The legal situation regarding the marriage ceremony in the UK is complex and archaic. It is important to note that the legal position in England and Wales is different from that held in Scotland.
There are many words bandied around: religious, civil, notice, banns, vows, witness, registrar… What do they all mean and importantly, just what is required for a wedding to be recognised by law? Well we’re here to help!
For clarity in this article, our main focus will be for marriages in England and Wales.
Location, Location, Location
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, a wedding ceremony must occur inside a building or “cemented fixture”. Getting married on the lawn outside or under a tree is not a legal possibility. The situation is different in Scotland, where weddings can take place anywhere “safe and dignified”, including outdoor locations, provided the venue has been approved and licensed.
You could have a religious ceremony in a registered religious building. Do double check that your ideal church, mosque or temple holds a wedding license – if not, you will have to host a civil ceremony first.
You can get married legally during a civil ceremony at any local authority ceremony room or registry office in the UK. Many local authorities provide ceremony rooms in pretty locations, some with access to a garden where photographs can be taken afterwards.
Although getting married in a registry office can seem highly unromantic, it is a cheap option as you don’t need to hire another venue and pay for the registrar to travel. Moreover, you can always get the legal bit out of the way and then have a blessing at your ideal location. This way, you don’t need to worry about if your venue has a license – or if it’s outdoors!
The person marrying the couple must be registered by the Registrar General. That is, they must be a superintendent registrar. Otherwise if someone else conducts the ceremony then the registrar must be available to sign the register.
There are certain people that must be present to sign the marriage register. These include both partners, two witnesses (who must be over the age of 16), the person who is registering the marriage and – if different – the person who conducted the ceremony.
Weddings can take place by proxy, for example if one of the couple is in hospital or serving in the military, but it is important to note that this isn’t legally binding.
With so much else to plan and think about, it could be easy to let a detail like notice of marriage slip by. However without this a wedding ceremony would be marked as void.
At least 29 days before your wedding, you must go to your local register office to declare where and when you are to be married. If you live in a different area from your future spouse, they will have to go their local register office. This can be on a different day.
It is important that you have lived in a registration district for seven days before giving notice. You will need to produce documents to prove your name, address, date of birth, previous marriages, and nationality.
The office will then have the 29 days to find if anyone objects to the marriage. After this, the notice of marriage certificate is granted. You then have twelve months to use it and tie the knot!
You can add so much to your vows to make them personal. However, there are two sets of phrases that must be included in order to make a wedding ceremony legally binding. You can choose to have them traditional, modern, or simplified.
The declaration makes sure that there is no reason against your marriage. It’s the “speak now or forever hold your peace” kind of thing.
“I do solemnly declare that I know not of any lawful impediment why I (…) may not be joined in matrimony to (…).”
“I declare that I know of no legal reason why I (…) may not be joined in marriage to (…).”
Replying “I am” to “Are you (…) free, lawfully, to marry (…)? ”
As with any legal contract, there is a promise to be made. Each partner repeats these words to the other, often with the registrar prompting.
“I call upon these persons, here present, to witness that I (…) do take thee (…) to be my lawful wedded wife/husband.”
“I (…), take you (…) to be my wedded wife/husband.”
Or, “I (…) take thee (…) to be my wedded wife/husband.”
Although you must say the words above, you can say more and add a personal touch to your wedding.
It is not a legal requirement to exchange rings, although of course many couples do. You may also choose to read a pre-prepared script of vows – but you must run the content by your registrar first.
Importantly in a civil ceremony, there can be no mentions to God. You may however have music or readings with religious connotations.
The well-known “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health” is not necessary in a civil ceremony, but it is necessary in Anglican vows…
Anglican, Quaker and Jewish
Everything above applies to civil wedding ceremonies, and to most religious weddings. However, there are three exceptions to most of those rules in England. These are Anglican, Quaker and Jewish.
So long as there is a connection to a church, couples can now marry in a Church of England church even if hadn’t been regular attendees. These special qualifying connections include parents or grandparents marrying in the church, one of the couple living in the parish for six months or more (even in the past), or one partner being baptised or confirmed there.
This means that a lot of the restrictions for civil ceremonies and weddings don’t exist. For example, the couple do not have to apply for a notice of marriage certificate from a registry office, but they have to have their banns read for three Sundays – in the parishes of each of the couple.
The wording is different, too. There must be a declaration, but this references God. Vows include the sentiment of “to have and to hold” although the couple and their priest can change the exact wording. The exchange of rings is also necessary, are there are various lines that can be said.
Importantly, same sex couples are not permitted to marry in an Anglican ceremony. However, they can wed in a civil ceremony with the usual restrictions. They can also marry in a religious ceremony if the religion allows it and the building’s registered.
If one or both partners are members of the Society of Friends, or are associated with the Society by attending meetings, then you can have a Quaker wedding and a lot of the legal stuff above does not apply.
The Marriage Act 1753, the first legislation that came in for regulating formal wedding ceremonies, exempted both Quakers and Jews from its laws. This is still in effect today.
A couple must write or visit the Society of Friends to declare their wish to marry. The Society appoints a clearness committee which ensures that the couple know what they are preparing for. Another committee makes arrangements for the wedding itself, including setting a date, providing counselling and preparing the marriage certificate.
The ceremony itself would take place in a Meeting House, the place where Quakers hold their regular meetings. There are no oaths in the ceremony as Quakers must always vow to tell the truth. There is no clergy as in Anglican weddings and instead the couple make their declarations directly to God, with fellow Quakers acting as witness.
The required words from each partner are “Friends, I take this my friend (…) to be my spouse, promising, through divine assistance (or “with God’s help”), to be unto him/her a loving and faithful spouse, so long as we both on earth shall live (or “until it shall please the Lord by death to separate us”).” The word “spouse” can be exchanged with “husband”, “wife” or “partner in marriage”.
You can get married in a synagogue and not have to worry about a lot of the legal stuff we covered in this article. Or, you could even get married at home or in a private place! As long as the ceremony takes place under a chuppah, you are covered.
Importantly, there are different restrictions in place. For example, you cannot marry on the Jewish Sabbath, or on the day of a Jewish festival. A lot of couples choose to marry on Sundays or else midweek.
The groom announces the immanent wedding to the congregation at the synagogue a week before. A blessing is read from the Torah. This is called an Aufruf and is a celebration that involves food, wine and throwing sweets. Meanwhile the bride undertakes a cleansing Mikveh bath, reciting a prayer under supervision.
At the ceremony itself, a rabbi watches the proceedings. However, it can be performed by anyone with permission from the rabbi. The signing happens first, with four witnesses. The groom must then veil his bride to signify that he will protect her, and he must give her a ring. Finally, he breaks a glass, and the couple are legally married.
When planning your ideal wedding ceremony in the UK it is essential to look carefully at the legality of the situation at the outset to avoid disappointment. The present rules about what you can and can’t do are complex and surprising! However, ask at your local registry office to make sure you have the correct information. Some regions, and especially Scotland, have quite different rules.