Woop Woop!!! We conducted our first wedding after lockdown at the weekend. Easing out of lockdown and into teeny tiny wedding ceremonies feels so good.
At the weekend, after a year or so of planning and creating, Kirstin and Chris were married in the calm oasis of Lanrick Estate. Like many couples Kirstin and Chris had to change their original plans quite dramatically but during that process found that they were able to reconnect with what was important to them and also what their wedding day meant to them. We all kept a very close eye on the Scottish Government Route Map and were able to move quickly once restrictions began to lift.
Lanrick Estate prepared a beautiful space, a circle, for the ceremony. Before the ceremony started we all stood outside the circle and shared a few words on the symbolism. We recognised the huge changes going on in the world and the collective energy that that was creating. What we aimed to do was step into the circle and leave the rest of world outside just for a short time while we focussed on Kirstin and Chris and their love, their declarations and their vows. We stepped into their circle with reverence aware that when we stepped out we’d all be changed in some way.
Kirstin and Chris would be walking into the world as man and wife, into the next stage of life together, there would be deepening family connections and we’d all feel a little bit more love.
And so it was.
As celebrants we treat our work, and relationships, with all families and couples with the reverence they deserve. My favourite definition 👇🏼
rev·er·ence definition 1: an attitude or feeling of profound respect and awe mingled with love
“There is no grief like the grief that does not speak.”
― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
As a member of a shielding family, I have been watching in awe over the past few months as my fellow funeral celebrants and funeral sector colleagues go to herculean efforts to support families through incredibly challenging times.
Funerals have been stripped back to the bare minimum to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Attendance numbers have been restricted to immediate family only and shielding relatives have been advised not to attend. Physical distancing measures are in place with all attendees spaced 2 metres apart. Everyone attending must adhere to a stringent no contact policy with each other or with anything in the room, including the coffin. They may also be following the Government guidance to wear masks in enclosed spaces.
These measures are understandable in that they have clearly been an important part of the prevention of further illness and deaths from Covid-19. However, they have come at a huge emotional cost despite the valiant efforts of all involved to ease the process for families and create a loving and memorable tribute to the person who has died.
Families may feel they have been unable to say a proper goodbye to their loved ones. Friends have been unable to attend the funerals of the people they cared deeply about. Those who have been able to attend have been restricted in how they are able to express their grief and sympathy. Many have suffered from the lack of connection with others during this time. Too many mourners have had to face their loss and grief alone, without the much-needed support of their wider friends, family and community.
Being given the freedom and flexibility to pay tribute to a loved one who has died is incredibly important and a crucial part of coming to terms with our loss. In these past months, too many families have been unable to spend time with their dying relatives and friends in their final days or weeks. Too many grieving individuals have been forced to retreat from the comfort and support of family and friends at a time when they need it most. It is heartbreaking to see so many struggle to cope with the necessary restrictions about how they must celebrate the life of the person they love – with no opportunity to rest a hand on the coffin of the person they loved, no chance to remember together with family and friends, no opportunity to have hugs from those closest to them.
In this time of physical distancing and isolation, it feels as if the world is on pause… like we are all taking a collective deep breath in and waiting until it is safe to exhale fully and deeply. Grief too has been suspended, interrupted. Countless people are facing the impossible task of moving forward in grief without access to the support, rituals and activities that would have helped them process the death of the person dear to them. It is essential that we find ways to ease this pain and support families in coming to terms with their loss.
As Celebrants, my colleagues and I at Agnostic Scotland are hopeful that we can play our part. We are being asked by families who have been unable to say a proper goodbye to their loved ones to conduct Memorial Ceremonies for them, once physical distancing restrictions are relaxed and we can move safely through the Scottish Government Route Map Phases.
A Memorial Ceremony can take many forms. For some, a poignant, intimate ceremony with only very close family and friends present may feel right. For others, an epic celebration with a gathering of wider friends and family could sound perfect. Memorial Ceremonies can take place in beautiful outdoor locations, in the comfort of your home, in community centres or town halls, or in grand hotels. The content of a Memorial Ceremony is entirely your choice. Each ceremony is crafted to entirely reflect the person being celebrated – their stories, their personality and their beliefs, values and wishes.
Importantly, a Memorial Ceremony gives families the chance to come together in grief. It is an opportunity to honour and fully celebrate the life of the person who has died, to share stories and make toasts, to send blessings and reflect. It is a chance for grieving families to begin to make peace with the passing of the person they cared deeply about.
For every Memorial Ceremony we conduct this year we plant a tree in our Agnostic Scotland Grove in the Highlands in honour of the person being remembered. We also donate 10% of our fee to the UN Refugee Agency Covid-19 Appeal. For those unable to cover the cost of a Memorial Service we may be able to help through our Agnostic Scotland Community Fund.
While memorials can’t take place due to restrictions there are ways that loved ones, families and friends can take a moment to remember those they have lost. St Pauls’s Cathedral has launched Remember Me, an online book of remembrance for people of all faiths, beliefs or none. Funeral Celebrant, Rosalie Kuyvenhoven and Sacred Stones support a Candlelight Vigil, Mondays at 8pm via Instagram. An online gathering organised by www.lifedeathwhatever.com has been postponed but will be rescheduled so click on link to find out more.
In a time when almost every newspaper headline makes for stark reading, it is heartwarming to be hearing from couples planning their wedding ceremonies during 2020-2022.
Admittedly, there have been some moments of dark humour though in our ceremony-planning conversations:
“We could have themed face masks!”
“How about hats or fascinators with 2-metres long feathers?”
“Well obviously the Quaich can’t be passed around… the invite would have to read ‘Join us for a Covid-19 party’”
Jokes aside, it is worth spending a bit of time considering how we might need to adapt ceremony plans in the coming months. It is absolutely possible to get creative and look forward to a magical day despite the surreal times we are living through.
Government guidelines will continue to detail the numbers of guests that will be allowed to attend ceremonies as the marriage licence suspension is lifted. It is likely that the numbers will vary during the different phases of Covid-19 restrictions being rolled out. Currently the Government advice for Phase 2, from 18th June 2020, is:
Members of three separate households, to a maximum number of 8 people, will be permitted to attend an outdoor wedding or civil partnership. This is to allow the parties (who may not be part of the same household prior to marriage) and the witnesses to attend. This limitation does not include the registrar/celebrant or any necessary interpreter.
We suspect that during Phase 3, if the current restrictions do move forward, for both indoor and outdoor ceremonies there is likely to be a cap on numbers with strict physical distancing and hygiene measures in place. As the virus hopefully becomes more controlled, and as we progress through the Government Phases for Covid-19 containment, we hope that more guests may be allowed at each gathering.
As Celebrants, we will have a responsibility to follow the Government legislation around numbers attending and as such, it is important to ensure that your plans reflect the Government guidelines and legislation (we have included links below). Planning for all scenarios will help manage the expectations and emotions for those involved (yours included!). Whilst you might be hoping to invite all your friends and family for a love-filled joyful gathering, it’s worth considering what you will do and how you would feel if you are limited to say 8, 25, or 50 guests.
There is a different kind of beauty in an intimate wedding or elopement. So, whilst it might feel a huge shift from your original plans, it could reassure you to check out the photos and read the blogs of people who are involved in creating intimate weddings and elopements, or who have experienced one themselves. We have links to useful sites and articles at the end of this blogpost.
Given the evolving and hard-to-predict guidelines around numbers of guests being allowed at gatherings, considering all scenarios at the outset could help you feel more relaxed when looking ahead to your ceremony.
It is a possibility that all guests will be expected to physical distance and stay 2-metres apart at all times. As such, we would encourage you to discuss this at the outset with the event manager at your chosen venue. This will help to ensure that you feel relaxed about how your important day will unfold and you won’t be disappointed if harsh restrictions on numbers and physical distancing are enforced. It’s always important to feel good about your Plan B.
Of course, if everyone is being asked to physical distance at gatherings then that will include your Celebrant. There may be some aspects of your ceremony that might need to be adjusted to account for this – such as rituals (see below).
We weren’t joking about themed face masks… At the moment, it is unclear what the Government guidelines will be regarding the wearing of face masks at gatherings but we suspect it might be recommended. Of course, by the time the marriage licence suspension is fully lifted there is the possibility that all wedding guests might be able to get tested for Covid-19 prior to attending, or that a test, track and trace programme will be fully underway and completely reliable. However, if the wearing of masks is recommended, it’s possible to get creative. It is also important to understand face mask safety – you can find the World Health Organisation Guidance here.
There are some beautiful material face masks being made by local businesses and crafters. You will find some links under this blog. Masks are likely to be a part of our world for the next year or so, and perhaps might seem less alien to us once we are all used to seeing each other wearing them.
Songs and hymns
Sadly, we know from the devastating effect of church gatherings and choirs around the world that singing together is a sure way to optimise the spread of the virus. Even with the wearing of masks, this might be something to consider replacing in your ceremony. You could play music, read poetry or extracts from your favourite books instead. We are always happy to offer suggestions and help you find the perfect elements for your ceremony.
Traditionally, during a Quaich Ceremony, the newly married couple would each take a drink from the shared cup of love to symbolise their union and to toast their future together. The cup might then be passed around the gathering for all present to take a sip and share in the toast to the couple. It is clear that it will be unlikely that the passing of the Quaich among guests is recommended during the current pandemic.
However, it is absolutely possible to enjoy this ritual without the sharing of the cup among family and friends. The toast can be limited to the couple and the words of the ritual adjusted accordingly. It might be that everyone present is invited to join in with the words of the toast, or to take a moment to wish the couple well by sending a thought, wish, blessing or prayer their way.
A Handfasting Ceremony is a gorgeous ritual and a wonderful Celtic tradition. As Celebrants, we are often asked to include a Handfasting in Wedding and Life-Partnership Ceremonies. Whilst it is usually the Celebrant that places the cords or ribbons on the hands of the couple, and the Celebrant who ties the knots as a symbolic act of sealing the vows of the couple, this may not be possible with physical distancing measures in place.
If you are planning a Handfasting as part of your ceremony, it is possible to adapt the ceremony so that you can tie your own knot, or use the fabric wound around your hands as a symbol of betrothal or binding. Or you could consider who among your immediate family – people you are already mixing with – could step in for the Celebrant to place the cords and tie the knots. This is something that some couples already choose – they might have a relative they wish to ask to be the one who seals their vows – and it works well. We will guide you, of course, and the person fulfilling this role to ensure that you are all confident about how to perform this beautiful ritual.
Many couples choose this gorgeous ritual as part of their ceremony. The commitment bands are tied to a piece or ribbon or cord and, during the ceremony, are passed from guest to guest. The Celebrant will have invited each guest to take a moment when the rings reach them to offer a blessing, thought or prayer for the couple. That way, when the rings make their way to the front for the exchange of rings between the couple, they are imbued with all the good wishes and feelings of their family and friends.
There’s no getting around that this is not likely to be possible during the pandemic given the limitations on contact and avoiding touching the same surfaces as others. However, there are other ways that this well-wishing by the couple’s family and friends can be included in the ceremony. For example, the Celebrant might invite all present to take a moment during the ceremony to send a thought, blessing, or prayer towards the couple just before the couple exchange rings.
Signing of the Register
After the newly-married couple are declared legally married, it is a legal requirement that the Marriage Schedule be signed by the couple, the celebrant and two witnesses. Usually, the Celebrant would provide a black ink fountain pen for this purpose. This is important as the type of ink used is a Registry Office requirement.
Given the likely restrictions on sharing items, touching the same surfaces as others, it may be that every person signing the document has to use a separate pen. In this scenario, the individuals can either bring their own pens, or the Celebrant can provide the pens and clean them after each signing.
It is going to feel strange not being able to hug those around us at such a poignant and joyful time. We will all need to adapt to showing our love and appreciation in other ways. There are beautiful rituals that can do this – rituals that can show the couple how much everyone present cares for them, and that involve all the gathering in a meaningful and shared moment.
There are many varied rituals that can be adapted to suit the personality and wishes of the couple involved. One such ritual might involve inviting everyone who attends to bring a ‘symbolic hug’ with them to put in the hug jar. These ‘symbolic hugs’ could be tokens such as shells, buttons, feathers. The couple then have the pleasure in the weeks following the ceremony of working out which hug belonged to which guest.
The inclusion of visualisations or guided meditations can also be a powerful way of involving everyone in the gathering. Simply inviting all present to place their hand on their heart and consider the future of the couple then send a loving thought their way is incredibly powerful.
The Oathing Stone ritual is another poignant way of including everyone at the ceremony. This works especially well for outdoor ceremonies. The guests are given a stone on arrival at the ceremony. They are invited to hold them whilst the vows are being made and recognise their relationship with the couple. Just before the wedding vows are made they are invited to send their warm wishes, thoughts and prayers for the couple as they hold the stone. Following the ceremony the couple invite their guests to throw the stones in nearby water such as a river or lake and send blessings. Blessings made near water have been thought to be more binding.
An alternative to this is for the stones to be placed in a container such as a glass vase or a bowl which the couple take home to remind them of the good wishes of their guests. Another is for the stones to be placed together in a cairn on the ground when the ceremony is outside.
As Celebrants, we can help you create a beautiful, unique and meaningful ceremony despite all that is going on in the world at this time. The most important thing is to remember that whilst your ceremony may have been postponed just now, your love for each other continues to grow stronger.
We are being advised that until Phase 4 there will be significant physical distancing measures in place at all group gatherings. During Phases 2-3 it is therefore important to consider how to plan your post-ceremony celebrations. Your reception or evening meal may need to take place with 2m physical distancing requirements in place. This might mean more tables with less people on each table, for example.
Depending on the space in your chosen wedding venue, it may be possible to enjoy an evening dance with guests physically distancing during the dance. As such, it is hard to imagine how a traditional Scottish Ceilidh could go ahead during Phase 2-3. It is important to discuss the options available to you with your venue provider.
Our promise to you
These are uncertain times and the more security you can have in your plans the more relaxed you will feel in the lead up to your wedding. In the event that your chosen celebrant is physically unable to conduct your ceremony e.g. due to illness, enforced virus related self-isolation or quarantine, or for some other reason, then we will do our utmost to arrange for a fellow Agnostic Scotland celebrant to conduct your ceremony on their behalf.
We are looking forward to working with you to shape your ceremony into all that you wish it to be. All the ceremonies we conduct are entirely reflective of the individuals involved – their personalities, their stories, their beliefs, values and wishes. During this time of physical distancing and restrictions we are even more committed to putting our creativity to work to create a ceremony that will make your heart sing.
Today marks the 25th Anniversary of Pride in Scotland. 25 years of supporting progressive change for the LGBTQI+ community.
As part of the Pride Edinburgh 2020 celebrations, we Celebrants at Agnostic Scotland had been planning to join forces with The Original Red Bus/Sam and Clunie Phipps on one of their wonderful vintage Routemasters. Together, we were looking forward to taking their ‘love bus’ around the city and celebrating with fellow Pride Festival goers. It would have been a beautiful day full of love, connection, pride and colour.
Due to Covid-19, and the restrictions in place, the Pride Edinburgh Organisers, with the safety of all attendees at the forefront of their decision making, postponed the celebrations. However, we are with them in spirit, standing in solidarity. We wholeheartedly support equal rights and respect for all people irrespective of Colour, Creed, Sexuality, Gender or Class.
Given all that is going on in the world, we feel that now especially is the time for love to conquer all. Now is the time for us to lay down our prejudices and let go of fear. Now is the time for us to (virtually) hug our fellow humans, to open our hearts and minds to respectful kindness. Now is the time to let people be who they are, and to rejoice in the glorious diversity of all.
So, please do join us on the ‘love bus’ – we’d love to welcome you on board. We’ll see you in person on the new date for Pride Edinburgh, yet to be announced, in 2021.
Apparently children look at the world with wide-eyed curiosity and ask us questions that we ourselves are too unquestioning to even see, let alone ask. And in many ways I would argue that most children are far more enlightened/ intelligent/ wise/ open-minded than most adults (this is certainly not an original proposition!).
However, when I look back at my attitudes about faith as a child, I was quite the reverse of open-minded. I was a hard-line atheist, refusing to attend church services even when I was still in primary school and actually being pretty keen to denounce other people’s beliefs. Interestingly, my six year old son is similarly resolute in his beliefs, though he comes from a different standpoint, stating, “Well of course there was the Big Bang, but who do you think made it happen? Obviously it was God!”
I am comfortable with him holding his own strong beliefs, but cringe at his disparaging tone towards my agnosticism. I cringe even more to know that my tone was just as overbearing and dogmatic when I was of a similar age.
My atheism saw me all through my twenties and most of my thirties. In the latter decade I wavered from it slightly, warming up to some more spiritual ideas (I’m happy to chat about these but don’t think my own beliefs are especially relevant to share here!) but finding it a bit uncomfortable to consider moving on from such a strongly-held stance. However, I had come to feel very passionate about any individual’s rights to their own beliefs so long as they were rooted in respect for others and doing no harm. I saw friends and family members rediscover a faith that brought them great comfort, or evolve from one belief to another. I began to doubt.
Without even naming it at first, I discovered agnosticism and it fit me like a glove. For a good few years after that I worked on disentangling myself from my atheism…
It was so exciting to come together with two other agnostic celebrants to create Agnostic Scotland. Sitting together over many meetings to hone our explanation of our shared beliefs and values, I felt a certainty rise up in me. A certainty that doubt is a deeply respectful stance to take.
When I had the ‘opportunity’ to appear on TV to represent Agnostic Scotland (reader, I was petrified) the interviewer asked me, “So, are you just confused?”. I realised that there is a misconception that doubt is the same as confusion. But I don’t feel remotely confused in my agnosticism; I believe anything is possible in this vast universe and I love the mystery of that! I also feel released of the risk that someone misconstrues that I look down on them for their faith or for their atheism.
If you Google “embracing doubt”, nearly all of the pages that come up encourage you to let go of doubt and trust yourself. It’s curious, isn’t it? What about if we trusted ourselves enough to stand in doubt with conviction? To allow doubt to be foundation of our belief system?
I am not trying to convert anyone here; if you have a strong faith or belief system then that is just as valid as my agnosticism. But for the millions of us who may feel a little lost because we don’t fit one camp or the other, because we aren’t certain what exists and what doesn’t and what the meaning of life may be, there’s a community right here for you.
You may be completely agnostic, or you may have a faith but remain open to the possibility that your own beliefs might not be the only answer to life’s greatest questions. You may be resolutely atheist in your own beliefs, but have a genuine appreciation of many faiths of the world and welcome the diversity these bring to our societies. An Agnostic community is a great place for people of mixed beliefs to come together in shared space and in moments of ceremony.
Agnosticism is an active and sure stance of open-mindedness. It is a creative, curious, wide-eyed wonder of a belief system and it can be wholehearted, unabashed doubt.
We realise many of you may have questions about your upcoming ceremonies whether they be Wedding ceremony’s, Naming Ceremonies or Vow Renewals. Even more so now that venues are being told to close their doors. For some, you will find the decisions are being made for you and for others you’ll feel confused with inconsistent advice and choices.
Please try not to worry. It’s important to stay calm so that preparations and decisions can be made that are right, and safe, for you and your family and friends.
A lot of what is going on is out-with our control and this feeling of lack of control can exacerbate anxiety.
Take a breath, pause and plan.
Try use an acronym like BRAIN to help get things into perspective:
Get together with your partner, discuss with wider family members and even close friends and guests. Do some serious WedMin and write these headings down and brainstorm, list, get everything out there.
What are the Benefits of carrying on as planned? For you and for others.
What are the Risks? Think of your family and guests, ages, travel, number of guests, finances etc
The Alternatives – what are they? Talk to each other about all the available options. Have you spoken to your service providers about potential alternatives, if not, do.
What is your Instinct, your gut feeling? Tune in and trust.
What if you decide to do Nothing different right now?
If you go through all of the above and decide to change nothing at the moment, that’s fine. Sit with it for a bit and return to the discussion. You can wait to see what else unfolds and revisit your list, notes and conversations at anytime. Maybe start again adding and subtracting aspects previously considered, newly discovered and advised by Government. Reflect and reschedule if necessary. If you’re ceremony is with one of us at Agnostic Scotland and you want to discuss options for a Plan B date. Get in touch.
You have each other and that is the main thing especially right now. Remember why you are planning all of this in the first place – because of love and trust.
What if you decide to, or have to, postpone your ceremony? There will be no charge to reschedule the date of your ceremony. If your celebrant is not available then one of our Agnostic Scotland Life Celebrants may be. Pencil in a Plan B date as soon as possible.
Would you have to pay anything extra to change your date? There is no extra charge to hold another date. Your deposit/fee would be transferred to the new date.
What if your Celebrant becomes ill or has to cocoon at home at the time of your ceremony? At Agnostic Scotland we have discussed how to cover ceremonies in case of illness. Your back up Celebrant would have access to your final ceremony script and they would make contact with you to say hello and talk through anything with you prior to the ceremony. We know that currently, with the support of the Registrars, we can obtain emergency discretion for a change of Celebrant, as long as that Celebrant is a member of a recognised belief body, if required due to illness. We have also reached out to the National Records of Scotland for further advice in this ever changing situation.
Current Guidelines The National Records of Scotland are currently drawing up guidelines for registrars. You can check here. You will probably know that in England (where Celebrants cannot legally conduct marriage ceremonies) Church wedding ceremonies are currently limited to the minimal people required which is 5. The National Records of Scotland are currently drawing up guidelines for their own registrars. Keep an eye here for updates. You will know that in England (where celebrants cannot legally conduct marriage ceremonies) Church wedding ceremonies are currently limited to the minimal number of people required which is 5. Civil ceremonies, which are carried out by a registrar, are to be judged on a case by case basis. The Church of Scotland have issued guidance saying only close family should attend weddings, but they did not state a number. In regard to civil ceremonies in Scotland it seems to depend on the registrars, and of course, the venue. After many venues being ‘told’ to close yesterday you may need to talk to your venue. At the moment the government cannot instruct ‘organisers’ to cancel events but hopes organisers will follow advice to support our public services in responding to Covid – 19. Legislation may change this so keep up to date. For WHO advice re: social distancing and more click here and from NHS Scotland here
What if important guests can’t make it to your ceremony due to number restrictions, travel restrictions or illness?
Have a cry then get creative. Film the ceremony Live stream the ceremony WhatsApp video call Tribute/blessing from the guests who can’t make it They could pre record an audio or film piece to add to the ceremony or during speeches Represent the person using symbolism – wearing something of theirs or something that you feel represents/includes them
Other wedding suppliers Talk to them. Ask about a back up plan and discuss options. Communication is key. This can get things in perspective, help feelings of helplessness and anxiety. It also allows you to feel and connect with the support that is out there.
What you can do to keep yourself safe and support your community. Eat well, get plenty sleep, access your usual exercise regime, get fresh air, minimise Social Media – wash your hands – and ask for support and help. Talk things through with your nearest and dearest. Use BRAIN. Keep yourself informed with all the latest Government guidance and advice, health, and otherwise. Reach out to others. Support your suppliers who are likely small businesses by postponing not cancelling.
Are the Agnostic Scotland Celebrants keeping themselves safe? Yes, we are! We love hugs, kisses and shaking hands but are saving that for a later date. We’re washing our hands, eating well, getting plenty of sleep and leaning into our Celebrant community for support. We are keeping ourselves up to date with all the latest advice from the Government and the Ceremony Sector. It must be acknowledge that keeping ourselves safe may also mean our advice to you would be to postpone your ceremony or go ahead but with only immediate family members, maintaining suitable distance. This is something we will discuss with each couple. We are also acutely aware of the need to support other Celebrants and small businesses at this time as well as our families, friends, neighbours and local community.
Reflect and reschedule if need be – don’t cancel L O V E
If you do decide to postpone take time to consider how you will spend the day that you were going to get married. Make an event of it, a ritual, for just the two of you, make it positive and make it part of your story, part of your ceremony and part of your wedding day when it comes.
Update: Due to Covid-19, we are putting the Agnostic Scotland Life Celebrancy Training plans on hold until 2021. Please contact us if you wish to find out more. We look forward to being in touch with you. Thank you.
At Agnostic Scotland it’s been a busy year. We’ve sowed the seed of a beautiful new belief body and watched it grow. Our three founders, Linda Keys, Andrea Taylor and Onie Tibbitt, have been busy conducting ceremonies in grand hotels and family homes, on hilltops and lochsides, in crematoriums and burial grounds. At Agnostic Scotland, we offer ceremonies that respond to the unique blend of beliefs, values and wishes of the families involved. As one of our ambassadors says:
“In today’s Scotland, there are fewer formal rituals. But our souls still need them. Today, we need a safe space for our rites, our ceremonies. Somewhere where there are no stipulations on God. Or Gods. Or no God(s). Or on gender binaries. Or on what a family looks like. Or on what music you can and can’t sing, or play, or listen to. I am excited that Agnostic Scotland can hold those spaces, perform those rituals, celebrate those ceremonies. Everyone deserves a safe place to mark life’s milestones.”
Stella Hervey Birrell, Award Winning Poet and Writer, East Lothian, Scotland.
Since our launch in November, we’ve been humbled by the response from people across Scotland wishing us well, enquiring about working with us, and asking about how to support our Community Fund and join our Community Connection Gatherings. It’s been a magical year and we are now excited to begin the process of seeking out like-minded others to join our Scotland-wide Life Celebrant network.
“Sooner or later, though, no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us.”
If you are someone who has always held a deep fascination for life transitions, who loves to honour rites of passage through ritual and ceremony, who enjoys bringing individuals together in celebration, and who has a heart-centred and open-minded respect towards the many varied, sometimes contradictory, and often complicated beliefs, values and wishes of others, then becoming an Agnostic Scotland Life Celebrant could be the perfect role for you. No prior celebrancy experience is necessary, although experienced celebrants are also welcome to apply.
On 18-22nd November 2020, we will be hosting a 5-day Agnostic Scotland Life Celebrancy Training course in Edinburgh. The course will be comprehensive and will include all aspects of Celebrancy including Weddings, Namings, Funerals and other Life-Transition Ceremonies. We will be focussing on interactive content to build confidence in working with families, collecting information, holding the space, exploring rituals, presenting to a gathering, self-care and mindfulness, navigating challenges, understanding the legal responsibility and role of a celebrant, and more. There will be individual assessment at each stage of the training, and successful candidates would then be invited to participate in the Mentoring programme. Upon successful completion of the Mentoring programme you would be formally accredited as an Agnostic Scotland Life Celebrant. Agnostic Scotland is not an employer; applicants who are successful at all stages and who go on to complete their training will carry out their Life Celebrancy work on a self-employed basis.
We are keen to invite 10-15 Celebrants to join our network and we are limited to recruiting 1-2 Celebrants per geographical area. It is possible to apply to work in an area where you do not live. Ideally applicants should be interested in all aspects of Celebrancy – Weddings, Namings, Funerals, Life-Transition Ceremonies. However, we will consider applications from individuals wishing to only offer Funeral, Life Celebration and Memorial Ceremonies. Whilst we are already at capacity for Wedding Celebrants in the Lothians, we are happy to accept applications from individuals interested in working predominantly as Funeral Celebrants in the Lothians.
Applications will open on 1st June. The application deadline will be 19th August 2020. Interviews will be held on 22-24th September 2020 and the Training is on 18-22nd November.
Please do not register your interest unless you can attend on these dates. To register your interest with a view to applying, please contact us.
Last year we decided to support a project run by Trees for Life, a conservation charity dedicated to rewilding the Caledonian Forest, a rich habitat found in the Scottish Highlands. So on Christmas Eve 2019 we bought a digital grove and have begun to donate trees. Our grove has now been populated with 60 native trees and you can have a look here
Our Agnostic Scotland grove is being planted in honour of the communities and the families whose ceremonies we conduct. Every time a couple are married, exchange vows or express their life commitment to one another we will plant a tree to celebrate their union. When babies are welcomed by family and friends we will plant a tree to celebrate their arrival. When families gather to celebrate the life of a loved one who has died we will plant a tree in their memory. When communities come together to collaborate and celebrate through ceremony and ritual we will plant a tree in support.
As Agnostic Scotland celebrants we are privileged to help individuals and families navigate important transitions in their lives and planting a trees in support of this wonderful rewilding project is such a perfect way to show our appreciation to all the remarkable individuals, families and communities we are lucky enough to encounter through in our work. It is also an opportunity to express our respect, gratitude and hope for the natural world that sustains us all.
For those of you who we have connected with recently or are working with currently we have donated trees to thank and honour you. We hope you enjoy thinking of your native Scottish tree happily growing into mature trees that will transform hillsides into young woodland, then mature into wild forests for future generations to enjoy.
My name is Andrea and I am one of the founders of Agnostic Scotland. I am a midwife and an Agnostic Celebrant. Over the last few years, while weaving the threads of both practices through my life, I have discovered so many parallels. One of the comparable areas, that I couldn’t help noticing quite quickly, is language and specifically the use of the word my.
Definition of my – of or relating to me or myself especially as possessor, agent, object of an action or familiar person
In early 2018 the British Medical Journal published a blog which explored language used in maternity care. The authors put together an alternative language guide for midwives and medical staff and, of course, the media picked up on this with headlines in UK newspapers stating that midwives were “BANNED” (sic) from using certain terms because they could be disrespectful to women. Well, as you know, you can’t ban people from using certain words and language but you can inspire people to reflect on their communication and the words and language they use. This discussion is not new to the maternity services. Midwifery language and communication has been researched and written about repeatedly. There is still one specific area we can’t quite agree on though – what we call the women we care for.
Patients – could be disempowering, the majority of pregnant women are not sick but well and healthy, they just happen to be pregnant. Ladies – is thought of as patronising. Clients – more suited to hairdressers and therapists. I have even heard midwives call women ‘birds’, or sometimes just ‘Room 8’ or whatever room/bed number the midwife is assigned to.
Personally, I call a woman I care for by her name.
For me what is even more irksome is when midwives talk about ‘my lady’ or ‘my woman’. The woman doesn’t belong to anyone and this kind of language is paternalistic. How we frame things, how we say things influences how we practice, what we do and ultimately how we treat people.
I have noticed a similarity in the wedding sector with celebrants, photographers and other ceremony suppliers often talking about ‘my couple’. Even though this is likely unconscious, and very well intended, it is the kind of language that has the ability to disempower and can influence a relationship.
The individuals that make up a couple don’t belong to anyone.
In our work and practice as celebrants we are not owners of the two people who, may function socially as a unit, but are individual autonomous adults and decision makers. We must promote working in partnership and recognise we are not owners but facilitators. Our language should regard and respect the current social norms, expectations and rights of the people we work with.
I know that in the past I have slipped into the negative terminology that dominates the culture I work in & failed to appreciate the impact my words have had, but after many years working with women, couples and families I feel I know I have made a shift and on the whole I am now mindful of the language I use. That shift came with self-awareness, reflection and a fundamental belief in respecting individuals, choice and equality.
Why not start reflecting on the language you use, the words you utter and type, make a shift if need be. When we are authentic and grounded in our practice it is not difficult to make the language we use about, and around, couples and families appropriate and respectful.
Changing the way we think can change our words and changing our words can change our way of thinking.
We’ve been so thrilled with the overwhelmingly positive reception to the launch of Agnostic Scotland. Thank you to everyone who has been in touch with us since the launch to express an interest in our plans, our community vision and in working with us. We look forward to being in touch with you all as we develop our plans during 2020.
For those who were unable to join us at the Launch Ceremony in November and who wished to hear more about the event, here’s how the evening bloomed…
Linda’s Opening Speech:
Friends, welcome. We have come together this evening to celebrate the launch of an organisation that is very close to our hearts. For the three founding members of Agnostic Scotland, it has been a labour of love to get us to this point, and it will continue to be so as we grow and develop over the coming weeks, months and years.
My name is Linda Keys, and I am so proud to be a founding member and the Chair of Agnostic Scotland. I am passionate about what we are bringing to Scotland by setting up this non-profit organisation.
This evening we are going to have a short ceremony where you will hear from the three of us who are Agnostic Scotland’s founding members. We will – of course – include a ritual element and we shall close with a performance of a song.
I was working as an Independent Celebrant when Onie Tibbitt first reached out to me about collaborating. At the time, I didn’t anticipate how big this would be. Even when we, with the wonderful Andrea Taylor, had our inaugural meeting in a noisy cafe in the West End, I didn’t anticipate how much space it would take up in my head or my heart. I didn’t appreciate what an impactful decision it would be to work together.
That understanding would dawn on me quite quickly though. It has to be said that Onie is an absolute powerhouse of a woman, and Andrea and I would both like to express our gratitude to Onie for being the one to bring us together and really being the engine that got us moving and off the ground so quickly.
Now that we are established, we operate as a true team and it is wonderful to have such inspiring colleagues. As a team, we are thorough, principled, committed and passionate. Our meetings are vibrant and purposeful. We work through decisions collaboratively and respectfully, with love and appreciation for what one another bring to the table. (Happily, the “table” is usually laden with delicious and nourishing food, because we know what matters when humans connect!)
Our motivation to create Agnostic Scotland was rooted in a desire to broaden the spectrum of ceremonies available to the people of Scotland; we knew of no belief body that was able to offer a ceremony that responded to and reflected a full range of ideologies, values and wishes. After all, in 2019 many couples and families have complex, nuanced, and often fluid belief systems, which – regardless of romantic or familial ties – may differ from one another. We also felt it was important that these couples who were asking us to perform their weddings received the legal recognition for the ceremony they wanted. Which is not something that as Independent Celebrants we could offer. So we were delighted when in June of this year, we were recognised by the National Records of Scotland as a belief body and as such are now able to apply for temporary legal licences for each of the weddings we conduct. A significant milestone for the families we work with.
So, by June, we had well and truly achieved our aim of setting up a belief body that created this distinct space for all couples and families to have person-centred ceremonies, and we had even been granted our first legal licence. But hang on… we were still running out of time during our regular and productive meetings, we were still sending one another emails at 6 in the morning or 11.30 at night. Hadn’t we achieved what we had set out to do? Well, it turns out, no.
Because when three values-led practitioners get together, there will always be the ambition to expand the offerings and develop new initiatives. And so we turned our attention to our Community Connection Gatherings, bringing people together to explore issues of interest, to be in nature together, to be inspired by the cultural offerings of Scotland, and to cultivate collective and individual wellbeing. We believe in human connection as the cornerstone to a harmonious and tolerant society. And we set up our Community Fund, which will offer donation-based wellbeing workshops and ceremonies to people who would otherwise struggle to pay for them. We believe that everyone has the right to live well and to ceremonially mark the significant milestones in their lives.
We believe in equality of opportunity. And when we looked around the table at one of our meetings and it dawned on us that what we saw were three white, non-disabled, cis, middle-class women, we realised that we could perhaps become more diverse as an organisation! And so we are building a steering group of people, recruited based on merit, knowledge, skills and values but also with an eye on broadening the diversity of Agnostic Scotland as we go forward. We are so happy to have some of your here this evening.
We look ahead to creating opportunities for more celebrants around Scotland to work with us as we broaden the geographical reach of Agnostic Scotland, thus ensuring that the bespoke, person-centred ceremonies we are so proud to provide are available throughout the country. And further down the line, we will offer training programmes for new celebrants with a clear aspiration to increase the quality of – and diversify – celebrancy in Scotland.
And then – who knows what next? Because, in front of these witnesses here tonight, I promise that we will always strive for Agnostic Scotland to bring positive change to our communities. We look forward to collaborating with you along the way. I’d like to now hand over to Onie…
Onie’s reading about Agnosticism:
Hello, Everyone. I am Onie and I’m really delighted to be standing here with you all and with my two wonderful colleagues, Linda and Andrea, to launch Agnostic Scotland. Thank you for joining us.
It’s been a fascinating process launching a belief body around Agnosticism. When we sent out emails inviting endorsements to fellow agnostics, or people who we thought might have a shared interest in our goals, we received many wonderful responses. We also received a lot of questions. A key one being:
‘If one’s beliefs are that one doesn’t know the answer, is that still a belief. Or, to use Richard Holloway’s phrase, ‘more a commitment to complicated doubt.’
Well, I’ve been an Independent Celebrant since 2013 and I’ve had the great pleasure of working with many families and couples who, when planning their shared ceremonies, felt they didn’t quite fit with the existing offerings among belief bodies in Scotland. The truth is that most of the families and couples I’ve worked with with do have a complex myriad of beliefs – or doubts – either individually, or as a couple and a family. It may not be that they are seeking an agnostic ceremony, as such, but more a ceremony that is open-minded, respectful and collaborative. One that will enable them to hold the space in a shared way that entirely and mutually reflects their own unique blend of beliefs, values and wishes.
To use one of my favourite quotes of Henri Thoreau:
“The universe is wider than our views of it’
At Agnostic Scotland, we feel that by acknowledging and admitting that we don’t know everything, and we are never likely to know everything, we are able to be more accepting, more understanding and more respectful towards the beautifully complex, often shared, and sometimes contradictory beliefs of individuals and families. We are able to create entirely unique ceremonies that really matter to the families involved.
Talking of matter, I can’t resist slipping in a beautiful extract from a wonderful book I read recently, Underland, by Robert MacFarlane:
At one point in his journey to understand the human connection with the vast array of tunnels, chambers and caverns beneath our feet, Robert MacFarlane talks about meeting a young dark matter physicist.
Dr. Christopher Toph is working at a depth of 3000ft in a laboratory off a salt mine tunnel network that extends for 600 miles beneath the moorland and dales of North Yorkshire and under the North Sea. The scientist is searching for evidence of the shadowy presence at the heart of the universe. Dark matter.
In order to do this he has set up complicated experiments to capture the very infrequent and hard to see interactions between the tiniest particles currently researched by humans – neutrinos. These particles are so miniscule they pass through our world like wind through a net curtain. Dr. Toth hopes that by capturing information on these interactions he may be able to infer something about the properties of the ever elusive dark matter.
At one point, Robert MacFarlane asks Dr. Toth if the search for dark matter is an act of faith, and he replies,
“I grew up as a very serious Christian. Then I lost my faith almost entirely when I found physics. Now that faith has returned, but in a much changed form. It’s true that we dark matter researchers have less proof than other scientists in terms of what we seek to discover and what we believe we know. As to God? Well, if there were a divinity then it would be utterly separate from both scientific enquiry and human longing. No divinity I would wish to believe in would declare itself by means of what we would recognise as evidence.”
“But does it change the way you feel about the world?” Robert MacFarlane asks him. “Knowing that 100 trillion neutrinos pass through our bodies every second, perforating our brains and hearts?”
“When I am out for a walk with my wife,” Dr. Toph replies, “along the cliff tops, on a sunny day, I know our bodies are wide-meshed nets, and the cliffs we are walking on are nets too, and sometimes it seems, yes, as miraculous as if in our everyday world we suddenly found ourselves walking on water, or air. And I wonder what it must be like, sometimes, not to know that. But mostly, and in several ways I’m amazed that I’m able to hold the hand of the person I love.”
At Agnostic Scotland, we believe that we are not likely to ever have the answers. We are comfortable with our complicated doubt and we are really happy to be able to offer ceremonies that are beautiful, person-centred and meaningful to families who feel the same.
Thank you. I’d like to now hand over to Andrea who is going to share with you one of the many wonderful rituals in our human history about celebrating love and togetherness.
Andrea’s speech and the Clootie Tree Ritual:
My name is Andrea Taylor and I, just like Onie and Linda, am thrilled to be a part of this new organisation and also very proud of what we have achieved so far, specifically the seeds we have planted in regards to our Community Connection Gatherings and Community Fund. Our commitment to nurturing human connection, inspiring collaboration and consistently investing in the community is already thoroughly rooted.
We are honoured that you have all come together this evening to spend some of your time with us, to find out more about Agnostic Scotland and to meet and connect with others. That step, that offering in itself, sends us a collective message of support and we thank you all so much for that.
Of course, as Celebrants, we felt it was very important to celebrate and mark this milestone through ceremony and ritual. To take a moment to recognise the potency of change and transition.
One of our intentions in holding this launch party, a ritual in itself, is to create a demarcation, a line, between the past and the future, the old and the new and to cultivate a true course for Agnostic Scotland.
Also, like many ceremonies, many rituals, this event is about holding a space to bring people together, to welcome you all, to create opportunity for everyone here to tap into commonalities which have the potential to unite and fortify, ourselves, our own communities and the wider community across Scotland.
Rituals can also offer a moment of reflection and time to consider someone or something that is meaningful to you and a time to tend your own wellbeing or send some positive thoughts to someone you love.
Therefore we would like to offer an opportunity for all of you to take part in a ritual this evening.
The chosen ritual is based on the long standing, rich tradition of fastening fabric and ribbons to trees that is widespread across the world. I have recently heard of this described as Tree Dressing. So this is what we have decided to call our version of this practice.
You may have heard about the ancient Scottish Clootie Tree, cloot is a Scots word for cloth, and also of the global practice of Prayer Trees or Wishing Trees.
Trees are wonderfully symbolic in their own right, representing long life and health, stability, shelter and security. Trees are a perfect example of how to live, grow, transition, change and even die with grace.
In Scotland, soaking a ‘cloot’ in spring water and tying onto a tree which was growing close to the revered well was associated with improving health and wellbeing of yourself and loved ones or often whole villages or clans.
In Canada there is reportedly an increase in Ribbon Trees appearing in remote areas placed by those who have historic ties to the land. In Turkey and Cyprus people tie rags to low branches on ancient fig trees for good luck. This evening, when our wee ceremony comes to an end, we invite you to do something similar to what many people have done before us over the years and are still doing across the globe.
For our ‘Agnostic Scotland Tree Dressing’ this evening we have brought, from my garden in Portobello, a tree that we felt was perfect for this ritual as apple trees are symbolic of nurturing energies. In Celtic mythology Apple trees are a symbol of good health, future happiness and of bringing a sense of wholeness, togetherness and connection with nature
this tree has been grown from a pip that had sprouted in an apple my husband, Alex, was eating one day around 10 years ago.
we also have some water collected from the North Sea (I swim in the sea regularly so collected the water that morning)
strips of natural fabric
Choose a piece of fabric and soak your fragment of cloth, or cloot, in the seawater and then hold the fabric close, take a moment to ponder and reflect, think of a word, a dedication. Send love, gratitude, a merit or positive thoughts to someone that is known to you, to yourself, the wider community, the planet, to everyone here tonight …..
whatever inspires you
Hold your ‘cloot’ close and take a moment to let that word, that thought, that feeling register in your mind and in your heart. When you are ready tie your soaked fabric to the tree.
At the end of the evening Alex and I will take our tree back to our garden in Portobello and one day soon we will plant it with all your wishes, blessings, hopes and aspirations attached.
The cloots/cloth will stay in place until the elements wear them away, the fabric will disintegrate dispersing your thoughts, your words into the air, into the universe.
It is now my great pleasure to introduce Lesley Walker who will sing Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come All Ye. We have chosen this song because of its positivity around community, love and connection, disregarding labels and celebrating diversity, and humanity.
Lesley, we are so grateful to have your beautiful voice singing this wonderful song for us all tonight, and this will close the ceremony. Thank you all!
*Sadly we don’t have a photo of Lesley singing an exquisite and heartfelt rendition of Freedom Come All Ye. She was absolutely incredible and made four people weep with her beautiful performance. It was a beautiful way to wrap up our Launch Ceremony – after all, a ceremony isn’t a ceremony without both laughter and tears. Thank you, Lesley!
Photos by Laura Kate McLean – thanks so much! And thanks also to all the incredible people who volunteered their time and help on the launch night. We are so grateful! ❤️🌿