What happens in a civil ceremony?

It’s the beginning of the year and many couples will be contemplating tying the knot at some point in 2023.

Traditional church weddings, with all the trimmings, are not to everyone’s taste or may be  inappropriate for cultural or religious reasons. Many people opt for a secular register office marriage or a civil partnership and are now able to benefit from a growing choice of ‘approved’ venues, both indoors and outdoors.

Marriage or Civil Partnership?

Since 2019 both opposite and same-sex couples in the United Kingdom can choose between a civil marriage ceremony or civil partnership.

A civil partnership will give your relationship legal recognition and it will also give you legal rights and responsibilities, which are almost identical to those of marriage. When registering a civil partnership, you and your partner are required to sign a civil partnership document in front of two witnesses. If you wish to end the partnership, you will have to apply to the court for a legal termination. Civil partnerships can be a simple transaction in front of a registrar, or they can include a ceremony (see below).

A marriage, unlike a civil partnership, is legalised by the exchange of vows, and can be ended by a divorce. The ceremony, which is conducted by the registrar, is attended by two witnesses. Couples who choose to go down this route can legally refer to themselves as ‘married’; civil partners may not.

All civil marriages must incorporate a statutory declaration by the registrar about marriage. The couples then utter declaratory and contracting words: in the declaration they state that they know of no legal impediment to their marriage; in the contracting words they formally take each other as wife or husband – they may choose a short form of vow or opt for a longer form of vow, which involves traditionally worded promises. Additional, personalised vows and promises may be added, but these must be agreed with the registrar.

In both cases, couples are required to give a minimum of 29 days’ notice to the superintendent registrar of the district where the wedding will take place of their intention to marry or form a civil partnership. There is no requirement that either or both of you live in the district where your chosen venue is located.

Humanist Celebrants

Although it is not legally binding, a humanist celebration allows you to deviate from traditional forms and write every single word of the ceremony yourselves (including religious content, if you so desire). If you choose to go down this route, you may opt to book a date to legally register your marriage/partnership beforehand – this could simply be a matter of attending the local register office with two witnesses.


Couples choosing secular weddings are no longer confined to register offices operated by the local council. There is now a huge range of ‘approved’ venues available, which encompass everything from hotels, theatres, galleries and stately homes to piers, bandstands, pavilions, log cabins, vineyards and boats.

During the Covid pandemic, rules were relaxed to allow outdoor weddings, and in 2022 it was announced that these changes would become permanent in England and Wales. In essence, if an approved venue holds a licence to conduct weddings in a permanent structure on its premises, then it is allowed to hold weddings anywhere on its premises – not just in the structure, which was previously the case. So as long as the venue holds a civil ceremony licence you can choose to have your ceremony anywhere within its boundaries. Laws are even more relaxed in Scotland, meaning that you can have your ceremony wherever you choose, providing landowners’ permission has been sought and the registrar notified.

The Ceremony

A register office marriage or partnership ceremony is fairly short (15–25 minutes). A civil marriage normally follows a traditional format, interspersed with music and readings, which must be agreed in advance by the superintendent registrar. The ceremony must be strictly secular; it is not permitted to use religious words in the ceremony, but it may include readings, songs, or music that contain reference to a god as long as they are in an “essentially non-religious context”. Hymns are not permitted.

Civil partnership ceremonies follow the same pattern – instead of the vows before the registrar, the couple may choose to make promises and pledges of commitment.

Marriages and civil partnership ceremonies tend to follow this pattern. The choice is entirely yours and should be discussed beforehand with the registrar:

Choices, choices

If you are deciding to go down a civil marriage or partnership route there are multiple choices to be made. Many couples will still favour the trappings of a church wedding: they will want to include a best man, they may want the bride to process to the front, the bride may want to wear a white wedding dress, carry a bouquet and so on. Note that registry offices may be processing several weddings a day, and you will be restricted, therefore, when it comes to decorating and personalising the venue. For this reason alone, an approved venue may be a better option. Bear in mind that the nature of the ceremony and celebration is dictated to a certain extent by the choice of venue. A full white-dress traditional-style wedding might not sit comfortably in a rustic woodland or beachfront venue, whereas it would seem entirely appropriate in a beautiful stately home or country house hotel.

Other couples may rejoice in the freedom from conventional restraints that a civil ceremony offers and may be keen to showcase their eccentricities, passions and individuality. They will revel in the chance to shed the time-honoured shackles, opting for non-traditional music, non-conventional dress codes, or ‘themed’ celebrations. In contrast, some couples will seize opportunity to choose a minimalist ceremony with only their witnesses in attendance.

The choice is yours. Try, at the very least, to choose a venue that will enhance the ceremony you have devised and serve as a suitable backdrop to both the formalities and any subsequent celebrations.

Above all, keep your guests well informed. You do not have to go down the customary wedding invitation route, but it is essential that your invitations clearly spell out the order of events, the nature of the venue and, above all, the dress code, be it traditional or wildly unconventional.

How to get invitations right

In an increasingly informal world, it is easy to think that invitations don’t matter. The assumption is that a WhatsApp message or text will surely suffice, and for many events this is undoubtedly true. But, as a rule of thumb, the more planning, forethought, expense and ambition that you put into an event, the more important it is to get the invitations right. A well designed, clearly worded invitation is an eloquent social telegram, which your guests will need to decode. It will be sent out sufficiently early to alert them to the date, give them practical information (timings, venue, running order etc), and it will also give them much more subtle messages about the nature of the event (level of formality, dress codes etc).


Text invitations are extremely casual and throwaway and should not be used for anything other than very informal get-togethers (eg ‘Would you like to pop round for a glass of wine on Friday evening – around 6pm?). They should only be sent to people you know well, with whom you regularly socialise – you won’t have to load your short text message with extra information, such as your address.

Emails or Handwritten Letters

Email invitations are acceptable for an informal event, but you should concede that they are a convenient substitute for an invitation, so don’t attempt to ‘mimic’ the real thing in the body of the email, which looks cheapskate.

Just write a short note explaining that you’re having a few friends round for an informal supper, for example. Make sure you mention the start time and venue (if it’s not taking place at home). If you would like a reply, say so in words, eg ‘let me know if you can make it’, rather than using the invitation code of RSVP.  Add your full address under your sign-off, which will be a useful reminder for guests, and will mean they have your postcode easily available for Satnavs.

Printed Invitations

The term ‘printed’ covers a range of processes, from home-printed on lightweight card, to digitally printed at your local printshop, to engraved on thick card by a professional printer.

At the very least, these should include the following information:

• The name of the host and/or hostess.

• The name of the guest/s: this can be handwritten in the top left-hand corner or handwritten in the body of the invitation.

• The words of invitation reflect the formality of the event (‘request the pleasure of...’ is formal; ‘are having a party to celebrate…’ is informal).

• The nature of the event (drinks, cocktails, party, dinner). This may be placed in the bottom right-hand corner.

• The time and place where the event will take place

• RSVP (if this is to a different address than the party venue, then it should be given under the letters RSVP, usually in left-hand bottom corner. Alternatively, a mobile phone number or email address can be specified).

• If there is a dress code it should be stipulated in the bottom right-hand corner, eg ‘Black tie’ or ‘Smart casual’. If you are indicating  the nature of the event (eg ‘Dinner and dancing’) in the bottom right (see above), this information should go above the dress code.


The style of the invitation should mirror the nature of the event.  So don’t use an elaborate Copperplate script typeface or grandiose language like ‘Decorations’ and ‘Carriages at 2 o’clock’ if you’re having an informal party. Don’t say ‘cocktails’ if you’re providing a fruit punch, or ‘canapés’ if you’re planning on handing round sausages on sticks and bowls of crisps. Guests will use the invitations to gauge the nature of the event, and you don’t want to mislead or disappoint them. If your event is formal, however, follow the conventional design and typography, and use a standard sized invitation card of good texture, usually about 6x4.5 inches (15 x 11 cm)

White or cream card and a classic serif typeface, such as Garamond or Baskerville, are a safe and elegant default position for less formal events. However, the comparative neutrality of the design may be more challenging for guests who are trying to decipher the nature of the event, so you might have to pay more attention to the wording you use, or give some clue through the dress codes. You could say, for example, ‘drinks and buffet’ and specify ‘elegantly casual’. 

If, on the other hand, you want to convey a very specific message about an event (eg a nostalgic party to celebrate a 60th birthday) then it is perfectly acceptable to use typography, colour, photographs etc. to create a strong message about what your guests can expect.

Whatever the nature of the event, do think carefully about the font you choose; it would probably be misleading to use a zany script like Comic Sans for a party to celebrate a 50th wedding anniversary, where you are paying tribute to an older couple and want to inject a little dignity into the design. On the other hand, Comic Sans may well be entirely appropriate for an 18th-birthday bash. If you want to imply that your event will be refreshingly contemporary, untrammeled by hidebound traditions, then perhaps you could choose a modern sans serif typeface, such as Helvetica, Gill, Futura or Franklin Gothic to subtly convey this.

Plus Ones

Many hosts will fret about the possibility of their party being invaded by a horde of unpredictable, and occasionally intolerable, ‘plus ones’. It goes without saying that any guest who receives an invitation that specifies their name only and wants to bring their own guest, will need to contact the host and politely ask if it would be possible to bring a partner.

Nervous hosts, who are wary of being confronted by unanticipated guests, should not attempt to make any statement about ‘plus ones’ on the invitation. Add the name of the single invitee as usual and if you feel there is a risk that they will bring an uninvited guest, enclose a short handwritten note with the invitation, just saying that – because of space restrictions – you’re very sorry that you won’t be able to invite friends or partners.

If, on the other hand, you’re ready to welcome all comers, you can always write the name of single invitees and add ‘plus guest’.

How to design your wedding invitations

The end of pandemic restrictions has unleashed a great wave of socialising – parties, dinners, celebrations and, inevitably, weddings. Many couples were forced to defer long-planned weddings because of legal limitations and are now eagerly anticipating their big day.

So now is the time to think about wedding invitations, which are usually sent out at least 12 weeks before the wedding date.  These are all-important because they perform a number of functions. Most obviously, they alert your guests to the date, or at least remind them (you will probably have already sent save the date cards). They also inform guests of the location and time, and their RSVPs will form the basis of your numbers calculations and wedding planning. More subtly, they will give your guests an idea about the nature and style of the day and – along with additional information sent out with the invitation – will help your guests to make informed decisions about what to wear, wedding gifts, overnight accommodation and so on.

Choosing the Style

Some basic factors will dictate the look and feel of the invitation: size and shape, colour, material and typeface. Finishing touches may include a lined envelope and ribbons, and possibly an additional ‘device’ – for example a personalised monogram.

The style and formality of the invitation should reflect that of the wedding. The smartest and most traditional (and expensive) invitations are engraved. An elaborate copperplate typeface will reinforce the traditional style. A more classical serif typeface (such as Baskerville or Garamond) or a modern sans serif typeface (such as Futura or Helvetica) will each signal degrees of departure from strictly traditional form.

Flat printing and thermography are alternatives; if opting for thermography a matt ink surface is a better replica of engraving. Artistic, original invitations, which may be letterpress printed or handmade, are also popular for wedding invitations. You may wish to introduce a theme to reflect the general look and feel of the wedding. Invitations can include photographs or illustrations, or blind embossing. They may also be printed on unusual materials, such as vinyl, perspex or fabric.

A calligrapher may be hired to address the invitations and envelopes. A more practical option may be to enlist the help of a friend or family member who has attractive handwriting.

The Traditional Route

A traditional wedding invitation is made of card and measures 8 x 6 inches (20.3 x 15.2cm) folded in half with the text on the first (outer) page. This would usually be in black copperplate script, on a cream or white matt background. The name of the guest is handwritten in ink in the top left-hand corner. 

On formal invitations, guests should be addressed by their full title, for example, Mr and Mrs Aaron Williams, Miss Eleanor Copcutt, the Lady Alice Torstenson (for less formal invitations it is acceptable to use only first names). 

The traditional format for a wedding invitation where both parents are married is as follows:

Mr and Mrs John Standish request the pleasure of your company at the marriage of their daughter Caroline to Mr Christopher John Herbert At St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge On Saturday 24th September 2022 at 3 o’clock and afterwards at The Hyde Park Hotel, London SW1

Ringing the Changes

There is nothing to say that more contemporary styles and wording cannot be used – there are no set rules and no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ styles.

It is also important to bear in mind that many families, and weddings, will not fit into the traditional format above. The bride and groom may be hosting themselves, rather than their parents; stepfathers and stepmothers may be hosts; divorced parents may also be hosting, singly or together. All these variations, and several more, can be accommodated and should not be a cause of anxiety. (See our detailed guidance https://debretts.com/etiquette/wedding/engagements-invitations-2/)

Further Information

A separate sheet giving practical information can be included with the invitation; it is fine to print these at home, as long as a good printer and quality paper are used. The following information typically appears within these enclosures:

Taking it Outside...

On 15 March the Government has announced that outdoors weddings at licensed venues in England and Wales will be legalised. This change was introduced as a temporary measure during the pandemic; the fact that it has now been made permanent has received overwhelming support from the public and the wedding industry. Gone are the days when weddings were only allowed outdoors if they took place in an outdoor structure, such as a bandstand, or even a boat. Now any approved premises can hold the entire ceremony outdoors.

For anyone who is planning an outdoors ceremony this summer, there will be a number of pros and cons.

Al Fresco Advantages

•You can choose a beautiful and picturesque venue, which will provide a memorable backdrop for your wedding pictures, and will be a talking point for your guests.

•If you’re on a tight budget, you can allow Mother Nature to carry the brunt of the costs. A stunning setting, well-stocked flowerbeds, stately trees, or views of open countryside or coastline will all mean that you need minimal decoration.

•Numbers will be much more flexible ­ – the great outdoors will mean that you are not subjected to irksome restrictions, except on the grounds of costs.

•Outdoors weddings are excellent for children and families. Kids can play freely without interfering too much with the adult proceedings (even avoiding the ceremony itself, as long as they’re supervised), meaning that your guests will be much more relaxed. Guests might even be able to bring their dogs.

•Logistics are minimised by holding the ceremony and reception in the same place. Once guests have arrived for the ceremony they’ll be there for the long haul, and you won’t have to organise complex transport arrangements.

Al Fresco Disadvantages

•Weather is obviously the primary consideration. The main risk is rain, and you will have to make provision for this in all your planning (see below).  You should also be aware that your wedding day might be unseasonably cool, and guests might not have come fully provisioned with coats, wraps etc.

•Wind can be a real pest, especially during the ceremony. No bride wants her carefully styled hair or wedding outfit to be blown into disarray by a sudden gust of wind, and the celebrant will be irritated if the wedding register goes flying. You will need to think about windbreaks and protective shelters for the wedding party.

•At a large outdoors venue you will run the risk of the wedding party becoming dispersed and non-focused. You will need to work hard to create dedicated spaces (for sitting, chatting, eating, listening to music or speeches), otherwise you will spend most of your day marshalling the disorientated crowds.

•If your dream wedding is a super sophisticated occasion, where everyone looks sleek and well-groomed and the table settings are impeccable, think carefully about an outdoors venue. You will have to accept that the weather is completely outside your control, and can easily wreak havoc, and therefore outdoors weddings are better suited to couples who prefer a more relaxed, bucolic and improvisational mood.


•You will need to investigate the world of marquees, pagodas, pavilions and gazebos to ensure that there is always shelter provided for guests and the wedding party. When planning an outdoors wedding, flexibility is key. If it is a beautiful sunny day your guests won’t want to be cooped up in a marquee for the wedding ceremony, although they might appreciate it during a sit-down lunch, or in the late afternoon and evening, when the weather cools down. It is best to plan two or three different scenarios, which you can review and adapt 48 hours before the wedding, when weather forecasts are accurate and you know what to expect.

•Even if the weather is clement, consider some sort of open-sided structure for the wedding party and the celebrant during the actual ceremony. You might be lucky enough to find a venue that offers a permanent structure, such as a bandstand or pergola. If not, investigate open-sided gazebos, which will protect the main players from the rain, wind and sun, and can be decorated with draped fabrics to make a stunning visual focus.

•With the wedding taking place outside, you will need to create an eye-catching ceremonial space for the main event. Try and choose a sheltered spot with a beautiful backdrop. Use a decorated gazebo as the main focal point, arrange the guests’ chairs accordingly, ensuring all eyes are drawn to centre-stage. You might want to create an ‘aisle’ for the bride’s entrance; you can use a carpet, or you can demarcate the walkway with plant stands or light fixtures. Try and choose a complementary theme for your gazebo and chairs – drape them in matching fabric, or use coordinated flower arrangements. The main aim is to create a special space, which is an appropriate stage for the ritual that will take place there.

•It might be wise to consider dotting temporary gazebos around your venue. They will serve as useful spots where guests can retreat to escape boiling sun or driving rain, or just provide a quiet space where they can sit down away from the social maelstrom – this is particularly useful for older guests.

•Use a profusion of inexpensive fairy lights and solar lights to transform your daytime outdoors venue into a magical night-time venue. Ensure that paths leading to the main facilities (bars, toilets, the marquee) are well-lit.

•Think about providing cosy sheepskins or woollen blankets to guests who are shivering as the night draws in. Being able to wrap up warm will ensure that the reception does not falter because of the drop in temperature.

•Tell guests what to expect. You should send out an information sheet with your wedding invitations. As well as the usual advice – directions, parking facilities, local hotels and so on – try and give your guests as much guidance about your open air venue as possible. Explain exactly where/what it is (you don’t want people turning up expecting a secluded and sheltered garden and finding themselves on a windblown cliff top). If you think that your venue requires them to wear special clothes or footwear, just say – stiletto-wearing guests, for example, would be understandably annoyed if they found they had to navigate a rocky and precipitous path to get to the ceremony venue. Explain that you will have facilities in case of inclement weather. You can even tell them to bring warm clothing so that they’re comfortable when night falls. Forewarned is forearmed and guests will appreciate the lowdown.

Weddings Revisited

The moment many couples have been anticipating has arrived and the Covid-related wedding restrictions have finally been lifted. Guest numbers are unlimited, mask-wearing no longer obligatory, self-service buffets are an option once again, and music and dancing are allowed.

But reverting to the pre-Covid situation is going to be a gradual process, and over the course of the pandemic many couples have re-thought their wedding plans, perhaps opting for smaller wedding day celebrations, to be followed further down the line by celebratory parties. Wedding venues are at a premium and therefore some flexibility and willingness to discard more conventional expectations is required.

It is also imperative, especially if your wedding is fast approaching, to remember that the pandemic is by no means over, and to exercise a certain degree of caution. Amongst your guests you will almost certainly have to accommodate the full gamut of Covid perspectives, from the very relaxed back-to-normals, who have discarded their masks and their inhibitions, to the super cautious, who are extremely nervous about social interactions.

How do you accommodate this diversity? Firstly, you must acknowledge it. If you are proceeding with your wedding, you are probably very invested in the notion that normal life has returned. But you must be aware that not all your guests feel that way and, since weddings are usually multi-generational affairs, there will almost certainly be a number of elderly guests, who may feel more vulnerable. You will therefore have to be punctilious about ventilation, ensure that seating is not too cramped so that a reasonable amount of social distance is maintained, and provide hand sanitizer and face masks.

It might be wise to add a note about Covid to the wedding information ‘pack’ you send out with your invitations (along with information about transport, accommodation and so on). You could simply add a reassuring note along these lines:

We are taking all reasonable precautions against Covid, and can assure our guests that adequate ventilation and social distancing options will be in place. Face masks are not obligatory, but we will have masks available for any guests who require them.

If you have been bruised by the whole pandemic experience, and the resulting uncertainty about your wedding has made you re-think your plans, it is quite acceptable to do so, even if you have already sent out invitations or save-the-date cards. The situation is exceptional, and people will understand reluctance to proceed with earlier plans. The most important priority is to keep your potential guests fully informed, so send out a printed card, or letter, as follows:

Wedding of John Montgomery and Helen Mayfield, 25 September 2021

We regret to announce that, because of the ongoing consequences of the Covid pandemic, we have decided to downscale our planned wedding. We very much look forward to celebrating our marriage with you at a later date (to be announced). OR We hope we will be able to celebrate our marriage with you in the near future.

My cart
Your cart is empty.

Looks like you haven't made a choice yet.