At its most basic, a civil wedding ceremony must include legal declarations of status and the exchange of marriage vows. In short, both partners make verbal commitments to love and support each other throughout the rest of their lives. These vows can be accompanied by an exchange of rings, but this is not an obligatory part of the ceremony.
But, what must you include, and is there anything you can’t do? We’re here to answer your questions!
What do I need at my civil wedding ceremony?
First of all, a civil wedding ceremony must be conducted by an official registrar at a registry office or other approved licensed venue in the UK. In order to hold the ceremony, the registrar needs “authority” which you can obtain by giving notice of your impending marriage at your local registry office. If you and your partner live in different areas of the UK, you will both need to do this at your own relevant local office, and in the area local to your venue. Notice must be given at least 28 days before the marriage.
The civil ceremony must include legal declarations and vows, which are essentially verbal commitments made by both partners to love, cherish and support each other through the rest of your lives. You are also required to invite at least two other people to the ceremony, either family or friends. These people act as witnesses to the ceremony and must sign the official marriage register at the end of the ceremony.
For full details on the legal side of marriages, read our other post on the subject.
To sum up, you need:
- At least 28 days’ notice
- A registry office or licenced venue
- A superintendent registrar
- A registrar of the registration district
- Two witnesses
- Declaration and contracting words (vows)
Can we include our own choice of readings in the ceremony?
There is a great deal of freedom in the format of the civil ceremony. So long as the vows you make contain the declaration and contracting words, you can formulate your own words around them if you wish.
You need to submit the script of your wedding vows to the registrar before the ceremony takes place. Consequently, provided the registrar approves it, you will be able to use your own wording as part of your own personalised ceremony.
You can also include your own choice of readings as part of the ceremony. The readings must be appropriate to the solemnity of the occasion, but cannot be specifically religious. You also need to submit a copy of the readings you wish to include to the registrar for approval beforehand.
Can we include music in the ceremony?
You are, of course, allowed to include music in your civil wedding ceremony. You can either use recorded music or employ musicians – perhaps a harpist or a string quartet – to set the scene. Then, you can ask for music of your choice to play while you sign the register at the end of the ceremony.
The music you choose must be suitable for the occasion. Moreover, you will be asked to submit a list of the pieces you have chosen to be performed to the registrar beforehand for approval.
Above all, the music you choose must be secular in nature. You cannot use overtly religious music or hymns as part of your civil wedding ceremony. But, classical music is acceptable, provided it is not religious. Popular music can also be used.
Certainly check with the registrar; some are more liberal in their interpretation of what is or is not overtly religious, and might allow the melody of ‘Ave Maria’ to be played instrumentally rather than sung, for example.
Moreover, if you do want to hire musicians, look at how much it might cost.
What can’t be included in a civil wedding ceremony?
Weddings by definition are solemn events. Your registrar will be quick to tell you if you plan to do something that is not allowed. If you go ahead and do it anyway, your ceremony could be nullified. Furthermore, there might be restraints on time, especially if your ceremony is taking place in a registry office.
At a civil wedding ceremony, you are explicitly not allowed to include anything of a specifically religious nature. This includes music, readings and vows. Instead, opt for a poem or the lyrics of a love song in the readings. In conclusion, whatever your choice, make sure that you show it to the registrar beforehand to make sure that it is acceptable and appropriate.
Why can’t I include religion?
In England and Wales, there are two types of wedding ceremony: religious and civil. Because marriage is a legal binding for everyone, laws are put in place to ensure anyone, religious or not, could get married. If you choose to have a religious ceremony, you may need to have a civil one as well. This will be the case unless you are Jewish, Anglican or a Quaker, where special allowances are made.
Can I still exchange rings with my partner?
Of course! Although the idea of wedding rings seems grounded in religion, the practice of exchanging and wearing rings goes back to Ancient Egypt. Nowadays it tends to be just the bride who wears a ring, at least on this side of the Atlantic, but it is up to you.
You could choose to both wear a ring, just one of you, or not have them at all. There is much symbolism given to rings, but they are not a legal necessity in a wedding.
That being said, however, if you do decide to use a wedding ring in your ceremony, make sure that the words you exchange during this are, again, not explicitly religious.
Do I have to wear a white dress?
You don’t even have to wear a dress! It is up to you what you wear – but within reason. For instance, don’t show up in a t-shirt with inappropriate images, or topless.
Is it different if I have married before?
When you are applying for your notice of marriage certificate, take all relevant documents with you. For example, this may include a decree absolute or a death certificate if you are widowed. After the process of applying for notice, your previous relationships change nothing.
This article is a general guide, and rules may be looser – or more strict – in your local area. Above all, always run things by your registrar if you are unsure.