300 trained and accredited humanist wedding celebrants continues to conduct weddings for couples in England and Wales. Couples complete the legal paperwork first at a register office, and then work with a celebrant to create a unique wedding ceremony, choosing the venue, readings, music and vows that truly reflect who they are.
Put simply: humanist celebrants celebrate humanity.