Religious content in civil wedding ceremonies

In a guest post, Professor Rebecca Probert, of Exeter University, and Dr Stephanie Pywell, of the Open University, summarise the findings of their recently-published research on what may and may not be included in a civil wedding ceremony – but sometimes is…  

Should it be possible for couples marrying in civil ceremonies to personalise them with religious vows, rituals, readings, and music? It might be argued that few would want to do so, and that those who want religious content can always marry in a place of worship. But with around two-thirds of all weddings taking place on ‘approved premises’ – that is, places licensed for the solemnisation of civil weddings – it may well be that couples are choosing a venue rather than rejecting religion. Inter-faith and same-sex couples may not have the option of marrying in a place of worship, and many religious couples do not necessarily see their place of worship as the appropriate place to marry.

With this in mind, we set out to investigate what the current law is, and how it operates. The Marriage Act 1949 simply prohibits any ‘religious service’ being used in a civil marriage ceremony (ss 45(2) and 46B(4)). But in 1995 – just after the option of having a civil marriage on approved premises was introduced – new regulations provided that anything included in a civil marriage ceremony ‘must be secular in nature’ (The Marriages (Approved Premises) Regulations 1995, SI 1995/510, Sch 2, para 11). This was soon recognized as being overly restrictive, and in 2005 new regulations specified instead that any additional material ‘shall not be religious in nature’ (The Marriages and Civil Partnerships (Approved Premises) Regulations 2005, SI 2005/3168, Sch 2, para 11).

In order to find out what couples wished to include, and what they would be permitted to include, in civil wedding ceremonies, we carried out two surveys. One was of couples who had recently married, or were planning to marry, in a civil ceremony in England. The second was of registration officers (ROs) who conduct civil marriage ceremonies in England’s 153 registration districts. We received 108 responses from couples whose weddings were planned in at least 45 registration districts, and 136 responses from ROs in 60 registration districts.

Couples had requested a wide range of vows that they had written themselves, readings and music. These had all been permitted, although a few had been asked to remove ‘religious’ content. Many couples were very complimentary about the personal and friendly service that they had received from ROs, although a small number reported confusion between ROs at the same register office regarding what was permissible, notably concerning requests to use the traditional words – ‘to have and to hold, to love and to cherish’.

We asked ROs to give us their instinctive responses about whether they would permit certain vows and rituals, and we recognise that in practice – as five respondents actually stated – they would check whether something was religious before deciding whether to permit it. The law leaves individual ROs to determine what is permissible in the civil ceremonies that they conduct, and our research shows that there is a significant variation in practice. It is important to note that our respondents were predominantly white Christians or atheists, and it is against that background that their recognition of different vows and rituals should be assessed.

Nearly 80% of respondents said that they would not permit ceremonies to include vows that were religious in nature but, when they were given a range of vows from various religious traditions, it became apparent that the only vow that is immediately recognised as ‘religious’ is the one from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (‘to have and to hold, to love and to cherish …’), which would not have been permitted by 75% of respondents. By contrast, words from its current successor, Common Worship (‘all that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you…’) would have been permitted by nearly 90% of respondents.

Vows from other religions were similarly not recognised and thus usually permitted unless deemed inappropriate for some other reason. For example, 93% of respondents were willing to allow a vow taken from a Hindu marriage service. Yet only 79% of respondents were willing to allow words taken from the marriage vows of the Baha’i faith, with some rejecting it because of its reference to humanity’s having wings of different genders. The comments on this particular vow suggest that ROs are very mindful of equality issues.

By contrast, rituals from various religions were more widely recognised, and generally would not have been permitted. The majority of respondents would not have permitted the Jewish custom of the groom breaking a glass by stamping on it, or the Hindu ritual of the father of the bride washing her future spouse’s feet. In both cases, however, a number based their refusal on health and safety factors or practical considerations.

Our conclusion was that most ROs take their role very seriously and are keen to accommodate couples’ wishes wherever possible. However, confusion and inconsistencies are arising because they cannot be expert in the marriage traditions of all religions. At the very least, more comprehensive guidance is needed. But it may be that it is time to rethink the current stark distinction between civil and religious marriages. While no RO should be expected to conduct a religious service, permitting ROs merely to observe couples saying religious words or participating in religious rituals would mirror what they can already do when they attend places of worship to register religious marriages.

Rather than excluding material that is religious, we suggest that the regulations should be changed to emphasise that the optional content of the ceremony must not in any way detract from the dignity and solemnity of the occasion. A wedding is one of the most important events in anyone’s life, so it is surely appropriate that every couple should be able to use words – whether secular or sacred – that they regard as creating a lifelong covenant between them.

See further S Pywell and R Probert, ‘Neither sacred nor profane: the permitted content of civil marriage ceremonies’ [2018] Child and Family Law Quarterly 415.

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Cite this article as: R Probert and S Pywell, “Religious content in civil ceremonies” in Law & Religion UK, 12 Dec 2018, https://www.lawandreligionuk.com/2018/12/12/religious-content-in-civil-wedding-ceremonies/

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