Shot of a happy newlywed young couple getting showered with confetti outdoors on their wedding day

What is a humanist wedding? Everything you need to know

Humanist wedding ceremonies are rising rapidly in popularity in the UK - the number of couples saying their vows in this way has increased by over 260%. So is a humanist wedding right for you?

Have you ever been to a humanist wedding? If we’d asked this a few years ago, the answer would most likely have been ‘no’. However, these non-religious ceremonies, conducted by humanist wedding celebrants, are on the rise – they’ve increased by 266% since 2004, according to figures released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS).

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It’s unsurprising – having humanist wedding vows is a great way to personalise your wedding ceremony. You’ll also have a lot more freedom when it comes to choosing your venue. For example, you can have your humanist ceremony outdoors. While you can technically get married outside with a civil ceremony, there are strict guidelines that dictate exactly where you do this.

What’s more, civil ceremonies can only take place in licensed wedding venues. A humanist wedding ceremony, however, really can take place anywhere – you can choose a totally unusual wedding venue, or even have it in your living room!

Read on and we’ll explain exactly what a humanist wedding is. We’ll also take you through what you need to do to organise your own.

Outdoor wedding ceremony in woodland
Image | Bantersnaps at Unsplash

And if you still need convincing? Figures released by Humanists UK show couples who have a humanist ceremony less likely to get divorced!

However, there are a couple of very important things to bear in mind before you say “I do” to a humanist wedding, most importantly when it comes to legal status. Whatever type of ceremony you decide to have, you need to make sure you understand the legal requirements for marriage in the UK.

Humanist ceremonies are not currently legally binding everywhere in the UK or the rest of the world – we’ll explain where you can and can’t get legally wed by having this type of secular ceremony, and how you can get round the issue, in order to ensure your marriage is officially recognised.

Group of friends having fun on night out. Karaoke.

Who conducts a humanist wedding?

It’s conducted by a humanist celebrant, who will work with you to help you decide how to structure your non-religious ceremony.

What is a humanist wedding ceremony and what happens?

Imagine a religious ceremony without the religion. Or a civil ceremony without the required wording. Basically, a humanist ceremony is whatever you want it to be. It’s a way of standing up in front of your loved ones and making a public declaration of your commitment to each other. If you were already thinking of writing your own wedding vows, and would like to make your wedding ceremony even more unique, a humanist celebration could well be right for you.

As well as personalised vows, you can tell stories from your relationship, have whatever readings you want, your favourite songs – and ask your guests to sing along!. The wedding-ceremony world really is your oyster. Some couples choose to add symbolic touches, such as lighting a unity candle, carrying out a sand pouring ceremony or handfasting.

Cropped closeup shot of a couple lighting candles during their wedding ceremony
Image | Getty

Nothing is obligatory – you don’t have to choose wedding witnesses or stick to a set format. However, you can include traditional vows and wedding traditions from different cultures if you want to.

All this personalisation may sound like hard work, so if you want to keep your ceremony simple and put your personalities into the reception instead, a humanist wedding may not be for you.

But as we said, the humanist celebrant will work with you to help create a wedding ceremony that’s particularly meaningful to you. They can provide sample vows for you to adapt, or even sample ceremony structures.

Two brides during their wedding ceremony, one holding a microphone

What if you (or your partner) are seriously not into the idea of public speaking? After all, for some people, swapping marriage vows is incredibly nerve-wracking. Well, in a humanist ceremony, there’s no obligation to say anything at all. Seriously, you can just nod if that makes life easier.

READ MORE: How to handle weddings if you’re an introvert

How long is a humanist wedding ceremony?

As there’s no set structure, you can make it as long or as short as you want. However, bear in mind that while you might be enchanted by the idea of a six-hour blow-by-blow account of your relationship from the first date onwards, your guests may start to flag. After all, there’s champagne to be drunk.

Gay couple standing in front of a celebrant during wedding ceremony
Image | Getty

Do we have to be humanists?

No – a humanist wedding ceremony is available to all, heterosexual and LGBTQ+ couples.

How much does a humanist wedding cost?

You will have to pay your celebrant a fee, and this varies from £450 to £1,000, depending on factors including travel expenses and the time commitment to the celebrant. In addition, you’ll need to factor in any venue hire costs, as well as ceremony decor, if wanted.

Think of the alternative photos

Where can we have our humanist ceremony?

Anywhere! Well, that’s not quite true – a religious building or register office is unlikely to welcome your humanist ceremony with open arms, understandably, although you can always ask.

READ MORE: 100 best UK wedding venues

But all other types of venue should allow it, and you’ll have a great deal of freedom. Unlike with a civil ceremony, an outdoor humanist ceremony doesn’t have to take place in a structure that has a fixed roof and a licence to be legally binding – which means you can get married on a beach, in the middle of a field of wildflowers, in a tipi… Wherever your imaginations take you!

Field day

What is the difference between a humanist wedding and a civil wedding?

Apart from the amount of ceremony personalisation you are allowed, and freedom in choosing your venue, the main difference is that a humanist celebrant can’t legally marry you in every country.

If you’re inspired by weddings abroad, humanist wedding ceremonies are legally recognised countries including the USA, Canada, Australia, South Africa and the Republic of Ireland.

In the UK, humanist wedding ceremonies are not currently legally binding in England and Wales. However, this doesn’t make your humanist wedding ceremony any less ‘real’. In the sense that it’s a declaration of your commitment to each other, a humanist ceremony is very significant.

Young lesbian couple kissing during their wedding ceremony. The ceremony is outdoors with friends sitting in foreground
Image | Getty

Lots of couples we’ve spoken to have chosen to make it legal with a civil partnership or by having a civil ceremony with close family a few days before – and they very much consider their humanist celebration to be the ‘real’ ceremony. Venue allowing, you could also look at having both ceremonies on the same day.

READ MORE: What is a civil partnership and how have UK laws changed?

In Scotland, humanist ceremonies have been legally binding since 2005. You could have your ceremony and reception there, then stay on for a romantic getaway in Scotland.

In 2017, humanist weddings also became legally binding in Northern Ireland and Jersey.

Do we still wear wedding attire if it’s a humanist ceremony?

You can wear whatever you like. For some brides-to-be, that means alternative wedding dresses, but remember, you can design the ceremony however you want.

If you want to put together something with a traditional-wedding feel, you can do that – and you may wish to choose a more classic dress if you do so.

Advice for other couples

When it comes to your guests, the choice is theirs, although you might want to give them an idea of dress code in the invitations, as people may feel unsure about what to wear to a humanist wedding. Whether you want full-on formal or whatever wedding guest outfits suit the season, just let them know.

READ MORE: What to wear to a wedding – dress codes explained & outfit ideas

How to plan a humanist wedding ceremony

  • Find your celebrant. If you’re planning to get married in Wales, Northern Ireland or England, take a look at Humanist Ceremonies™, which is the network of non-religious celebrants trained and accredited by Humanists UK. If you’re in Scotland, use Humanist Society Scotland to find your celebrant.
  • Check that your chosen celebrant is available and happy to travel to your wedding location – some humanist celebrants will travel to weddings outside the UK.
  • Think about any elements of a traditional wedding ceremony you would like to include/definitely don’t want.
  • Consider whether you want to write your own vows.
  • Once you’ve found your celebrant, they’ll get to know you and work with you to create your unique ceremony, including wedding music. You’ll get to check and give feedback on the ceremony script.
  • Work out how much you have to spend – our guide to how to start your wedding budget will help.
  • Look at wedding venues. If possible, it can be easier to have your ceremony and reception at the same place, to save on money and make logistics easier. Most venues offer different spaces for the ceremony, both inside and outdoors. However, you may prefer to have your ceremony in a different location, particularly if there’s somewhere meaningful to you.
  • If you’re having a humanist wedding ceremony in Wales or England, work out when you want the civil ceremony or civil partnership, so you can make your marriage legal. You’ll need to give notice at your local register office – check out our list of what to ask your wedding registrar to make sure you get all the information you need.
  • Prepare for a unique, special wedding ceremony!
Wedding guest fashion
Image | Getty

Is a humanist wedding right for us?

We suggest asking yourselves the following questions:

  • Do we want our wedding ceremony to be as personal as possible?
  • Are we prepared to put extra work into our ceremony?
  • Do we have room in our wedding budget to pay for both a humanist ceremony and a civil ceremony, to make our marriage legally binding?
  • How important is it to have our ceremony in a particular venue, or outdoors?
  • Do we want our celebrant to be someone we’ve got to know?
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However you choose to marry, make the day run like clockwork with our ultimate planning checklist.