Humanist Wedding Ceremonies
A wedding ceremony brings together many cultural influences, family dynamics, and emotional expectations, as well as logistical challenges. It is my goal to be helpful to you as the wedding couple and your families and community as you all prepare for this event; and to conduct a meaningful, personal, dignified and joyful ceremony. I offer: a non-anxious presence, a set of useful resources, and an understanding of the process and their role.
The Humanist Society prepares Humanist Celebrants to lead ceremonial observances across the nation and worldwide, providing millions with a meaningful alternative to traditional religious weddings, memorial services, and other life cycle events. The Humanist Society also aims to bolster growth at the grassroots level by supporting all movement efforts to develop strong communities and community leaders. Strong humanist communities will empower local humanist groups with the ability to reach out to a greater population of people by providing educational programs, regular communal celebrations, and meaningful social interaction. Chapters of the American Humanist Association exist in most states - Wyoming is one of only two exceptions - I have a goal to change that.
Planning the Ceremony
It is best for you, the couple, to schedule at least two ceremony-planning meetings with me in advance of the wedding date; with time in between for you to complete the work that I will ask you to do. If there is to be a rehearsal, it can serve as a final meeting to review details; if there is no rehearsal, I advise a third meeting within a few days of the wedding. While the timing of these meetings is flexible according to the needs of the couple and the celebrant, they should begin at least six weeks before the ceremony if possible. On the other hand, beginning the process for active creation of the ceremony more than six months ahead can leave a lag time that drains the energy and is therefore inadvisable.
At the First Meeting
Assuming that the I don't know you well already, our first meeting is an opportunity for us all to become acquainted; to confirm whatever plans are already in place for the wedding; and to establish an understanding of how we will all work together.
While there may be much that is not yet decided about plans for the wedding day or the ceremony, some details to explore and record at the first meeting include the following:
- Full names of both members of the couple
- Contact information: mailing address(es), phone numbers, e-mail addresses
- Date and time of wedding.
- Place of wedding, preferably an address
- If the ceremony is to take place outdoors, what are the plans for bad weather?
- Rehearsal, if desired: date, time, place *
- Time and location of reception, if different from ceremony
- Approximately how many guests are expected?
- Have members of wedding party been selected? How many?
- Who will act as witnesses? Wyoming requires two.
- Children participating, such as ring bearers or flower girls? Ages?
- Are there children from previous marriages who will participate?
- What kind of music has been arranged? What kind of music is desired?
- Has the license been obtained? Is the information for getting it known? When will it be? In Wyoming, both bride and groom have to be present.
- If rings are to be used, have they been purchased?
- Are the couple’s parents living? Will they be attending? Will step-parents be present?
- Are there grandparents or other special relatives? Recent bereavements to honor?
- What have the couple decided about their own and others’ attire?
- What do you hope that I, as celebrant, will wear?
You may not be able to answer all these questions yet, but you should begin working toward clarity about them. When this initial information has been recorded, I will invite any questions that you may have arrived wishing to ask. You may have many, or none at all. I may not be able to give an answer to certain questions until more work has been done to formulate the ceremony itself; and I may defer answers until later, when we know more.
I will then recommend the approach to planning and conducting the ceremonial part of your wedding (wedding planners, if necessary, take care of the rest of it.) I will tell you:
- Why I believe that wedding ceremonies are important, and what they exist to accomplish.
- Why I do, or do not, use a ‘fill-in-the-name’ standard ceremony text.
- Why your participation in the planning process will affect the ceremony.
- What the planning process and timeline will look like.
- How much I charge for services, including meeting, planning, travel, and performing the ceremony.
- Best ways for the couple to be in touch with me, in case of issues or questions.
* The importance of a rehearsal is a function of several issues. One is how familiar everyone may be with the location of the wedding. The rehearsal, if held on site, is an opportunity to make sure the wedding party knows how to get there. I also advise a rehearsal if the wedding party is large – more than six people – or if young children are involved. A run-through in advance can save much confusion and stress at the ceremony itself. By contrast, for a small wedding party with no children in a familiar location, a rehearsal may not be necessary. The rehearsal will usually take about 30-45 minutes After the last participant arrives. We must do everything to ensure that all participants arrive on time. The rehearsal is also a time for any last minute questions you may have for me - or I may have for you.
I will then ask you if there is anything that you know you want, or know that you don’t want, in your ceremony. If either or both of you have attended wedding ceremonies recently, or have recollections of weddings in the past, there may have been memorable things you would care to repeat - or avoid! Either way - let's discuss those things.
I will then put forward a set of resources that I usually make available as choices of material for the ceremony, with consideration given to our discussions so far, and walk through it with you, explaining the function of various parts of the service. You have options as to how to approach the material, as well as how to use it. Some couples like to read through the options together, discussing them as they go. Others prefer to have each partner review all the material, selecting pieces that appeal to them, and then compare notes with each other when both have looked at the options. Some couples will be pleased to select from the given choices as they stand; other couples may want to edit and personalize the selections, or write new material of their own. The celebrant can be helpful by assuring the partners that there is no wrong approach, as long as they give the process attention and care, and share their thinking with each other.
If you have indicated a desire for a component of the ceremony which is not already included in the collection of material I furnish, I can offer to compose the wording of this piece, or invite you to write what you, as a couple or individually, would like said. Either way can work; much depends on how eager you are to undertake this work. If you're reluctant, I can take the lead, and either research to find existing material, or compose something new for the occasion. Many couples who seek a Humanist celebrant intend or hope to write their own wedding vows.
When the you have clarity about what to do with the material in preparation for the next meeting, I'll ask you both to tell something of how they met, and how the decision to marry came about. This is simply for me to have something to share with those who have come to your wedding - humor and sincerity are good. I will review your 'homework' and schedule our next meeting (2-3 weeks) before we part. You will have my phone number to call with any questions.
At the Second Meeting
Please come to our second meeting with selections from the material provided at the previous session.
I will review your selections quickly to see that the order makes sense, to check for any omission of elements discussed at the previous meeting, and to see if the language of the various parts work harmoniously together. If immediate difficulties appear, they can be addressed. We will rehearse it and then ask you both how it feels. If you are content with the way it goes, and the overall ceremony, then it is time to review any remaining details unanswered at the first meeting. We will finalize decisions about the music and the wedding party; arrangements for the license and the rings should be in place, if not the items themselves. Now we can proceed to the vows.
The Vows and the Consent
The Vows and the Consent are often conflated in the popular imagination, but they constitute two separate functions of a wedding. On the one hand, marriage is a public institution, carrying legal responsibilities and cultural expectations which are the same for all married couples, and which you now agree to undertake. These expectations have little to do with the particularity of your personal ideals and feelings. In the Consent, I inquire as to the willingness of each person to agree to these legal and social terms, with a question directed to each of you in turn, which you answer separately in words directed to me.
The traditional form of this question is “Will you have (or do you take) this man/woman to be your wedded husband/wife, to live together according to god’s holy ordinance, and forsaking all others, keep you only unto him/her, so long as you both shall live?” to which each member of the couple replies in turn “I will (or I do)”, addressing not each other but the celebrant. Clearly the wording of this question can and should be updated, although some couples like more traditional language at this point, to remind them that they are part of a long heritage of those who have also made this commitment. Others like to add an expression of hope that soon all couples, gay as well as straight, will be entitled to this legal and social recognition. In any case, the function of the Consent remains important and separate. It may occur quite early in the service, before some of the readings, music, or messages that precede the Vows.
The Vows, on the other hand, are words spoken by each of you directly to the other, expressing your hopes, intentions and commitment for the relationship you aspire to have in your life together. This can be a very personal statement, and you may be eager to create your own unique vows, reflecting the character of your particular ideals of marriage. Or you may come to me with ideas or a draft of the vows already in mind; I'm here to help with this creative exercise. Let's start with this:
I, name, take you, name, to be my wedded wife/husband, to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part.
This will help you to unpack what those promises mean to your particular relationship.
There are several ways for me to present the vows. The traditional method is for me to prompt each of you, line by line, to repeat the words of the vows, and then do the same with the other partner, with both of you looking at, and addressing, each other.
If you are shy public speakers, you may find it comforting to both repeat the suggested line together, rather than one at a time. If the vows are much longer than the traditional forty-two words, (and when couples write their own, they usually are) it can be tedious to listen to them four times through; the both-repeat-together method also helps keep the ceremony moving.
You may wish to present your vows to each other without my intervention; this will mean having the prepared vows printed on card stock in an easily legible font and size, which I will hand to you at the appropriate moment.
You may wish to memorize the vows and recite them without prompting; this can be very moving, but the effort can also create anxiety. Don't worry - I'll have the planned vows available in written form, and be prepared either to prompt the speaker or to hand you the written text.
Brides: in order to have your hands free for the vows and rings, or other ritual activities, if you are carrying flowers, we should have a plan for when during the ceremony you will hand them to an attendant or flower girl.
Exercise for Creating the Vows
During our second meeting, I will review relevant logistics and details, including other elements of the service. When these have been resolved, we can let go of the planning process for the moment, and I'll ask you to recall the most basic, important reasons why you are getting married. I'll ask you to brainstorm a list of single-word qualities that you hope your relationship will maintain throughout your married lives. Somewhere between a dozen and twenty words will do - or more if it flows freely - describing the marriage you want. These can be nouns like 'friendship', 'loyalty' – or adjectives like 'fun', 'growing', 'honest' – or phrases like 'good communication', 'financial responsibility'. Periodically, I'll read the list back to you, and ask if anything important is missing. The list need not be exhaustive, just long enough to suggest what your vision for a successful marriage looks like.
Most couples when they get married have a similar hopeful vision for what their relationship will be like, and yet often it does not get fully realized. Think of married couples you know, among your friends and family, people in the news, even fictional couples in movies or literature, and from these examples we'll generate a list of things that get in the way; what prevents couples from having the marriage they once hoped for?
The focus here is off your own relationship, but looking at what you see in the culture around us. There may become be both process issues – lack of trust, respect, communication – and content issues – money, family, careers. I'm not here or qualified to get into problem solving, or how to prevent issues; let's just create the list. If you don't spontaneously mention basic issues such as trust, respect, and communication, or infidelity, health/addiction, or violence, I might from time to time suggest these as possible additions. Again, our aim is to identify a list of fifteen to twenty or so items, with additions from me as needed. I will read the list back, and ask whether anything important is missing.
When the second list is finished, I will write the following two questions on the same page, and describe your assignment: You should do this work individually at first, but you are welcome to compare notes after. Each partner is to take both lists, and for each item on list two – What gets in the way? – answer the two questions written on the bottom of the page.
The first question is: What are you prepared to promise to the person you are marrying that will assure them that this issue will not prevent the two of you from having the kind of marriage described in the first list? Note that you cannot always prevent issues from arising – health concerns, for instance, or career choices, or family emergencies – but you can make a commitment about how you will respond to them.
The second question is: What would you like that person to promise you, so that you will feel confident that this issue will not prevent the two of you from having the relationship you hope for? Note that the fact that you would like to be promised something doesn’t guarantee that you will receive that promise, but it gets your expectations out on the table. Also pay attention to places where what you are prepared to promise, and what you would like to be promised, may not be quite the same. These may be interesting areas to explore with your partner, when you have each completed the assignment separately.
The object here is to get each of you to express yourselves in your own language; it need not be elegant or poetic, or even grammatical; just honest phrases and ideas. It should also not be a legalistic negotiation of who will do the dishes or walk the dog, but more general concepts. It is likely that some of the responses to the various items may be quite similar, and that is fine, but it is important to complete the list as thoughtfully as possible.
When this material has been generated, and you have each had an opportunity to share your responses with each other if they wish to do so, you can bring their work to me, and I will then arrange it into the format of vows, as described below. You may prefer to do this process yourselves, with me having a final editorial review, but many find this an intimidating prospect.
The vows often naturally begin with an affirmation of love for the partner, and then proceed to sentences in the format of “I promise…,” or “I commit myself…,” or “I pledge to you…”, and may end with an assurance that the duration of the commitment is “forever,” or “always” or “for all our lives.” It is best to have a balance between the expectation of joy and delight in sharing life together, and the intention to work through challenges and difficulties without giving up. Something between four to seven sentences should usually be sufficient to capture and blend together the most important statements that you have made. There may be good reasons why one partner’s vows would differ in part or as a whole from the other’s; there is no requirement that they be the same.
The language of the vows should feel compatible in style with other elements of the ceremony, but not repetitive or redundant. I will give you vows in draft form, and ask for suggested changes. I highly recommend reading the words out loud, to make sure that nothing in them is a difficult tongue-twister for them to pronounce. When you have completed this exercise, and seen their own words carefully arranged, you will be excited to use your personalized vows. The value in this process is that you now have a better understanding of what that traditional language means to them.
At the Rehearsal
I will be there early, and will welcome members of the wedding party who arrive before you do, inviting them to make themselves comfortable while waiting for others. When you arrive, I will ask for introductions to anyone not yet met, especially parents if they are present. We can have a chat about any logistics that are not yet clear. I'll take custody of the marriage license, assuring that it will not be forgotten at the wedding, and I'll take the opportunity to fill out any part of the license that must be completed by hand except for the actual signatures. Some license forms require quite a bit of writing, which can become tedious when witnesses or the couple themselves are anxious to sign and move on to other activities following the actual ceremony. This will also be a good time for you to deliver the agreed upon fee for my Celebrant’s services. It often happens that no one in the wedding party has a checkbook with them the day of the ceremony, and it becomes a nuisance to chase down the fee once the event has passed. I prefer to receive cash or check. Depending upon my schedule and personal commitments, I may, or may not, attend the rehearsal dinner.
When all members of the wedding party who will attend the rehearsal are present, I will gather the group’s attention and say a few words about the purpose of the exercise, which is to make sure that everyone is comfortably familiar with their role in making the ceremony go smoothly. It is not necessary to read every word of the actual ceremony, but the party should practice lining up for the entrance, including where the I and anyone who does not participate in the formal procession will wait, and when and how they will enter. Traditionally, the seating of the groom’s parents and the bride’s mother signal that the entrance procession is about to begin.
There are many ways to order the procession, including dispensing with it altogether, but I will signal the beginning of the ceremony, and bringing the participants into the visible center of attention. If there is to be a formal procession, traditionally I, together with the groom and best man, enter from the side front, so as to be able to observe the procession from the front of the room. Alternately, the groom may process with his parents, or alone. In a less formal setting, the bride and groom may wish to enter together. The entrance of the bride is normally preceded by the bridesmaids, with the maid of honor last before the bride. If there is a flower girl and/or ring bearer, they are often placed after the bridesmaids and just before the bride. Unless a child is quite poised, it is usually intimidating for them to be the very first person to walk down the aisle. Depending on the age of the child, it may be advisable for them to deliver the rings, or drop the flower petals, and then sit with parents or other relatives in the audience. Arrangements should be made for them to be able to do this at any point during the ceremony, if they try to stand with the wedding party, but become restless.
When the participants have been arranged for the procession, they should practice entering and arranging themselves as they will be placed for the ceremony. It is more important for the groomsmen and bridesmaids to stand where they can see the couple well, than to be looking at me. Whoever will hold the bride’s flowers should be where they can be easily received; whoever will hand the rings to me at the appropriate moment should be placed where this can be done without awkwardness. If the bride enters with her father, while the groom watches from the front, the symbolism of how she moves toward the groom should be considered. It is graceful for the bride to embrace her father, and have him take his place with her mother, before she moves to join the groom, so as to avoid the impression that she is being ‘turned over’.
When the bridal couple are standing in the front of the room with me, they should be led through the actions of the ceremony. If there is to be a blessing from parents or the gathered community, the couple should turn and face those involved. If there are readers other than me, they should understand where to read from, and when to come forward, and the couple should face them while they are reading. If there is a candle lighting, wine sharing, or other ritual element, the motions should be practiced, with consideration of how clothing, especially the bride’s dress, veil, and train, may affect movement. At some convenient point in the ceremony, before any of these actions and before the vows, the bride should give her flowers to someone else to hold until the conclusion of the service; decide who and when this will be. If there is to be music during the ceremony, it should be established when this will be, and what the cues to the musicians will be.
You and I should be clear about how the vows are to be presented; see the options for this under Vows. It is better for the actual words of the vows not to be fully repeated at the rehearsal; just the final line is adequate for practice. Rehearse who will go first in giving the wedding ring, and how the partner will give them the appropriate hand. When people are nervous, as many couples are, their fingers sometimes swell, so that rings which come off and on easily at most times will get stuck at the crucial moment. It is more graceful for the partner who is receiving the ring to ease it on than for the one who is giving it to push forcefully.
Traditionally, the couple will exit the ceremony together, followed by the attendants, myself, and the parents. Practice this exit procedure, and decide where the couple and their families will go, or stand, immediately following the ceremony. Usually if they pause for congratulations just past the door, they will create a bottleneck for everyone else exiting. If you do not want a receiving line at that point, you should have a plan either to disappear – for instance, if you want those attending to leave, so that you can take formal pictures – or to go to a room or hallway where you can greet your friends without blocking traffic. Any plan can work; having no plan leads to chaos. I must also determine who needs to sign the license once the ceremony has taken place. If witnesses are needed, decide at the rehearsal who they will be, and instruct them where to meet me - I will have the license to sign. If the signing of the license is considered a photo opportunity, the photographer shoud be advised when and where it will happen.
It is my responsibility to make sure that the appropriate signatures, including my own, are gathered, and that the return portion of the license is mailed immediately.
When the wedding party has practiced the exit process, we will ask all participants if they are clear on their duties, places and if there are any questions. Once everyone is satisfied, we will walk through the entrance procedure once more. We will go over again what time people are to show up on the wedding day. On the wedding day, I will be on site an hour before the ceremony. I remind everyone to eat something before the ceremony. Food often gets forgotten and can result in fainting.