Column: Pagan Handfastings Legal in England and Wales

London — Many Pagans dream of being able to say ‘I do’ in a handfasting and have their vows recognised in law. ‘Why can’t a handfasting be legal?’ is a complaint we heard around the UK for decades. Well, in 2004, the Scottish Pagan Federation addressed it first and then, finally, England and Wales followed suit in a groundbreaking case. 

[By Kam Abbott / Wikimedia ]

[By Kam Abbott / Wikimedia ]

The Glastonbury Goddess Temple was licensed for legal weddings after a whirlwind one-year process. In a first for Paganism, the Temple’s marriages are legally binding. The approval can now be used in precedent, which is incredibly important for the long term.

The journey to approval started when trainee priestess Dawn Kinsella started her celebrant training as part of her work toward ordination at the Glastonbury Temple of Avalon. While shadowing a wedding registrar (the UK equivalent of a Justice of the Peace) she learnt that a non-legally binding ceremony can be a legal contract if it takes place in a ‘permanent place of worship.’

Uniquely in the UK, the Glastonbury Goddess Temple is exactly that. Dawn realised this and started asking if her temple would be eligible. ‘I can’t see why not,’ said the registrar. And so the process began.

Not many peope know it, but handfasting itself is a ceremonial element – just as a church service is just a ceremonial element; the legality depends upon a few lines of legal wording and the proper paperwork. There are other requirements, too, set by the General Registrar’s Office (the national body for registering marriages). If it is a religious place, then it has to be a permanent place or worship. It must be licensed in a particular way; the building has to be inspected; the place solemnised. And, locals have to give approve approval.

In the UK, Christian priests or ministers can only perform legal marriages in their own church buildings; their name is tied to a specific licensed religious location. It’s just the same for the Temple of Avalon in Glastonbury. If they are doing a legally-binding ceremony, Dawn and sister priestess Sharlea Sparrow have to do it inside the Temple premises.

Once Dawn had gotten the approval of the Temple founder Kathy Jones, she approached local official bodies to see how the Temple could fulfill the necessary requirements. She quickly got the needed 40 signatures of local residents’ affirming that the Goddess Temple was known to be a place of worship throughout the locality.

[Courtesy Photo]

[Courtesy Photo]

Then Dawn learned how the official paperwork had to be submitted, as well other details of the bureaucratic procedure, such as the witnesses and timings of sending off the forms. The Goddess Temple ceremony template was approved – such that it contained within it some key wording (‘I am lawfully free to take X…’ etc.).  

Lastly, Dawn herself was approved as the person in charge, trusted with the bureaucratic and legal elements. Much rests on her shoulders. If the ceremony is not done right, you are not legally married. Years from now, none of us want to find out that we were never a legal spouse when tying to get our widow’s pension, applying for child custody in a divorce, or trying to collect on our insurance. This is why the UK’s General Register Office and its local branches are so careful in giving out approvals to new organisations.

Dawn convinced the governmental bodies that the Glastonbury Goddess can and will do all these things. They have a physical building acknowledged as a permanent place of worship by the entire local community. They have a permanent office which can store the paperwork, forms and a bank account to handle the payments. They have a priesthood that is trained for three years in public ceremonies. They have the necessary office-based structures and people who keep careful administrative records. And, the locals know just where they are, and that they are traceable, tax-registered and accountable.

Dawn and Sharlea set up the Temple’s web page, got ready, and lo – the requests came rolling in. The first marriage was, fittingly, that of the temple founders Kathy Jones and her partner Mike. The Temple can marry couples from all over the UK and Europe, and even abroad (though it’s a longer application process from outside the European Union). Same-sex marriages are legal here, and same-sex couples are welcomed at the Temple.  

In the UK most of us will carry on happily with our non-legally-recognised handfastings held in fields, clearings and homes. Then, later go down to the Registry Office (the UK’s equivalent to the Town Hall) and take a simple oath there and sign the forms – the ‘legal marriage’ bit.  

But now there is an option for the legal and the religious strands to meld together. Dawn, Sharlea, and the Glastonbury Goddess Temple priests and priestess are proud to be in the vanguard of the legal handfasting movement. They made an historic breakthrough, and have done British Pagans proud.