Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Civil ceremonies

The more I learn about the situation with civil ceremonies in other countries, the more I’m convinced that in Australia we’ve got it right, because what is available to families who use civil celebrants is respectful of their values and beliefs, whatever they may be.

Civil naming ceremonies are unheard of virtually everywhere except Australia, New Zealand, and in the UK. And in the UK the registry office, which tightly controls civil weddings, also largely controls civil naming ceremonies.

The big prohibition is religious content – to the extent that if you get married in a civil wedding, or have your baby named in a civil naming ceremony you may not even use music that has certain words, linked with religion, in its title. Here in Australia, if you want to play religious music, have a prayer, or include a religious blessing in a naming ceremony you can. You could even play music like “Jesu, joy of man’s desiring” at your wedding or naming ceremony, whereas, in the UK music played at weddings and naming ceremonies has to be vetted by the registrar.

There are many reasons to have a civil ceremony, and by no means all of those who do opt for a civil wedding, naming, funeral or other ceremony have no religious belief. It may be that they do believe, but don’t want to align themselves with any particular denomination. Or, it may be that, because different members of the family come from different religious and/or cultural traditions, the “safer” option is seen to be a civil ceremony.

But a civil ceremony does not have to be neutral on honouring cultural background. Many of us are “cultural” rather than “believing” adherents to certain religious beliefs or denominations. Within a civil ceremony the various cultural/religious traditions of the family can be acknowledged or referenced.

As I get to know families and start to tease out what their background is, we explore paying tribute to these traditions in different ways. Sprinkling participants with rose petals is a form of silent blessing in many traditions - the reason I like to use rose petals in an actual naming (or, when the baby is a little boy and the father is uncomfortable with rose petals, gum leaves). Crossing a baby’s palm with silver is an old Scottish/Irish tradition. Red eggs and babies go together in Chinese culture. An old German custom is that the children present are asked what the baby should be called and shout it out three times.

In our multicultural society, often it is the grandparents who are the ones from whom the diverse traditions stem. Acknowledging their heritage and tradition within the ceremony is the most graceful way I know of conveying how important they are in the life of the child.

Til next time .....