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Pagans across Kent call for handfastings to become legally recognised

Handfasting is a pagan marriage tradition dating back hundreds of years where couples bind their hands together as a sign of love and devotion.

No one has been able to officially get married under a handfasting ceremony since Christianity swept England - but now pagan groups are pushing for the practice to finally become legally legitimate.

Jasmine Lucas-Joans with her husband at their civil ceremony
Jasmine Lucas-Joans with her husband at their civil ceremony

Jasmine Lucas-Jones, founder of the Canterbury Pagans group, has been forced to split her marriage into two ceremonies to fulfil the couple's spiritual and legal needs, which she says is 'expensive, unfair and arbitrary.'

A number of pagan groups have shared a parliament petition calling for handfastings alone to be legally recognised marriages, but with work by the Pagan Federation already well underway this could become a reality in the next few years.

With pagan faiths being so diverse there are a range of ways to arrange a pagan wedding. Generally they are held out in nature, sometimes rings are exchanged and the hands of the couple are bound together.

Lockdown halted any plans of getting handfasted for Jasmine. But when she fell pregnant with her son, the couple decided to have a civil ceremony in October for legal protections and leave the spiritual ceremony until lockdown was over.

Of the separation of the legal and religious ceremony, the 34-year-old said: "The civil ceremony felt less personal to me and I was a bit more blunt about it. I don't feel like my civil ceremony was really my real wedding and when I have my handfasting, that will be the real one.

A recreation of a historic handfasting ceremony. Stock picture
A recreation of a historic handfasting ceremony. Stock picture

"You don't have an option of religious or spiritual words in a civil service. You also don't have the aspect of ritual and being in a ritual space. I can't imagine what would happen in a registry office if you went and started casting a circle.

"What pagans do is have a separate handfasting from the legal ceremony and some choose not to have a legal marriage at all.

"But then that brings other issues with not having the same sort of legal protections as other married people, especially when it comes to property and children."

The pantheist wiccan added: "The other side of it is the financial side because you're paying for two ceremonies.

"Some people have a very simple handfasting ceremony. But then if that's what feels like your real wedding, you might want more of a celebration, then it does then become quite costly with the civil service on top which Christians wouldn't have to pay. It seems unfair and a bit arbitrary.

"With paganism there's this feeling that we have to justify ourselves and legitimise ourselves.

"I think it is quite modern in a way to say 'no this is legitimate' rather than changing ourselves to become legitimate. A pagan wedding is just as legitimate as any other kind of wedding and I don't think we should have to change it."

Sarah Kerr, president of the Pagan Federation
Sarah Kerr, president of the Pagan Federation

With opposite-sex civil partnerships gaining legal legitimacy last year and a Tonbridge couple fighting for legal humanist weddings, Kent's pagan groups believe it's high time for handfastings to be legally recognised as well.

A petition on the parliament website is calling for the government to 'Recognise Pagan handfasting as a legal form of marriage in England and Wales' has been shared around local online groups and gained 9,788 signatures.

However, what many of the signees of the petition may not know is the work to get handfastings legally recognised is already six years in the making.

The Pagan Federation, a nationwide representative group founded in 1971, has been working with the Law Commission for a number of years to review how weddings are legally recorded.

This petition has been arranged just as the public consultation on handfastings is ending and will soon to be presented to parliament.

Sarah Kerr, president of the Pagan Federation, speaks about the history of handfastings

Sarah Kerr, president of the Pagan Federation, said: "I really want to support the petition but at the same time the process is already happening, which is quite exciting.

"Those recommendations are quite positive as far as the pagan community is concerned, because they're suggesting the legal bit of a wedding is removed from a building and is placed on a person.

"At the moment you can only get married in a building registered for the purpose with walls and a roof - which excludes handfastings because most pagans want to get handfasted outside.

"Scotland already has this capability, so for us to be trailing behind here in England and Wales is disappointing."

One of the very few pagan religious buildings is the Goddess Temple in Glastonbury, but not everyone would want to be married there.

Kits Coty is a sacred pagan site but does not count as a building
Kits Coty is a sacred pagan site but does not count as a building

And though in Kent, Kits Coty is a sacred pagan spot it doesn't technically have walls and a ceiling and is treated more as a tourist attraction than a sacred site.

The federation president added: "As far as the buildings subject is concerned, it came from being married in a Church and stopping people from being legally married outside of the Church meant you had to follow a certain faith path, or at least say that you did.

"Anything you took part in outside of that wasn't legally recognised so no one else had any rights.

"It's important to point out that this is how weddings used to happen.

"It's not that we're introducing something new. It's a bit of our heritage. I think it's also a bit of an honouring how things have been done before and bringing that forward into a modern age for modern pagans."

Considering Covid has made handfastings a lower priority, the federation president believes it should take another five to six years before the ceremony is made legally legitimate.

Read more: All the latest news from Canterbury

Read more: All the latest news from Kent

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