Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 1996

The Pink Triangle Trust is now getting enquiries about its Humanist Affirmation Ceremony sometimes at a rate of up to two a day, and future ones have been booked in places as far apart as Aberdeen and Leeds in the north and Cornwall and the Isle of Wight in the south. Denis Cobell has officiated at many of these in London and the home counties. Here he gives his views on the ceremony in general and his experiences of some, including an exceptionally moving one conducted for two gay men last summer in Sussex.

Affirming Love and Commitment

by Denis Cobell

The phenomenon of a gay wedding is still anathema to the mainstream Christian churches, although the Society of Friends and the Unitarian Church take a more benign attitude. There are also clergy in the mainstream churches who are prepared to conduct clandestine “blessings”.

The Church of England Prayer Book’s introduction to matrimony between a man and a woman may be taken as a just warning from the Christian tradition: “...signifying unto us the mystical union that is between Christ and his Church ... nor taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, to satisfy men’s carnal lusts and appetites, like brute beasts that have no understanding...” The imagery conjured up by this use of language makes one wonder what the Church is really all about, and although modern language may be more temperate, the sentiments still exist. It reminds me of the comment from Philip Larkin, after reading the King James version of the Bible: “beautiful, but absolute balls!”

So, anyone wanting to make an affirmation of love and commitment to another gay person is offered little by conventional religion and, in any case (as opinion polls and surveys show) many people, of whatever sexual orientation, have totally rejected religion.

For humanists like myself, relationships between same-sex couples present no moral dilemma, and indeed many of us have been in the forefront of the struggle for gay rights. So a wedding ceremony in which two men or two women seek to proclaim publicly their love for each other is no less acceptable than one between heterosexual couples.

Some may prefer the term ‘affirmation’ to ‘wedding’, but I personally prefer the latter. And of course ‘marriage’ is a legal contract at present only permitted in this country between a heterosexual man and woman. Even a humanist wedding ceremony for heterosexual couples has no legal validity as yet, and the couple still have to visit a registry office as well.

One of the most valuable aspects of a gay wedding is the drawing together of people from a variety of backgrounds and attitudes. I presume hard-line homophobes would either not be invited, or, if invited, would decline to attend. Nevertheless, few I have spoken to at most gay weddings have previously attended a similar event.

A humanist ceremony for a gay or lesbian couple may take many forms. There are those which take place privately at home, with only the closest friends invited. I recall one such event, for two men who both had grown up children, when there were only two guests present.

In marked contrast, a wedding for two young women was attended by many guests. The celebration had an orange and white theme followed through in the bunting around the garden, balloons at the gate, the icing on the cake, etc. Even the car, a ‘souped-up’ mini, was in these colours, and it required a stiff drink and a long pause before nerves were restored after the dash in this through the leafy Buckinghamshire lanes! At the reception after the ceremony, there was much talk from burly Welsh men in the family about rugby and football – all good knockabout stuff.

I have conducted a number of gay weddings at Conway Hall Humanist Centre in London where a room can be hired for the ceremony itself with the reception taking place elsewhere.

I recall one recent occasion when the massed ranks of guests commandeered a No. 25 bus travelling from Holborn to the City, for a pub party – much to the surprise of the Japanese tourists on board.

But one of the most moving and well organised gay wedding ceremonies I have been privileged to conduct was for Paul and Simon. This took place on a lovely summer day in the heart of the Sussex countryside. A marquee had been set up for the ceremony and reception in the grounds of Simon’s parents’ home. The couple were led into the ceremony by Pippa, a friend of Paul who had acted as best man at her own wedding the previous year.

The ceremony began with an introduction, briefly outlining the humanist position, what the commitment meant, and a few details about Paul and Simon. There was a small adult choir which sang Endless Love and Song of Joy. Vows and rings were exchanged, and the ceremony concluded with the ever-popular American Indian verse:

Now you will feel no rain, for each of you will be shelter for the other;
Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be warmth for the other;
Now there is no more loneliness, for though you are two persons, there is but one life before you;
Go now to your dwelling to enter into the days of your life together;
And may your days be good and long upon the earth.

Over eighty guests attended the ceremony and although the ‘top-table’ speeches at the reception had a traditional flavour, because of the way love was expressed between the couple, their parents and siblings, they were much more moving than is often the case – so moving in fact that, at times, there was hardly a dry eye to be seen.

Comments made by some of the guests afterwards included:

And the participants themselves wrote: “We know the celebration brought our families much closer together and all our friends could see not only that we love each other, but also visually and mentally appreciated and experienced the love that was all around on that very special day.”

I, too, found it a very moving occasion.

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