In many Pagan traditions, participants opt to have a handfasting ceremony rather than a formal wedding. Handfasting was common centuries ago in the British Isles, and then vanished for a while. Now, however, it's seeing a rising popularity among Wiccan and Pagan couples who are interested in tying the knot. In some cases, it may be simply ceremonial -- a couple declaring their love for one another without the benefit of a state license. For other couples, it can be tied in with a state marriage certification issued by a legally authorized party. Either way, it's becoming more and more popular, as Pagan and Wiccan couples are seeing that there is indeed an alternative for non-Christians who want more than just a courthouse wedding. A common question among Pagans is that of who can actually perform the handfasting ceremony itself?
In general, either women or men may become priests/priestesses/clergy in modern Pagan religions. Anyone who wishes to learn and study, and commit to a life of service can advance into a ministerial position. In some groups, these individuals are referred to as High Priest or High Priestess, Arch Priest or Priestess, or even Lord and Lady. Some traditions opt to use the term Reverend. The title will vary depending on the tenets of your tradition. However, just because someone is licensed or ordained as clergy within their particular tradition does not necessarily mean they are able to perform a legally binding ceremony. The requirements as to who can perform a handfasting will be determined by two things:
- 1. What do you mean, specifically, when you say you wish to have a handfasting? And
- 2. What are your state’s requirements when it comes to your answer to Question 1?
The reason this is so complicated is as follows.
If your answer to Question 1 is that you simply wish to have a ceremony celebrating your love for your partner, and you don’t want to bother with all the red tape and hassle that comes with a legal marriage, then it’s fairly straightforward. You’re just having a non-legal ceremony, and it can be performed by anyone you like. A high priest or priestess, or even a friend who’s a respected member of the Pagan community can do it for you, with little to no fuss.
However, if your answer to Question 1 above is that you’d like to have a meaningful ceremony celebrating your love that is ALSO sanctioned and legally recognized by the state in which you reside, things get a little more complicated. In this case, whether you call it a handfasting or not, you’ve got to have a marriage license, and that means that the person who performs your ceremony needs to be someone who is legally allowed to sign off on your marriage certificate.
In most states, the official rules state that any ordained clergyperson may solemnize a marriage. However, the problem that the Pagan community runs into is that many times, these rules apply to Judeo-Christian faiths that have a specific course of study for ordination, or a hierarchy within the faith. A Catholic priest, for instance, is ordained and on record with his diocese, and is recognized as clergy by all. On the other hand, a Pagan high priestess, who has been studying on her own for ten years and with a small local coven for another five, may have difficulty getting the state to recognize her as clergy.
Some states allow anyone to apply for a minister’s license, as long as they can provide documentation from someone within their religious group stating that they have studied and been recognized as a member of the clergy. Often, once a minister’s license has been obtained, the individual may begin solemnizing legal marriages.
It is important to note that many states do not recognize minister’s licenses obtained via online churches.
Also, keep in mind that if your handfasting is a same-sex ceremony, the person performing it will be limited by your state’s legal restrictions on same-sex marriage - you can have a full-fledged and magnificent ceremony, but if your state does not recognize same-sex marriage, then your clergy person will not be able to sign off on a marriage license, no matter how willing to do so he or she may be.
The bottom line? Once you’ve decided on the nature of your handfasting - whether it’s going to be simply ceremonial or totally legally recognized as a marriage - check with your state to find out what the requirements are as to who may solemnize the marriage. Then, once you’ve found out these requirements, check with any potential clergy carefully to make sure they are legally able to perform your ceremony. Don’t be afraid to ask for licensing or references.
Be sure to check out our Pagan Clergy Listings pages to see if there are clergy available in your area.