Couple holding fingers

What is a humanist wedding and are they legal in the UK?

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 wedding ceremonies are on the rise – they’ve increased by 266% since 2004, according to new figures released by the Office of National Statistics (ONS). By contrast, the number of religious wedding ceremonies has been declining, with Church of England weddings alone falling by 28%. So now, not only is it entirely possible you have been to a humanist wedding, you may well be considering having one of your own.

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There are certainly lots of advantages to saying your vows in this way, from the chance to have a totally unique ceremony to the freedom you’ll have when it comes to choosing your wedding venue. Read on and we’ll explain exactly what a humanist wedding is and how it could work for you.

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And if you still need convincing? Figures released earlier this year 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 – 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.

Once you’ve made up your mind about your ceremony style, you can get on with the fun stuff – like how to make your aisle look pretty, choosing your service music and writing personalised vows.

Marriage vows and wedding rings
Marriage vows and wedding rings

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. It’s conducted by a celebrant, who will work with you to help you decide how to structure the ceremony. You can have personalised vows, tell stories from your relationship, have whatever readings you want, your favourite songs – the wedding world really is your oyster. Some couples choose to add symbolic touches, such as lighting a union candle, carrying out a sand pouring ceremony or handfasting – we’ve rounded up the best ways to personalise your ceremony.

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 celebrant will work with you to help create something that’s particularly meaningful to you. They can provide sample vows for you to adapt, or even sample ceremony structures. And if you or your partner is seriously not into the idea of public speaking – for some people, swapping marriage vows is incredibly nerve-wracking, particularly if you’re a certain type of introvert – remember that in a humanist ceremony, there’s no obligation to say anything at all. Seriously, you can just nod if that makes life easier.

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.

Do we have to be humanists?

No – a humanist wedding ceremony is available to all, both straight and same-sex couples.

How do we find a humanist 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. You will have to pay your celebrant a fee, and this varies from £450 to £1,200, depending on factors including the time commitment to the celebrant.

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. But other types of venue should allow it, and you’ll have a great deal of freedom. You can even say “I do” outdoors! And 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… Wherever your imaginations take you!

So far, so good. But there is a snag. The reason humanist ceremonies don’t have restrictions in order to be legally binding is that they’re not actually legally binding.

Hang on, humanist ceremonies aren’t legally binding?

Correct – at least, not in England and Wales.

Wait – so it’s not a real ceremony?

What is ‘real’? As Albert Einstein said: “Reality is an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” But let’s not get into a philosophical discussion about the nature of reality. In the sense that it’s a declaration of your commitment to each other, a humanist ceremony is very much real. Lots of couples we’ve spoken to have chosen to make it legal with 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.

Cool newlywed couple
You said “England and Wales” – what about humanist weddings in Scotland and Northern Ireland?

Good spot, eagle-eye. In Scotland, humanist ceremonies have been legally binding since 2005. Unlike in England and Wales, it’s the celebrant not the venue that’s licensed for marriages, so you can have it pretty much anywhere. Just picture all those magnificent lochs, mountains and forests, not to mention some fabulous Scottish venues. In 2018, humanist weddings also became legally binding in Northern Ireland – check out the amazing Galgorm Resort & Spa if you’re considering having a wedding there – and Jersey – home to one of our favourite hotels, Longueville Manor.

Lots to consider. But 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 an alternative wedding dress, or something cool and contemporary like a two-piece or trouser suit. 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.

Newlywed couple smiling face to face

Are there other types of humanist ceremony?

We’re glad you asked. You can also have humanist funerals and, if you want a non-religious alternative to a christening, a naming ceremony. But we’re a wedding magazine, so we should probably get back to the whole getting-married element of humanist ceremonies.

Fair enough. So is a humanist wedding right for us?

We can’t tell you – only you can decide that. But 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 in 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?
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