There are many options for couples looking for non-religious weddings that celebrate their personal values and aspirations. Alternatives range from creating their own ceremony from scratch and finding a friend or family member to conduct the wedding, to using an accredited humanist celebrant and adapting one of the many popular humanist wedding ceremonies available in books and on-line. These options also exist for commitment ceremonies and renewals of wedding vows.
Since the non-religious do not have places of worship, secular wedding ceremonies can be held anywhere, whether it is a private home, outdoors in a place of natural beauty, or at a hotel, gallery or historic landmark. However, some countries and states may place restrictions on where legally-binding weddings can be conducted.
The celebrant, also known as the officiant, is the person who conducts the wedding. If the celebrant has the authority to declare the wedding legally binding, they are also known as a solemnizer. Unfortunately, many countries and US states make it difficult for weddings ceremonies to be legally recognized if they are not conducted by an ordained religious minister or government representative.
Secular Wedding Ceremony Content
A humanist wedding ceremony contains words, readings, and symbolic acts chosen by the couple themselves. The ceremony is a wonderful opportunity for the couples to articulate their beliefs, values and aspirations, and to create a wedding that truly captures their character.
Most wedding ceremonies contain most of these elements:
A few elements, such as specific wording of the declaration of marriage, may be required by the laws of the state for the marriage to be considered legally binding. Beyond that, everything is optional, including the use of a celebrant. One of the best resources for help in composing a secular wedding ceremony is a step-by-step practical guide book called Sharing the Future: Guide to Nonreligious Wedding Ceremonies.
An example of a humanist wedding ceremony is available here.
Secular Wedding Variations
The individual, personalized nature of secular weddings enables couples to create a ceremony that is uniquely tailored to their own personalities and beliefs. It also makes secular weddings ideal for families that may not fit the narrow traditions of many religions. Same sex partners, couples with children of any age, and couples from different ethnicities and cultures can create ceremonies that celebrate their distinctive qualities.
Humanists are committed to marriage equality for same sex partners and have a long tradition of conducting same-sex weddings. Many liberal clergy, including Unitarian ministers, will also conduct same-sex weddings and interfaith weddings.
A ceremony renewing vows between a long-married couple seems to be a growing trend. While not restricted to secular couples, a renewal of vows is perhaps more common among couples who may have not have been able to hold a personalized, humanist ceremony when they were first married.
Secular Wedding Legalities
There are few if any restrictions on holding a ceremony that affirms the love and commitment of a couple and calling that ceremony a wedding. However, many countries and states impose restrictions on how a couple can be joined in a legally-binding marriage, with all the rights, responsibilities and benefits prescribed by law. There are strong differences between, and even within, countries regarding how and where weddings can be conducted and who can conduct them.
Some countries -- including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, and Scotland as well as certain states in the USA – allow accredited humanist celebrants to conduct legally-binding weddings.
Many countries with the Napoleonic tradition of law, restrict the right to conduct legal weddings to specific government officials in specified government spaces, such as town halls. In these countries, which includes much of Western Europe, even church wedding ceremonies are not legally-binding, and couples must still visit the town hall for a civil ceremony. Of course, this does not prevent couples from holding a ceremony of their own devising and then making a separate visit to the town hall for the requisite civil ceremony.
Other countries allow religious ministers to conduct legally-binding weddings, but do not extend this right to humanist celebrants. Non-religious couples may have to undergo a tightly proscribed civil ceremony in a government building if they want to be legally married.
In jurisdictions where humanist celebrants cannot legally ordain weddings, couples still have a number of options. They may choose a civil wedding before a judge, registrar or other government official. Unfortunately, many states and countries, including England and Wales, place severe limitations on the content and venue of civil weddings, preventing couples from creating a personalized wedding in the place of their own choosing. In these cases, couples may have a public wedding ceremony of their own devising that is not legally binding, and the, often on a different day, hold a quick civil ceremony with no guests in order to fulfill the legal requirements.
The United States has perhaps the greatest diversity, with laws varying from state to state. Most states do not place restrictions on where legally-binding weddings can be held, and many of them are very flexible about who can solemnize weddings.
To find out about the legal requirements for humanist weddings where you live, we recommend you check with a humanist celebrant in your area. Go to the celebrants section of this website for more information.
A state by state guide to marriage laws in the US can be found here.
Secular Wedding Celebrants
The celebrant, also known as the officiant, is the person who conducts the wedding. If the celebrant has the authority to declare the wedding legally binding, they are also known as a solemnizer.
Many couples choosing a secular wedding ask a friend or family member to conduct the ceremony. An excellent alternative is provided in many countries by humanist groups who train and coordinate networks of humanist celebrants. For a reasonable fee, a humanist celebrant will help the couple plan and compose their ceremony and then conduct it on the day.
The ability of a secular celebrant to conduct a legally-binding wedding depends on the laws of the state or country and the particulars of the wedding. Some information about this is available in the section Secular Wedding Celebrants. However, the best source of information and advice may be a humanist celebrant in your area.
Here are some recommended resources for finding humanist celebrants:
The wedding ceremony of Shannon and Matt Cherry, August 25, 2002
Celebrants: Holly Nolan and Norm Schwamle (solemnizer)
Participants: JACK LeGRAND, PAULINE CHERRY, PETA CHERRY, CHRISTOPHER CHERRY-HULLEY, KATHI REITTINGER, SARAH REITTINGER, MATT RUFFING, LUKE VAUGHN
Pre-ceremony music plays. At the cue from Holly, it changes to processional music. Shannon enters from right and Matt from left. They meet; Matt presents the bouquet to Shannon . They proceed together, side-by-side, the last few steps to the front.
KATHI REITTINGER proceeds to front of arbor. Music is playing quietly in the background.
Kathi takes her seat, as HOLLY NOLAN takes her place.
I welcome you all here today to celebrate the love of Shannon and Matt and to witness their commitment to each other in marriage.
This marriage ceremony fulfills many purposes. First, we are here to celebrate the loving relationship that Shannon and Matt have already created together. Secondly, we are here to witness the commitments and aspirations they will exchange in today’s ceremony. Finally, we are here to offer our love, support and encouragement to them in this joyful and courageous adventure of marriage.
It is very important to Matt and Shannon that they share this day with those they love. Many people have traveled from across America and the world to be here. Many others could not make the journey at this time. On behalf of Matt and Shannon, I thank you all for coming here today, and hope that you will share the joy and meaning of this day with other friends and loved ones who could not be here.
Marriage joins two people who trust the love they have found. It is a partnership in which each can grow and be their true self, while sharing in the development of each other. It is a statement to all those around them of what the two of them already know: that they have found such passion, friendship, and support—such love—that they wish to share the rest of their lives.
Our second reading this morning is of one of Matt and Shannon’s favorite poems. They feel it expresses the love, hope, and happiness that they have found together:
i am through you so i by e.e.cummings
Holly remains standing. LUKE VAUGHN takes his place.
so far your nearness reaches
our can'ts were born to happen
we are so both and oneful
LUKE takes his seat.
Shannon and Matt recognize that marriage is a cooperative venture between equals. It is a relationship based on love, respect, and a determination on the part of both wife and husband to adjust to each other’s temperaments and moods, whether in health or sickness, joy or sadness, comfort or hardship. Together they will find honesty and understanding, and as individuals they will use those virtues to encourage and support each other in their marriage, acknowledging that love helps us grow, and that our partners can bring out the best in each of us, through both good times and bad.
PAULINE CHERRY takes her place.
Anatole France had the following advice on love:
“It is not enough to love passionately: you must also love well. A passionate love is good for sure, but a beautiful love is better. May you have as much strength as gentleness; may it lack nothing, not even forbearance, and let even a little compassion be mingled with it. You are human and, because of this, capable of much suffering. If then something of compassion does not enter into the feelings you have one for the other, these feelings will not always befit all the circumstances of your life together; they will be like festive robes that will not shield you from wind and rain. We love truly only those we love even in their weakness and poverty. To forbear, to forgive, to console – that alone is the science of love.”
PAULINE returns to her seat.
Matt and Shannon share the humanist philosophy that sees body and mind as inseparably combined within a human being. Like the philosopher Bertrand Russell, they believe that “the good life is one inspired by love and guided by reason.” As in life so also in love they see the marriage of emotion and intellect as the firmest foundation for growth and fulfillment. Living together in this way, they will deepen their love for each other, and extend its reach to their family and friends, and beyond, to embrace all of humanity.
Marriage is a serious business. But we know Shannon and Matt will always be able to find humour and joy together; that they will relish their shared journey through life, living with exuberance and style, as well as sincerity and inner strength. And what places they will go on this journey!
JACK LeGRAND, PETA CHERRY, MATT RUFFING, SARAH REITTINGER, CHRISTOPHER CHERRY-HULLEY stand together at reading’s place.
Congratulations! Today is your day.
You'll get mixed up, of course,
ALL FIVE READERS:
EXCHANGE OF COMMITMENTS
READERS take their seats as NORM SCHWAMLE enters.
We have come together to unite Shannon Mary Tramacera and Matthew Adrian Cherry in marriage, which is an institution ordained by the state and made honorable by the faithful keeping of good men and women in all ages, and is not to be entered into lightly or unadvisedly.
Therefore, Shannon and Matt, after hearing these words about the possibilities and responsibilities of marriage, and after reflecting upon the strength and wisdom it will ask of you, do you choose freely and happily to make the promises of marriage?
SHANNON AND MATT :
In front of your family and friends, please share your commitment to each other.
SHANNON AND MATT:
We pledge to each other to be friends, lovers, and partners in marriage.
to respect and cherish each other's uniqueness;
and to support, comfort and strengthen each other through life's joys and sorrows.
full of respect and honor for others and each other.
The tangible tokens of the commitments made by Shannon and Matt this morning are their wedding rings. The wedding ring is a circle; a symbol of wholeness, strength, cooperation, and peace. The circle represents the cycle of the seasons, and the circle of these rings represents a symbol of your love and strength for each other. A ring looks both inwards to each other and outwards to the wider community of which you are part. It is an embrace that can surround you; it is a support that can inspire you without limit.
SHANNON AND MATT EXCHANGE RINGS.
PRONOUNCEMENT OF MARRIAGE
Shannon and Matt, now that you have exchanged vows and celebrated your union by giving each other these beautiful rings, it is with great joy and happiness that I now pronounce you wife and husband.
Wait staff will circulate among guests handing out “Merry Cherry” cocktails for toast
I ask you all here present at the wedding of Matt and Shannon, having witnessed this ceremony and these commitments, to join with me in wishing them success in all their aspirations and in their lives together. We look forward confidently to a future in which you and the world in which you live and work will be the better and the happier for this joyful occasion.
We end the ceremony and begin the celebration with an old English toast:
Here is a toast to lying, cheating, stealing, and drinking:
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