Photo courtesy of CrazyHappyLove Photography
We spoke to Stewart Holden – the celebrant network support coordinator in Northern Ireland. He spoke to us about the joy of conducting humanist ceremonies, why they’re becoming increasingly popular, and their bespoke, personal, and intimate nature.
Hi Stewart. What is a humanist celebrant?
A humanist celebrant writes and conducts non-religious ceremonies such as weddings, funerals, and namings, where the focus is entirely on the couple getting married or the person whose life is being honoured and celebrated. For every type of ceremony, the celebrant will meet the couple or family to ensure that they deliver the most personalised and bespoke ceremony possible.
Why are humanist ceremonies becoming increasingly popular?
More and more people are beginning to realise that you can mark significant moments in life with a ceremony that is meaningful, personal and beautiful, but also non-religious. Often, people who have experienced a humanist ceremony are far more likely to choose one for themselves. They are voting with their feet!
Tell us about some of your unique experiences and ceremonies.
I was fortunate to conduct the first legally recognised humanist wedding in Northern Ireland last year, following Laura and Eunan’s ground-breaking case (and wedding) the year before. In an amusing juxtaposition of events, the wedding took place on the same day the Pope was visiting Ireland for the first time in 40 years. Every wedding I’ve ever done has been unique and enjoyable. In the last twelve months I’ve conducted weddings on the SS Nomadic [pictured] in blazing sunshine with hundreds of tourists watching from afar, on the stage at Queen’s Film Theatre in Belfast, and ankle-deep in sand at Harry’s Shack on the beach in Portstewart.
Tell us about your work as the head of the celebrant network in Northern Ireland.
In addition to conducting weddings and funerals, I have an administrative role to ensure all of the celebrants in our network (currently 23 of us) have the support they need to fulfil their roles to the best of their ability. We have regular group meetings and share ideas and experiences all the time, so no celebrant is ever working along. For funeral work it’s especially important to have a support system of colleagues who are there to advise, or sometimes just to listen.
What’s the best feedback a celebrant can receive?
The best compliment is when you’re asked to return to a family more than once. I did a wedding two years ago, and the bride asked me to conduct her father’s funeral nine months later. I was then booked to conduct a funeral of a terminally ill man who attended that first funeral himself, and he asked me to do his when the time came. I’ve now been booked by that man’s son to conduct his wedding next year. It’s an honour to get to know families this way.
What attracts you to humanism?
To me, the term ‘atheist’ simply means not believing in a deity, but you can’t define yourself by something you’re not. Humanism is the next logical step; you’ve accepted there’s no proof of a god, so what is important to you? We are social creatures and we all need a sense of community, and in my experience the people in Northern Ireland Humanists are the nicest people around.
Which Humanists UK campaigns have been closest to your heart?
I am overjoyed that same-sex marriage is now legal in Northern Ireland! And I’m of course looking forward to conducting beautifully intimate and bespoke legal weddings for same sex couples too. It truly is a historic time for Northern Ireland, and as a humanist celebrant, I feel privileged to be entwined with that history in a very unique way. But there is, of course, still work to be done. I’m also a firm believer in the need for education reform. 93% of children in this country are still educated in either Protestant or Catholic ethos schools, and although there can be a mix of children inside the school, the curriculum is still overwhelming Christian. Nowhere more than in this wee country should it be the case that children are taught how to think, not what to think.