Wedding ceremony decisions: Religious or civil?

Your wedding ceremony only accounts for 10% of your day but as it's such a key element you need to choose wisely

Town Hall Hotel, London
Town Hall Hotel, London

A church or civil ceremony?

Only a quarter of wedding ceremonies in the UK today are religious – compared to nearly twice that number 20 years ago*. In fact, civil vows have increasingly outnumbered religious ones every year since 1992, fuelled partly by the Marriage Act of 1994. This took the modest register office/town hall vows to new heights, as legislation opened up licensed venues for civil ceremonies at everything from hotels, restaurants and art galleries to castles, stately homes and barns.

If you’ve got a strong faith or a tie to a place of worship from your childhood, a religious ceremony might be your first choice. Perhaps you’ve always dreamed of photos beneath a church tower, chuppah or mandap (depending on your beliefs). However, if you’re uncomfortable with religious settings, are lapsed churchgoers or feel hypocritical about not having been in a place of worship for years, it’s slightly less clear cut. 

Stanbrook Abbey, Worcestershire
Stanbrook Abbey, Worcestershire

The similarities

Both church and civil ceremonies include…

…a legal declaration, which you make to confirm that you’re free to marry
That’s the scene in films when the person taking the ceremony asks if anyone knows of any lawful impediment… and the ex runs down the aisle saying ‘it should have been me!’

…exchanging vows, which are repeated after the minister or superintendent registrar
This is the time-honoured tradition where you take [your fiancé/fiancée] to be your lawful wedded husband/wife.

Both ceremonies require two witnesses to sign the register after the couple.

Wedding ceremony set-up at Syrencot, Wiltshire
Syrencot, Wiltshire

The differences

The main contrasts come down to content – readings, music and vows

• Legally, a civil ceremony can’t include any biblical music or religious readings, so hymns are clearly a no-no. Any decision on music for a civil ceremony has to be approved by the registrar. Occasionally, they may follow a strict line that bans all words with religious content and they might not appreciate Aretha Franklin’s I Say A Little Prayer, or Robbie Williams’s Angels. Others will be happy to allow them as an ‘incidental reference in a non-religious context’. Just ask the officials in good time.

• At a church ceremony you’re expected to have at least one biblical reading and a couple of hymns. Even here, though, your minister may want to advise on the tone. Fight The Good Fight is probably not the right message moving forward and some ministers have, in the past, ruled out hymns such as I Vow To Thee, My Country for being too nationalistic. Again, make sure you clear your choices well in advance.

Buxted Park Hotel East Sussex
Buxted Park Hotel, East Sussex

Feeling the family pressure?

Sometimes it can be hard to have the wedding you want, faced with what your family would like. If your parents are disappointed that you’re not having what they see as a ‘proper’ religious wedding, how about a blessing? It’s known as a Service of Prayer & Dedication in the Church of England and there are no rings or registers to sign, but it can be a good compromise after a register office do.

It also works after a destination wedding where extended family and friends were left out. Another way to inject tradition into a winter civil ceremony is have carol singing, though this would have to be in a different room and outside the legal proceedings.

The Pagoda at Thornton Manor, Cheshire
The Pagoda at Thornton Manor, Cheshire

What about a humanist wedding?

If you want a service that’s meaningful but not denominational, a humanist wedding gives you more freedom. You can write your own vows and readings, and hold the ceremony in your garden or up a mountain if you like. Your celebrant can help you adapt wording from both civil and church proceedings. Humanist weddings are legal in Scotland and Northern Ireland but not in Wales or England (yet!). For the latter, you would need to have a civil ceremony first. Visit for more information.

Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire
Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire

* Office for National Statistics 2016