Most British weddings are civil ceremonies, devoid of religious significance and tradition. Huge spending on the big day has filled the void. But if meaningful alternatives are to be found, the state must play its part
“Do you Shiv Malik, take Miriam Kate Robinson to be your wedded wife?” was a question I had no trouble answering. Miriam was a US citizen, I’m British and we had fallen in love. Her work permit had expired and if we wanted to stay together in London, we had to get married. The question that caught me out had come earlier, before the ceremony at Camden register office began. “Did you bring any music?” asked the registrar. We hadn’t. We didn’t even have any rings. She went to fetch a CD. What followed has been seared into our aural memory ever since.
After the vows, as our lips met to kiss, the registrar walked across to the stereo in the corner of Ceremony Suite 2 and hit the play button. “By the time the night is over… the stars are gonna shine on two lovers in love…” Alto sax? Casio keyboard drum track? “When the morning comes it’s gonna find us together, in a love that’s just begun…” The music was Kenny G, in all his kitsch magnificence.
We had told very few people we were getting married, perhaps just as well given the nature of the ceremony. We booked the register office in a hurry, having decided it wasn’t a big deal. After all, we were just signing a piece of legal paper. The real wedding would come later, when it could be marked by our friends and family.
My father had been away in India at the time of my wedding (my family are Hindu, of Punjabi descent). When I went to see him at his office after he returned to break the news, he thankfully took it well. But he had one demand. “This needs to be done properly. I want you and Miriam to have a priest come over and do the ceremony.” He reached for the telephone. “Dad,” I said, “Miriam’s Jewish.” He paused. “Even better.” he replied. We could have both a Hindu and a Jewish ceremony. He started to rummage through an old Rolodex, hunting, presumably, for the number of a rabbi. “But Dad,” I protested, “I’m an atheist.” That’s when he lost his cool. My father is not really a religious man, but the fact that his first-born was not having a Hindu wedding was chewing him up.
I tried to put my foot down. As a non-believer, I couldn’t invite God to bless my union just to please everyone else. My father’s retort floored me. “If you’ve already had the register wedding, but you don’t want the priest, then I don’t understand what you want? A big party?” I left his office lost for an answer. The state had already given its legal blessing, so what more was there to do without God, except to hold a big party? It’s a question I’ve been trying to answer ever since.
As the atheist in the relationship, I felt the onus was on me to come up with the conception of a ceremony. So I set about addressing the basic issues; who would officiate, how the day would proceed, what readings and music to choose, and so on. Yet there would still have to be some explanation of why we were doing this. We couldn’t gather people from across the oceans only to tell them we were marrying because the state required it. Miriam and I felt committed to each other in the sense that we wanted to exclude all other partners. But was this feeling enough to justify such a serious undertaking?
Not long ago the reason for marriage was far simpler. Couples got married in order to have sex, which was socially unacceptable outside marriage, and to raise children. But in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s, the advent of the pill and the relaxing of abortion laws severed the link between sex and children, and marriage lost its importance. Today, no one is ostracised for living together, having children out of wedlock, or taking as many sexual partners as they like. My generation can be thankful for this, but now that communities no longer make couples marry, individuals (especially the non-religious), must rationalise public declarations of long-term commitment for themselves. And the statistics suggest not many people are succeeding.
Marriage is in freefall as an institution. In 2008, there were 232,990 marriages in England and Wales–100,000 fewer than in 1990. When you take the increased population into account, the marriage rate is at the lowest since records began in 1862. The Office of National Statisitcs predicts the marriage rate will fall still further, from 49 per cent today to 41 per cent by 2031. But rather than remaining single, Britons are co-habiting.
Many people I know in long-term partnerships do not feel the need to have their relationship sanctified by God or legalised by the state because it is, for them, a private affair. This might change should they have children. However, Andrew Marshall, a marital therapist and author of The Single Trap, believes another factor is at play. “We have this fear that although you’ve found someone who’s pretty damn special and pretty damn good, there’s still the thought, ‘what would happen if I commit and then something better comes along?’”
He describes people who view relationships like this as “maximisers.” They not only seek out the best jeans or latest gadget, but they also want the best partner. Their idea of relationships has been formed by notions of choice imported from consumer culture. “I see people who have a set of tick boxes for all these things their partner has to have, including things like similar music tastes and good tattoos. The quality of your partner’s tattoos will have no impact on whether you are going to live in harmony, but there are people who don’t want to live with someone who doesn’t match up.”
Marshall believes there is a solution. Maximisers have to learn to be “satisfiers,” people willing to accept relationships as imperfect. Only then can they knuckle down to building something lasting. “The reality,” says Marshall, “is that relationships are not magical things. You’re never going to meet somebody who is so perfect that all problems just fall away.”
So here was a reason for marrying: the search for the perfect partner is endless, and futile, while commitment rather than comparison is meaningful. Yet I, like many others, found my register office wedding dry and formal. As a symbol of the state, the registrar had a certain grandeur, but I didn’t know her personally. Once she stepped out of her role, she would be a faceless bureaucrat. In that respect the state, with its uniforms and certificates and neutrality, could only witness, not reinforce, our attempt to remain committed.
But friends and family were another matter–to have them supporting our commitment would be a huge asset when life got rough. Perhaps this was the underlying purpose I’d been searching for. We needed our congregation, not as mere witnesses but as active participants in our attempt to remain together. In that sense, the marriage ceremony was the mechanism of eliciting that help in a public, solemn and celebratory fashion. But how would this actually transpire? If this was the message, what was the medium to look like?
The British Humanist Association (BHA) has been holding non-religious marriage ceremonies since the 1930s. Since the 1980s, it’s also been training “celebrants” to guide couples and officiate at weddings. “There’s always been demand for a ceremony that celebrates that commitment and takes it very seriously, but isn’t going to put it in the hands of God or tradition,” says Tana Wollen, BHA head of ceremonies. “It’s a very human commitment; it’s not one that belongs to God or a set of edicts, in our view.”
To organise a wedding, a BHA celebrant meets the couple and finds out as much as they can about them. “The celebrant will script a ceremony that will suit them. The couple can help write the vows that they say to each other, organise the ceremony in the way that they want.” In England and Wales these humanist ceremonies do not constitute an official marriage. But since 2005 they have been legal in Scotland, and in 2008 there were over 1,000 such ceremonies, compared with 1,800 Catholic and 7,000 Church of Scotland weddings.
But how do humanists build a tradition with its own history and symbolic power if every ceremony is personalised? “If you read some of the vows that people write for their own weddings or that some of our celebrants come up with, they’re pretty powerful,” Wollen says.
Oliver and Ruth Meech, two Londoners in their late twenties, had a humanist wedding last year which they describe as a “real mix of everything we liked.” Although Ruth rejected the symbolism behind the white dress, the throwing of the bouquet, and walking down the aisle with her father, she still co-opted them into the ceremony. Neither is Jewish but the bride and groom were lifted into the air while seated on a chair, as is the custom at Jewish receptions. “I think you can still have as much pomp and ceremony without having a religious wedding, it just takes more thought,” says Oliver.
The desire for self-expression isn’t always benign: we have all heard stories of brides who will stop at nothing to make their day perfect (as seen in Five’s Bridezilla reality TV series). Even cool heads can get wedding fever–US secretary of state Hillary Clinton recently said her daughter Chelsea’s upcoming wedding is “truly is the most important thing in my life right now.”
The average British wedding now costs more than £22,000, meaning a total of £4.9bn is spent each year. That total is over $160bn in the US. In her 2007 book One Perfect Day: the Selling of the American Wedding, Rebecca Mead attempts to explain why the figures are so high. She believes that a wedding industry has sprung up, selling “the notion that a wedding, if done right… will herald a similarly flawless marriage and subsequent life of domestic contentment.”
As Mead puts it, without the anchors of tradition and their symbolic power, couples who plan a wedding are at the mercy of their desire to invest their ceremony with as much status as possible. The grander and more lavish the wedding, the more meaningful it will become. The industry “urges brides to think of tradition not… as consisting of practices that are handed down from generation to generation, but as a kind of historical grab bag, a set of charming antique practices from which the bride might select those that best suit her tastes.”
Yet for an institution that has existed for thousands of years, many of the oldest traditions are pretty new. The white dress was made fashionable by Queen Victoria when she was married in 1840. Before that, women were just as likely to wear red or even black. The diamond engagement ring was only a requirement after the jewellers De Beers began marketing it in the 1920s. Even the wedding season of July to September is a fairly recent fashion. For a short time in the 1950s, one third of weddings were held between January and March. Before that, during most of the 19th century, 30 per cent of marriages were held between October and December.
It is clear that couples who want to express their commitment outside of the religious establishment in a meaningful way face a challenge. But what could make it easier? The doors to the institution of marriage have widened since 2005, with the introduction of civil ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples. Other, more dramatic reforms could be around the corner. The BHA is campaigning to have its ceremonies recognised in England and Wales. And if humanists can conduct weddings, why not other groups and associations? In the US, anyone can obtain a temporary licence to solemnise a marriage. I went to a wedding in San Francisco recently, one of the bride’s aunts officiated and it was incredibly touching.
Since 1995 hotels, stately homes and similar venues can apply for a licence to hold weddings; now more than half of civil ceremonies take place at approved venues. Part of the appeal is that couples aren’t rushed out of the door to make way for the next ceremony, as in a register office. But religious content is not permitted at these ceremonies and a registrar has to be in attendance to solemnise them, making them more expensive than a registry or a church wedding.
Perhaps we should ask not what the point of an atheist marriage is, but what purpose a legal marriage serves. Politicians often argue that couples should marry for the sake of their children, who need stability. But stability can be provided by single parents or cohabiting couples too. Arguing against the Tory pledge of tax break for married couples of £150 a year, Ed Balls–then Labour’s children’s secretary–said: “I think marriage is a really important institution… but I don’t think it’s right for politicians to come along and say you’re better if you’re married, to say to children you’re not quite as good if your parents aren’t married, especially if your parent is a single parent because an abusive father beat up your mum and then left… I want to support all families whatever shape or size they come in.” Another argument is that marriage makes it easier to divide up an estate on death or divorce. But this is also a weak justification–the law should work for people, not for itself.
Before 1836, the legal sanctification of marriage in England and Wales was the preserve of the established church. Only Quakers and Jews were allowed to conduct and register marriages. But in the 1830s, religious dissenters protested against the monopoly and in 1836, the Whig home secretary, Lord John Russell (grandfather of Bertrand Russell), introduced legislation to allow these dissenters to conduct ceremonies, which would be witnessed by a state registrar. However Russell, bowing to the lobby which argued that marriage should be a civil matter outside religion, also introduced the radical concept of the civil wedding. The notion caused uproar on the Tory benches and among more religious Whigs. Russell argued that such ceremonies would never represent more than 1 per cent of unions, and the legislation passed. But by the 1890s, 15 per cent of weddings in England and Wales were non-religious. Today two thirds of weddings are civil unions–but there is a purpose to the non-religious state marriage that has yet to be acknowledged by the state itself.
The sociologist Richard Sennett has long argued for the strengthening of the contract between employer and employee because, he explains, jobs are more than pay packets: they are careers, and narratives for understanding our life history and purpose. They are central to the “adult experience” of growing and working at something. Without that contract, employment becomes episodic and fragmentary because no one is responsible for maintaining that narrative.
Like careers, marriages also provide us with a story to make sense of our lives. And as Sennett says, developing this narrative is our emotional, cultural and social fallback in times of crisis. But keeping that narrative on track can take a huge effort. The marriage contract signed between the state and a couple should be not only an acknowledgement of a circumstance, but also an undertaking. If a couple are willing to declare they will be responsible for maintaining their own narrative, investing in their own institution, surely the state also needs to acknowledge that it will support that. But how?
The Tory marriage tax break may yet be implemented by the Lib-Con coalition. But new research points to better ways of promoting commitment between couples–for instance, by building more homes. In Britain in 2008, 29 per cent of men and 18 per cent of women aged 20 to 34 were living with their parents–the highest total for a generation. This is not terrible in itself, but a recent report by housing charity Shelter found that 58 per cent of those who lived with their parents said they found it hard to maintain a romantic relationship. According to a YouGov poll in March this year, 7 per cent of adults aged 18 to 30 were putting off marriage because of a lack of decently priced housing. That’s potentially 385,000 couples–three times the number of marriages in a single year–postponing their wedding for want of somewhere affordable to live.
A 2005 study by Marco Francescone, an economist at the University of Essex, and Katrin Golsch, a German sociologist, discovered that job instability had a big effect on relationships– especially for men. The authors found that, “compared to those in permanent jobs, men in seasonal and casual jobs are 88 per cent less likely to convert their cohabitation into marriage and those on fixed-term contracts are 44 per cent less likely to do so.” These findings on the importance of stable male employment put the offer of #3 a week into context.
In that sense, couples who arrive at the register office full of hope for the future are being failed. Building more houses, legislating for better tenancy rights and ensuring more permanent jobs are not things that young couples can do by themselves. The irony is that these are exactly the kind of undertakings that the state has been loth to make since the Conservatives, once the party of tradition, instituted a new liberal economic consensus in the 1980s.
It’s been a few years since Miriam and I got married in Camden register office. We have had our downs, and more often our ups. We have got better at giving each other the benefit of the doubt and solving our problems. We are now looking to buy our own place and to save enough money to hold the second part of our wedding. When we manage it, we won’t agree on every last detail. But there’s one thing we know we’ll be leaving out: kissing to the sounds of Kenny G.