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The provision of ceremonies in line with the values of those taking part has been a central part of the work of the humanist movement since the 19th century. Baby namings, marriage ceremonies, and funeral services have all been adapted in response to the human need to mark significant events meaningfully, and in keeping with the beliefs of those who hold them. Although today not all humanist marriage ceremonies will involve the exchange of rings (a part of the individuality which defines them), many do, and long have. In the 1898 marriage of Stanton Coit and Adela Wetzlar, celebrated by Frederic Harrison, Harrison noted that though the exchange of rings echoed the Christian ceremony, Christians had themselves incorporated an earlier tradition, rings having been given as a sign of affection since ancient times.

The words chosen to mark the exchange of rings in a humanist ceremony have, for over a century, been carefully chosen to express the values of the couple, and the wider movement of which they are part. In 1909, for example, the wedding of Mr. W.J. Mayhead and Miss Gauntlett, longtime members of the Holloway Ethical Society, featured the vow:

With this ring we wed each other, pledging ourselves in honour to prefer each other’s good, and together to live for the common good.

‘Ethical marriage’ ceremonies like this one frequently emphasised the couple’s duty to the community, as well as to one another – a very humanist idea. In the same year as this Holloway ceremony, members of the Ethical movement had explicitly stated their disavowal of the word ‘obey’ in traditional religious vows, omitting it from their own. The Union of Ethical Societies (now Humanists UK) and many of its members actively supported women’s suffrage and greater equity between men and women. As such, they saw the removal of a promise to ‘obey’ as keeping ‘the marriage vow abreast of the times’.

These rings represent not only a long history of humanist ceremonies, but the ongoing development and adaptation of those ceremonies – in line with the times, with evolving beliefs, and with the people at the heart of them. The words and rituals which have formed part of these events, and accompanied the exchange of rings, give a glimpse into the beliefs and values of a movement and its members, who have always celebrated love and partnership, and viewed themselves always as part of something bigger. Humanists pioneered affirmation ceremonies for LGBT couples long before the legalisation of same-sex marriage, a change in the law they had long fought for. Today, humanists continue to work for the legal recognition of humanist marriages in England and Wales – already achieved in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Jersey, and Guernsey.

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