Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Chloë and Tim's Humanist Wedding in Dunbar's Close Garden

Dragi svatje, dobrodošli na škotsko isn't a phrase I've ever used before, but that's because Tim is the first person from Slovenia I've ever married! 

He and Chloë had a very international guest list, with no fewer than six different languages between them, so they created an Order of Ceremony that allowed the non-English speakers to follow what was being said.

The 17th century Dunbar's Close Garden is one of the Old Town's best kept secrets. It was amazing that we were able to have such an intimate, personal ceremony literally yards away from the bustling Royal Mile.

"Happy Holidays, and thank you so much for helping us make this year the most special year in our lives!" said Chloë and Tim in their email today.

"You have been absolutely incredible at helping us prepare and conduct the wedding.

We got our (Christmas) gift exactly 7 weeks early so please see the attached photo :) 

We are sending you so much love,

Tim, Chloë and Calian"

What a lovely surprise - thanks again for asking me to be a part of your lives. I wish all three of you much love and great happiness in the years to come.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Kirsty and Dean's Humanist Wedding at The Strawberry Barn, Dunbar

Kirsty and Dean were very nearly childhood sweethearts. They went to the same primary and secondary schools, but it wasn't until 5th year that Dean finally made it onto Kirsty's radar when they bonded over their shared love of music. 

Dean was always buying the latest CDs from bands like the View, Pigeon Detectives, and Maximo Park, and he would always make a copy for Kirsty (who was far too busy spending her money on new outfits for parties!)

Once they met in 'the Doctor’s Lane” behind her house where Dean gave her no fewer than five different CDs: it must have taken him ages to copy them. Kirsty thanked him with a Toffee Crisp...

Their paths diverged for a while. Kirsty moved to Stirling to study Criminology and Law, while Dean stayed at home watching the OC and “helping his Gran”.  

Then Dean got accepted onto the Nursing course at the same University, so they saw a lot of each other. They even bought a car together, Clint the Clio, which Kirsty spectacularly wrote off one misty morning. 

Their story encompassed many more quirky details: going to Rockness and back on the same day; the institution that has become  Matthew McConaughey Thursdays, and perhaps best of all, Kirsty's reaction to becoming engaged, when she involuntarily threw the ring across the room!

I think that every one of their guests could tell that Kirsty and Dean are made for each other, and the ceremony was both very touching and great fun.

Their friend Robyn read some of their favourite song lyrics

And then, after some Guest Vows, Dean and Kirsty made their own promises to one another.

These really are great photos by Derek Christie. Not only do they capture the mood of the day, but Derek has done something very clever by opening up the aperture of his camera as wide as it could go.

The Strawberry Barn is exactly what it says on the tin: it's a big empty space, just perfect for a party, but it's a lot darker than these photographs suggest, so bear that in mind if you're thinking of holding your wedding there. Mind you, if you can book Derek, it won't matter!

Kirsty sent me these words along with the photos. "We just wanted to thank you again for your part in the day. So many people commented what a wonderful ceremony we had. We were very proud to have been able to bring together something so special and personal (with your help!)"

It was a pleasure, Kirsty. I hope you and Dean enjoy many more Matthew McConaughey Thursdays, and that you never stop entertaining each other by quoting lines from the US version of The Office!

The C Word

I've had two letters recently from humanists who are exploring the possibility of working in chaplaincy, which is very encouraging.

A few years ago, I wrote an article about the problems humanists have with the very idea of chaplaincy and, as things don't appear to have changed a great deal outside of my own university, I thought it might be worth posting the original piece here.

If you're a student, or a would-be humanist chaplain, I hope you'll find it of at least some interest and I'd welcome your thoughts. 

Humanist Chaplain? Yes, it sounds like an oxymoron, but just as there are atheists in foxholes, there are humanists in chaplaincy, and their number is growing. 

The best-known hail from the USA. Greg Epstein is the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard, whose book “Good Without God” made the New York Times best-selling list a few years back, while on the opposite coast, John Theodore has just been appointed to that role at Stanford. As atheists are the least-trusted, most feared segment of American society, it’s encouraging that in these progressive centres of learning, a humanist presence is not merely tolerated but actively welcomed.

At Universities in the UK, humanist chaplains are generally conspicuous by their absence, but things are changing. Mandy Evans-Ewing is the Humanist Chaplain at both The University of Glasgow, and Glasgow Caledonian University, which is great - until you discover that there are no humanist students, and no student humanist societies at either of them.

By contrast in Edinburgh, there’s no Humanist Chaplain (I wrote this back in 2013, when I was still only a 'belief contact') although there is a large and active student Humanist Society, and lots of humanist students. 

Their pastoral needs are met by the multi-faith team at the Chaplaincy Centre who minister to “All Faiths and None”, but as they admit, not many humanists rock up looking for their guidance and advice. The reason - I suspect - is The C Word.

Chaplain is just one of many words including pastor, spirituality and service, that rankle with non-religious people because they come with centuries of religious baggage. I don’t have a problem with it, but I think that the C Word is the main reason most students give the place a body-swerve.

I arranged to meet one of the chaplaincy centre’s few avowedly atheist fans, 19 year old Kirsty Haigh, and when I dropped by just before midday one Monday, the air was heavy with the scent of sweet potato, lime, and coconut soup, made by a smiling group of volunteer cooks.

A second-year student of International Relations, Kirsty describes herself as a closet atheist and a left wing social activist, but it’s obvious which tag is more important to her. She’s the president of her own organisation, Bollocks to Poverty, she serves on the Student Council, she’s the campaigns organiser for the Feminist Society, and she’s involved in at least three others, so she’s a busy young woman.

As she told me, “The Chaplaincy Centre is where a lot of interesting people come, people who are interested in sustainability and ethical issues, and I’ve made most of my friends here. It’s a great place to hang out, where a shared interest in social justice matters more than differences of opinion on matters of faith, or lack of it”.

I asked Kirsty why she thinks chaplaincy isn’t more popular with the non-religious. “I think when you hear the word Chaplaincy, you expect to be confronted by some kind of religious practice or by people talking to you about religion but it’s not the case at all. Yes, there are religious people here but mostly they just sit and chat like everyone else and anyway, I tend to avoid the explicitly religious events.

“The chaplaincy lets any charitable society use the upstairs space for meetings, which is great, so Bollocks to Poverty meets here once a week to campaign for tax justice. Being here allows us to approach other students and get them involved in our campaigns - it’s great for networking!”

One of the laudable aims of Chaplaincy is to generate understanding and tolerance between different faith groups, but it inadvertently makes those of no faith feel like outsiders. I spoke to Luke Hecht, who’s just been elected president of the University of Edinburgh Humanist Society. Luke, from Washington DC, is reading Evolutionary Biology, and he didn’t take long to confirm my intuitions.

“Having a centre “For All Faiths and None” run entirely by people of faith is a little uncomfortable, so we feel a bit out of place,” he told me. “We’re happy to cooperate over doing things like setting up a soup kitchen for example, and we’d do that, but really what we enjoy most is the free exchange of ideas in debate.

“Just before the Society Representatives Meeting there’s one called “Sharing Our Spiritual Treasures,” where people from different religious traditions sit around and talk about what they believe, but nobody criticizes anyone, and I don’t feel I’ve got anything I can usefully contribute to that. At humanist meetings we’re very critical, and we argue passionately over the things on which we disagree.

“As humanists, we don’t believe that all beliefs are equally valid - so debating them really is the only way to work out what we should do as a society, especially on issues like gay marriage for instance, or assisted suicide. But there’s a sense that if you criticise someone’s beliefs at a chaplaincy event, it could be taken as a personal attack, and that makes it hard for us to get involved”.

Getting believers and non-believers together may be an uphill struggle in Edinburgh, but in Harvard it seems to be rather less of a problem. When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans back in 2005, Greg Epstein and his humanist students spent their spring break working alongside people of faith to rebuild the shattered community.

“We reached out to a social justice minded evangelical group who’d been doing some good work in New Orleans” Epstein told me. “I don’t agree with all their motivation or all of their methods, but we learned a lot from them. We went into the project as equals, and it was a wonderful model. The students and I are fully aware of the ways in which we disagree but we are able to cooperate, and I’m proud of what we’re doing.

 “I look at it this way. Religion is a human invention and like all human invention it gets things wrong, but at its base, a religious community is helpful to people. Non-believers have trouble finding meaningful ways of connecting – we need to offer an alternative.”

Changing the faith-based nature of the Chaplaincy Centre may be the key. As Luke Hecht said, “A Humanist Chaplain isn’t an oxymoron. I think it would make sense, and if there was a Humanist Chaplain here in Edinburgh, we would feel more comfortable getting more involved. One thing we’d like to do within Chaplaincy is set up a kind of workshop to have ethical discussions from a non-religious perspective. That way we could we can cooperate on things that matter, while at the same time agreeing to disagree”.

“As Society becomes ever more secular, people think Chaplaincy’s kind of uncool”, says Kirsty Haigh. “But when they come here, they think it’s the coolest place ever! There’s a real sense of community because it’s like nowhere else. It’s a hidden gem”.

It's time to celebrate, people!

I'm delighted to announce that from now on, I will be a celebrant with Celebrate People , a new Humanist organisation led by two of Scot...