Legally-Binding Handfastings – I Do?

handfasting01
Our handfasting. By Doug Chapman of The Lost Village of Dode.

A milestone was reached for Pagans in England in 2014. The Glastonbury Goddess Temple became England’s first Pagan establishment officially licensed to conduct weddings in the Pagan tradition. In other words, it is now possible for Pagan couples in England to have a legally-binding handfasting. You can read more on this story here at the Wild Hunt.

This was an historic achievement for Paganism in the UK, one that bears testament to the hard work and dedication of Priestess Dawn Kinsella and the whole of the Glastonbury Goddess Temple’s members and supporters. It is another step towards achieving greater recognition and equality for Pagans, and has no doubt brought joy to thousands of Pagans across the country. Glastonbury Goddess Temple must be congratulated on this success and for its services to the Pagan community.

My happiness at this achievement aside, I believe that ultimately, UK society eventually needs to change its approach when it comes to marriage and religion. I have reservations about giving legal significance to any religious ceremony, be it marriage or otherwise. The reason is that I am a secularist. I think that religion is a personal, private matter and that no one should face discrimination or be entitled to privilege in society because of their faith. In order to make society more fair for all, I believe in the separation of religion from State – and that also means the separation of religion from the legal processes of marriage.

Dode church
Dode church. By author.

I have had a legally-binding Civil marriage and a handfasting. Both ceremonies were held one after the other at the magical Lost Village of Dode, deep in the Kent countryside. Dode has a fascinating history. The ruined Norman church, built on an ancient manmade mound, was one of the last remaining relics of a village that has since vanished, perhaps wiped out by the plague. The ruins were reconstructed by Doug Chapman in the 1990s and it now stands as a beautiful tribute to the lost villagers. Inside it looks as it may have looked back in Medieval times – the floor is carpeted with straw, the pews covered in sheepskin, the beams hung with dried flowers and herbs, and the whole place is lit by candles. It was later licensed as a Civil Wedding Venue and has since turned into a popular place for handfastings. Doug himself conducts the handfastings, which are typically held at the impressive stone circle that he has constructed more recently at the base of the mound.

Dode's interior, decorated for Yule.
Dode’s interior, decorated for Yule. By author.

What is wonderful about Dode is that, despite originally being a Christian church and now the site of Pagan handfastings, its status as a Civil Wedding Venue means that it is not officially affiliated with any particular religion. The church itself is non-consecrated and anyone of any faith or no faith can be wed and handfasted there. The process is very simple; the registrar holds the legal ceremony first within the church. This must not contain any religious language or imagery;  that includes the lyrics of any music played in the ceremony. But once this complete, any other ceremony you wish can take place and you are free to include as much spirituality as you like.

The separation of the legalities of our marriage and the spiritual significance of our handfasting is important to me. The legal status simply means an extra level of security as a couple, particularly if we ever decide to have children. But to me, the handfasting was the most important part of our marriage. Written partly by ourselves, partly by Doug and partly by a close friend who is a Pagan priestess, the handfasting represented a declaration of our love, the union of our families, and our solemn vow to be faithful to each other for all time, made in the eyes of the Gods, Goddesses and spirits of Nature. I do not know if we really have souls or if there is any sort of afterlife, but if such things are true, the handfasting represents our commitment that our souls will be forever joined, even beyond the grave. Such personal pledges and beliefs are ours alone. The State has no place in them. No legal document can ever represent them. For me, that is what makes them important. It emphasises our freedoms as individuals, as well as our responsibilities.

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Dode’s stone circle, where the handfastings take place. By author.

This sense of individual freedom is one of the reasons why Paganism appeals so much to me. Essentially a folk religion, one that consists mainly of the beliefs and practises of the general population rather than the rules issued by an institution, Paganism’s strength lies in its members’ independence to form their own interpretation of Paganism, and its members’ respect for the many diverse paths that Pagans walk. I think this is how all religion should be: Individuals holding whatever beliefs they wish without feeling under anyone’s control or subject to judgement, and making their own way to find their own answers to life’s deepest spiritual and philosophical questions. For me, secularism represents this freedom. In a secular society, everyone, no matter what they believe, is valued equally in the eyes of the State and the eyes of the law.

But despite my secularist views, I think the result of the hard work of  the Glastonbury Goddess Temple should be celebrated. After all, the landmark ruling does not mean that non-legally-recognised handfastings can no longer be held. As Christina Harrington in the Wild Hunt  writes,

In the UK most of us will carry on happily with our non-legally-recognised handfastings held in fields, clearings and homes. Then, later go down to the Registry Office (the UK’s equivalent to the Town Hall) and take a simple oath there and sign the forms – the ‘legal marriage’ bit.

But now there is an option for the legal and the religious strands to meld together. Dawn, Sharlea, and the Glastonbury Goddess Temple priests and priestess are proud to be in the vanguard of the legal handfasting movement. They made an historic breakthrough, and have done British Pagans proud.

While the UK remains a non-secular society, the achievement the Glastonbury Goddess Temple has led to more choices for Pagans, just as members of other major religions in the UK can opt for a Civil or faith-based marriage at their discretion. I only hope that one day, our society will no longer have a need for religious marriages to be recognised by law in order to achieve equality for people of all beliefs.

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