Wedding2point0: Should you have a religious or a civil wedding ceremony?

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Should you have a religious or a civil ceremony?

It will depend upon your own philosophy and spiritual beliefs, what kind of ceremony you have.

You may have a strictly civil ceremony either at City Hall, or by a civil (non-religious) marriage officiant at a location of your choice, such as your home, a hotel, a park or garden or restaurant, or a 'non-denominational' chapel or hall that permits both religious and non-religious weddings of any tradition.

You may also have TWO ceremonies, a civil one and then a religious one (like Prince Charles and Camilla, who were married at the Registry Office in London, and then had a wedding blessing at Westminster).

Or you may have a completely religious ceremony, if your officiant is registered with the municipality where you got your marriage license, so they can sign your license.

OR, you can ask a civil marriage officiant to perform the ceremony and sign the license, and ask a religious person to co-officiate, and bless the marriage in a religious tradition. We have sometimes been asked to do this, where the ceremony is split between the civil officiant, and a religious person such as a rabbi or imam or deacon, who may offer a religious blessing during the marriage service.

Of course we did not always have these choices.

It's important to understand the difference between a religious and a spiritual wedding ceremony. The reason a Judge, or Justice of the Peace or a Mayor can marry people in many communities is that Martin Luther and other Renaissance reformists changed marriage into a civil institution instead of just a religious one. Although a priest could still bless the marriage, the civil law ruled over church (canon) law, regarding who could marry, and who could divorce, and for what reasons. This gave women more rights. The wedding ceremony itself was now in English or German, not Latin, so that the parties could understand their commitment.

The form of the modern civil marriage ceremony that we all know, and the vows of

"In the presence of these witnesses, I, [Name],
take you, [Name], to be my wife/husband,
to have and to hold from this day forward,
for better or worse, for richer or poorer,
in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish,
until we are parted by death.
And thereto I plight thee my troth".

are basically the Protestant marriage ceremony from the prayer book of Edward VI (Henry VIII's son) printed in English in 1549.

"I [N.] take thee [N.] to my wedde wife, to have and to holde from this day forwarde, for better, for wurse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health, to loue and to cherishe, til death us departe: according to Goddes holy ordinuance: And thereto I plight thee my troth... With thys ring I thee wed: Thys golde and silver I thee give: with my body I thee wurship: and withal my worldly goodes I thee endow".

[note: "withal" doesn't mean "with all", it means "thusly"]. The mention of God's Holy Law adds the weight of an oath. The ceremony means that the couple states that they will live together and support each other and share their worldly goods and their mutual lives.

There's a short article in Wikipedia explaining some of the history of marriage in different countries.

We have adapted this Elizabethan Protestant ceremony to a non-religious 'Medieval Civil Ceremony', if you would like to see what a secular (non-religious) ceremony would be like without religious references.

Different rules in Different Countries

In current practice in the US and Canada, "the legal civil marriage ceremony may take place during the religious marriage ceremony, although they are theoretically distinct. In most American states, the marriage may be officiated by a priest, minister, rabbi or other religious authority, and in such a case the religious authority acts simultaneously as an agent of the state. In some countries, such as France, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Argentina, Japan and Russia, it is necessary to be married by the state separate from (usually before) any religious ceremony, with the state ceremony being the legally binding one. Some states also allow civil marriages in circumstances which are not allowed by many religions, such as same-sex marriages or civil unions".

Who can marry you?

Not all religious persons may officiate at legal weddings. Be sure to check that the person performing the ceremony is duly registered and recognized under the law of that jurisdiction. In New York City, for instance, a marriage officiant must be a certified member of an official organization, and not an 'internet minister', to legally marry couples.

Ethical and Humanist Officiants

An ethical wedding ceremony is a non-religious civil ceremony performed by a civil Ethical officiant, such as a member of an Ethical Society, or the Humanist Society. You can read more about Humanism on our website, and see samples of Ethical wedding ceremonies. Many Unitarian churches also perform non-religious ethical ceremonies. Some Jewish officiants perform non-religious ethical services. In many ways, Humanist modern civil ceremonies echo the ceremonies from the Protestant Reformation, but with more emphasis on the shared responsibility of marriage. The Humanist Society states: "A Humanist ceremony is one that shows respect for both the bride and groom. The vows are personal, often specially written just for the couple. The ceremony reflects the equality of the couple, compassion, mutual trust and respect."

A marriage ceremony, whether civil or religious, is a contract, duly witnessed. The vows that you choose to say to each other (your promises) are your personal statement that you understand the commitment you are making. The role of the legal officiant is to say that the State recognizes the legal status of the commitment you have made, and the role of the religious officiant is to offer a spiritual blessing for your contract.

At its basic, a marriage ceremony is a public, legal, recognition that a couple have stated they will live together and support each other and share their worldly goods and their mutual lives as a family unit, and that they should be recognized as such. The flowers and the music and poetry are all the joyful part of society's recognition that you are making a happy, brave, public choice to entrust your lives to each other's keeping.

This article by Mary Beaty, Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

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