17 Jan 2023

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:

  • Welcome and opening words by celebrant
  • A reading, poem or music
  • Ceremony content, including declarations, vows (or pledges of commitment in the case of civil partnerships) and exchange of rings, if desired
  • A further opportunity for a reading, poem or music
  • Signing of register or civil partnership document
  • Closing words

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.


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