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Civil religion in the UK, Canada, Australia and the Commonwealth

By Norman Bonney,
Manchester University Press, October 2013

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Thursday, 15 September 2011


Suggestions by the Scottish Government that the current law which only allows gay civil partnership ceremonies to be conducted by registry office staff should be relaxed so as to enable, but not require, churches and faiths to undertake them, raises some interesting insights into weddings in Scotland.

For a start, getting married through the registry office is now the most common choice of all couples in Scotland with civil marriages now just outnumbering religious ceremonies with 14,449 civil marriages in Scotland last year compared to 14,030 religious ones.

While the Church of Scotland is the most favoured denomination – performing just over one in five weddings the Roman Catholic Church, despite, or perhaps because, of its strident views on moral issues relating to marriage, now only undertakes about 6% of Scottish weddings. Catholics must be deserting their church for weddings, and perhaps other matters, in large numbers because according to the 2001 census they constituted 16% of the Scottish population.

The big story about Scottish weddings is the large number of humanist ones. Humanists, who reject conventional religion and do not believe in life beyond this world, performed over 2000 weddings – making it the second most common provider of authorised wedding services that are not undertaken by civil registry office staff – ahead of the Roman Catholic Church.

The rise of the humanist wedding service is another indication, along with the popularity of civil marriages, that conventional religions are losing their grip on Scottish people’s thoughts and behaviour. In the words of the Scottish Humanists’ campaign at the time of the pope’s visit in 2010 - ‘two million Scots are good without god’.

As well as the growth of secularism – as reflected in the popularity of registry office marriages – and humanism as reflected in the growth of humanist weddings – there has also been a proliferation of weddings performed by a considerable array of sects, faiths and denominations. Over forty different types perform weddings in Scotland according to the official statistics – from the Assemblies of God to the Pagan Network, the King Fahad Mosque, and the Spiritualists National Union.

Perhaps it is time for a fundamental reform all the laws governing weddings in Scotland rather than just tinkering as the Scottish Government is doing at present. Would it not now make sense for all weddings to be legally required to be undertaken by registry office staff? Staff would thus be freed of the task of trying to certify that religions and personnel that conduct weddings are suitably qualified. Newly-weds would then also be free, after civil registration, to celebrate their weddings as they choose and religions would not have to be subject to state regulation as to the registration and conduct of weddings.

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