Religion is quite a new idea. Prior to the eighteenth century, few people would have thought to label part of life as “religious”, separate from everything else. Of course, there were times when they attended places of worship, and aspects of life in which religious leaders were more involved than others. But what we now call religion reached into all areas of life, from education and healthcare to government and personal relationships.
This is not simply because more people were “religious”. It was about the way that society was structured and understood. While today religion is seen as being primarily a private activity, for many people at certain points of history it has been entirely public. When the Victorian Prime Minister William Melbourne heard an evangelical sermon urging listeners to apply Christian principles to their daily lives, he responded by expressing his horror that “religion is allowed to invade private life”.
This legacy goes some way to explaining why it can be so hard to determine what is and isn’t a “religious” event today. The percentage of weddings and funerals that are “secular” is rising and this trend is likely to continue. But it would be a mistake to suggest simply that we used to choose religious ceremonies and are now choosing secular ones. In western Europe, the involvement of religious institutions in marriage has varied and changed in many directions over the last millennium. Only in the mid-eighteenth century was “common-law” marriage abolished in England, requiring almost any couple wanting a legally recognised marriage to go through a ceremony run by a church (the exemptions for Jews and Quakers are, bizarrely, still on the statute book). Over a century later, civil marriage was introduced, prompting protests from clergy worried about their loss of power.
The connections between “religious” and “civil” ceremonies flow in both directions. The Sunday after the Manchester bombing, I sat in a Presbyterian church in Belfast at which the preacher read out Tony Walsh’s poem This is the Place, made famous when Walsh had read it at the moving memorial ceremony in Manchester a few days earlier. So not a secular ceremony echoing a religious one but a religious event taking inspiration from secular art.
In 2011, before same-sex marriage was legalised in England, two male Christian friends of mine married each other in a non-legally recognised ceremony. It was a Christian ceremony, which they put together with the help of friends and family. There were Bible readings, a blessing and a sermon. An informal “civil” group had organised a ceremony without reference to religious authority. But the content, and the motivation, was clearly religious.
This sort of confusion between the religious and the civil is one reason why I am cautious about simply predicting – and welcoming – a general increase in secular organisations running ceremonies.
My second reason for being cautious comes down to values and beliefs. This is not because I object to civil ceremonies – far from it. Rather it is an objection to the sort of ceremony that everyone is pressurised to join and no-one is expected to object to. In a multifaith society, it is thankfully becoming more acceptable not to join in religious events in which you do not believe. This is not tolerated, however, when it comes to “secular” national events such as royal weddings or Remembrance Sunday. I have always found that objecting to the monarchy or the armed forces triggers both bewilderment and a particularly deep sort of anger on the part of those who deem such institutions to be “non-political” (one of the greatest privileges that can be accorded to an organisation is for it to defined as “non-political”, a euphemism for “beyond criticism”).
When I feel pressurised to join in a ceremony that goes against my values, it is nearly always a “secular” event. Refusing to wear a red poppy or to refer to the Windsor family by anachronistic titles are seen as beyond the pale by those who insist we must all take part in the “secular” rituals of monarchy and militarism. I was sent some of the most abusive messages I’ve ever received on the day of the royal jubilee in 2012, when I said on Radio 4 that I would not be celebrating and referred to Elizabeth Windsor by her name.
Remembering all victims of war by wearing a white poppy, or celebrating the value of all people’s lives on the day of a royal wedding, are choices that are mocked and attacked by supporters of the establishment in the same way that their ancestors derided religious events that were outside the Church of England.
Whether a ceremony is labelled as religious or civil matters far less to me than the values it upholds. We need to broaden the choices available – and to be free to choose.