“Religious” content of civil marriage ceremonies

A couple about to celebrate their civil wedding in Wilton’s Music Hall [1] were told by officials in Tower Hamlets that they were prevented in law from including the words “in sickness and in health” in their marriage vows as these were “too religious” for a civil ceremony. Likewise, the phrase “to have and to hold” was deemed too Christian on account of its use in the Book of Common Prayer. Within hours of the wedding, they had to agree on revised wording, i.e. “in sickness and when we are well” and “to hold and to have” which, given the short notice, is perhaps more meaningful than the “vacuous nonsense” of other recently-revised promises.

Nevertheless, this begs the question of whether, as the Daily Telegraph suggests

“the debacle shines the spotlight on confusion over the law on civil weddings in which religious elements such as hymns or Bible readings have been officially forbidden since 1837”.

Well yes, sort of.  However, it is not straightforward and across the country the guidance is variable and, to a degree, subjective.  But within a given registrar’s district, it should be consistent and timely.

Civil and religious marriage

When civil marriage was introduced through An Act for Marriages in England, 6 & 7 Will. IV. c.85, [17 August 1836], there were no restrictions on the form of the service, and section XX provides that

“ … Marriages may be solemnized in the registered Building stated as aforesaid in the Notice of such Marriage, between and by the Parties described in the Notice and Certificate, according to such Form and Ceremony as they may see fit to adopt”,

although it introduced obligatory statutory wording [2]: declaring the absence of lawful impediments to the marriage; the witnessing of the marriage, and the contract between husband and wife, now included in section 44(3) of the Marriage Act 1949 as amended by the Marriage Ceremony (Prescribed Words) Act 1996

However, section XII of the Marriage and Registration Act 1856 required that

“ … no Marriage solemnized at the Registry Office of any District shall any Religious Service be used at such Registry Office.”

and this ban on a religious service is incorporated in sections 45(2) and 46(4) of the Marriage 1949 in relation to marriages solemnised in a register office and on approved premises, respectively. Schedule 2 to the Marriages (Approved Premises) Regulations 1995 SI 510 introduced more prescriptive requirement

“11.  Any reading, music, words or performance which forms part of a ceremony of marriage celebrated on the premises must be secular in nature; for this purpose any such material used by way of introduction to, in any interval between parts of, or by way of conclusion to the ceremony shall be treated as forming part of the ceremony”.

Some relaxation of this requirement was introduced when SI 1995/510 was replaced by the Marriages and Civil Partnerships (Approved Premises) Regulations 2005 SI 3168 in which the equivalent Schedule 2 stated:

“11.(1) Any proceedings conducted on approved premises shall not be religious in nature.

(2) In particular, the proceedings shall not—

(a) include extracts from an authorised religious marriage service or from sacred religious texts;

(b) be led by a minister of religion or other religious leader;

(c) involve a religious ritual or series of rituals;

(d) include hymns or other religious chants; or,

(e) include any form of worship.

(3) But the proceedings may include readings, songs, or music that contain an incidental reference to a god or deity in an essentially non-religious context.

(4) For this purpose any material used by way of introduction to, in any interval between parts of, or by way of conclusion to the proceedings shall be treated as forming part of the proceedings.

These requirements are reproduced as Annex C to the Registrar General’s Guidance for the Approval of Premises as Venues for Civil Marriages and Civil Partnerships, 5th Edition, Revised May 2012, and are included Local Authorities guidance, including that of Tower Hamlets, so there was no excuse for officiants or participants.

The situation is similar in Scotland where the advice of the General Register Office for Scotland is

“There is no legally prescribed form of words to be used in relation to ‘marriage vows’ in Scotland. The marriage ceremony can be conducted in English – or in any other language (including Gaelic and Scots), so long as all parties (including the celebrant) can understand the language (with the services of a translator if necessary).”


“As a civil ceremony is non-religious in all aspects, all readings and music must be of a secular nature.”

Nevertheless, one of the options for the vows suggested by Dundee City Council includes the words:

 “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘til death us do part and there to I pledge thee my troth.”


On hearing that she could not use the traditional wording, the bride said

“Ever since I was 11, I just imagined that they would be the words I would use when I married my husband.”

Perhaps the couple should have opted for a Church of England wedding, where ministers are obliged to solemnize the marriage of anyone within the parish (or with a qualifying connection), unless of course one of them has been divorced or is a person of acquired gender [3]. Or possibly a civil marriage in Dundee.


[1] “the world’s oldest surviving Grand Music Hall and London’s best kept secret”

[2] “ . . . . . . each of the Parties shall declare,

‘I do solemnly declare, That I know not of any lawful Impediment why I A.B. may not be joined in Matrimony to C.D.’

And each of the Parties shall say to the other,

‘I call upon these Persons here present to witness that I A.B. do take thee C.D. to be my lawful wedded Wife [or Husband.]’”

[3] Matrimonial Causes Act 1965, s. 8(2); para.3, Part 1, Schedule 4 to the Gender Recognition Act 2004, inserts a new section 5A into the Marriage Act 1949.

Cite this article as: David Pocklington, "“Religious” content of civil marriage ceremonies" in Law & Religion UK, 5 July 2013, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2013/07/05/religious-content-of-civil-marriage-ceremonies/