About 20 years ago, I obtained a ministry in the Universal Life Church, a somewhat infamous church in Modesto, California that issues ministries to anyone for the asking, with the most minimal possible ethical guideline of “do what is right.” Though accompanied by a good deal of incoherent, mystical, vaguely Christian theology by its founder, the ministry affords its communicants complete freedom of conscience.
In those days I was a free spirit, interested in every alternative byway of religious thought, from paganism to gnosticism, sufi mysticism to Aleister Crowley, and more. I affected a priest’s shirt and enjoyed scandalizing people with my free-ranging heresies. I signed myself “Rev. Bell” with little regard for the title’s relevance to a document. Though I was well read on spiritual and philosophical topics, my knowledge was broad, not deep. No doubt at least a few people I encountered in this role figured me for a clown, and an offensive one at that.
In spite of this disrespectful pose, I found myself in the unlikely role of a spiritual leader of sorts amongst my friends. I was asked four or five times to perform weddings, and did perform three. Once I was even asked for an exorcism; I declined and suggested that a therapist might be of better assistance (advice I think any honest person should give, rather than the abusive practice of “actual” exorcism).
One of the weddings was done in medieval garb for people heavily involved in the Society for Creative Anachronism. Another was attended by a Native priest to perform a blessing from the bride’s tribe. And the last one I did was done in Rocky Picture Horror Show garb.
I am not (or not just) trying to establish my freak credentials here to impress anyone with how far down the skinny end of the bell curve I have lived. I do mean to establish that there are many communities in the world living outside the norm, and they have their own desires for rituals that fit their needs. I don’t think I was or am unique; I think many little worlds exist in the big world with their own de facto clergy or spiritual leaders or ritualists, however we call them. In the USA and elsewhere, they can borrow a little legitimacy to present to the state in the form of the Universal Life Church, make their celebrations as they choose, and have their weddings recognized legally.
I lost that privilege on moving to Canada. I didn’t think much about it, except that it got around that I had this weird qualification, and a couple of my gay friends asked if I might do their weddings after the happy occasion of our Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage equality. It rankled me badly that I could not play a special role in my friends’ lives at their own request; I directed them to the province’s marriage commissioners, or to the Unitarian chaplains, known for their broad-mindedness.
Eventually I did write to the BC Department of Vital Statistics, which is empowered to set the standards for marriage officiants in the province, and was informed in a brief, polite letter that a community must have a physical church, and that the community must have existed for five years continuously, or it must have been documented in another province, where its legal existence would count towards the five-year limit. At that point, I gave up.
Now eight years later I find myself a member of a community with a long and storied history: Humanists. I’m happy to count myself a part of this people, this movement, that embraces reason as the best path to discover how to live the good life, and that rejects the supernatural as an illusion that too often fosters the worst in us. It’s not clownish, not arbitrary in its principles or its beliefs, and does not borrow its symbolism from all over. Yet still it goes unacknowledged in this surprising way.
I’m often greeted by this strange objection: why make a big deal out of it? Why not just go to a marriage commissioner?
I call the objection “strange” because it usually comes from those who admit immediately that there is a right of self-determination and equality of religion (and non-religion) at stake. A privilege is extended to some kinds of religious communities, and not to others (those without a physical church, those new to the province or country, those who find community in not accepting supernatural religious ideas). If the situation is unequal, it seems reasonable to ask not why one would ask for equality, but rather why one would keep it restricted.
Nonetheless, I will answer why not. Firstly, there is added expense: marriage commissioners are paid. If one wishes then to have an officiant who is familiar with the ways of one’s own ways and beliefs, that person may also need to be compensated. So effectively those without state representation of their belief system are taxed by paying twice for marriage services. Secondly, one must deal with the anxiety of not being sure of the commissioner’s sympathies–my expectation is that marriage commissioners are meant to be neutral, but the stories of supposedly professionally neutral people in higher-stakes occupations such as medicine and psychotherapy are easy to find.
Finally there is the simple affront to the dignity and autonomy of one’s own cherished circle: you people don’t count. Not being among established churches, yet not desiring the default, generic option of a commissioner, and yet still possessed of the ordinary human desire to acknowledge a bond in a public way, people of conscience are in limbo. Worse, exactly those with strong commitment to their ideals suffer disproportionately, while those who shrug their shoulders and say “whatever” enjoy the privilege of a state sanction for their very indifference.
Surely in the question of marriage our fond hope is for a passionate and lasting commitment, regardless of the rituals surrounding it; yet those who take the trouble to memorialize that commitment in ways that mean most to them find no succor in our government’s miserly apportioning of its secular “blessing.”
Personally, my preference would be to simply abolish the institution of the state’s recognizing specially qualified individuals to witness marriages. From the state perspective, a marriage is a contract, and the priest, minister, rabbi, marriage commissioner or other officiant serves as another name to sign. Opening up this line on the contract to be any competent adult of the couple’s choosing gives them much greater freedom, with no likely negative effect (except on the livelihoods of commissioners, though it pays very modestly).
I don’t anticipate this seemingly radical notion is likely to gain a favourable hearing, so instead my plea is that the government acknowledge the distinctive character of the Humanist community. It is not a religion by any reasonable standard, but can and does for many fulfill the same community needs. Scotland recently acknowledged this by amending its own marriage law to allow “communities of belief” to appoint their own officiants–until this change, Humanists were awkwardly categorized as a religion to allow this simple freedom. Similarly, Ontario has allowed Humanist wedding officiants for years–perhaps because their Human Rights Act protects “creed” rather than “religion.” England has also recently amended their marriage laws to give Humanism its proper standing.
The lack of a right to choose a meaningful wedding officiant is not a denial that cries out in a voice bloodied, bruised, or wracked by long-imposed silence. It is a matter of importance but not, usually, considered one of urgency. Unbelievers, or those with simply unusual beliefs, may still gain the privileges of marriage–indeed, in British Columbia they need only live together for a couple of years. Yet this is an injustice nonetheless, and one easily remedied by changes in legislation. It is well past time for change.