How do you have a wedding ceremony without a Bible?

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Photo by Di Bezi
I'm in the extremely early stages of a wedding (pre-engagement early). I like to plan things ahead of time.

I've never been to a non-religious wedding. What is said for the wedding part? That is what I'm trying to figure out.

All I know is the Bible related stuff with a priest or preacher.

I've thought about potentially asking law/political science/sociology friends to officiate the wedding, but I'm afraid of them being in the same boat as me.

-Andy

Andy, kudos to you for doing your research with plenty of time to spare. The joy of a secular wedding ceremony is that pretty much anything goes! The pain of a secular wedding ceremony is that all that freedom can be overwhelming. Some couples who have traditional religious ceremonies decide to do so not because they're especially religious but because, well, following a ceremony template is way, WAY easier.

(To clarify, I'm ALL for couples having Bible-based ceremonies … if the folks getting married are practicing Christians. But I think it's disrespectful to smile and nod your way through a religious service you don't actually believe in, so I vote for secular couples going for secular ceremonies.)

That said, I've got lots of ideas for you.

First, take a look at my archive of guidance posts about ceremonies. You'll find everything from vows referencing zombies to how to build a ceremony for a shy couple, to ideas for great secular readings to include in your service. If you read only one post, make it this one: Wedding Ceremony 101: Crafting your own wedding ceremonies from scratch.

I've recently featured several modern ceremony components like unity candles, unity cocktails, sand ceremonies, and ring warmings. Between Offbeat Bride and the rest of the web, there are a bazillion secular ceremony ideas out there, and no shortage of books!

Perhaps the best advice, however, is to find a truly great officiant/celebrant who can help you with this process. I've featured several celebrants and officiant stories on Offbeat Bride, and you might get some inspiration there. A good officiant will be the perfect combo of thoughtful adviser, skilled writer, and excellent public speaker. Don't be afraid to ask around with your law/political science/sociology friends — you may be surprised to find that some of them are already internet ordained and have helped with other friends' weddings!

Also, be sure to check out our post on how to write your own ceremony: Wedding Ceremony 101

  1. My fiance comes from a Catholic family and I from a Jewish and Catholic family, but neither of us is particularly religious. We hired an officiant (for those of you in the NY area, Rev. Sheila Gay – she's fantastic!) who will be using some elements of each religion to pay respect to our parents and families (and because my mom HAD to have the glass breaking!) and will also be using some Buddhist readings (FI was a philosphy/religion major and we spent a year in Japan) to make it really personalized. We didn't want to do any rituals that didn't feel authentic – if we feel silly doing them, then what's the point? I'm excited to have a ceremony so tailored to us.

    7 agree
    • I know this comment is from a long time ago but we also hired Sheila for our wedding (in a few weeks). She's pretty awesome. We met with her yesterday and both me and my uber shy fiance felt comfortable enough to step outside the box and do a few things we normally wouldn't do. She put us at ease and and it's totally worth finding someone who can help sculpt your ceremony into one you are comfortable with!!

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  2. Ariel, this is a fabulous post – I often get questions when I meet people and explain what I do that are just like this – sometimes, when the only weddings you've seen are in a church, it's hard to figure out how to REMOVE religion from the wedding, and still have a very relevant, personal, emotional, and special ceremony. But we do exist, and we create ceremonies that are based on love, marriage, relationships, commitment, and all of the awesome things that go into a wedding and a marriage, with as much or as little God or religion as you see fit.

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  3. I highly recommend "The Wedding Ceremony Planner: The Essential Guide to the Most Important Part of Your Wedding Day" by Judith Johnson. It has the ceremony structure laid out with passages to select for both religious and non-religious ceremonies. I am Wiccan and my fiance is Agnostic, so we are completely leaving religion out of the ceremony and putting more emphasis on family ties and love. I was able to put together the perfect ceremony for us, piece by piece. It's a great read, and you can find it at any bookstore or on Amazon.

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    • I second this. The entire structure of our ceremony was pulled from this book and our officiant (my Mom, who is religious) was able to craft a very meaningful ceremony without the slightest hint of a higher power.

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  4. We had a spiritual, nonsectarian ceremony (we are Christian and pagan, both with Buddhist leanings). We found a great celebrant who gave us sample ceremonies and let us change then however we wanted. The freedom can be daunting, but I got a lot of ideas here and on indiebride. We also incorporated a ring-warming, which was lovely. Have fun!

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  5. We had our good friend, a physicist, officiate our wedding, and for his "sermon" (really his affirmation), he read text from the Massachusetts court case affirming that civil marriages were a civil right. It was actually really moving. The rest of the ceremony was readings and our vows (which we just wrote ourselves).

    Funny story: I hadn't written my vows before the rehearsal, so when we walked through the ceremony to measure how long it took, I just made something up off the top of my head. I think I said, "I vow to keep the whiskey warm and the beer cold…" After the ceremony, a bunch of people who had been at the rehearsal said they were disappointed that I didn't leave that part in my vows!

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  6. Since the state of Alaska allows you to appoint anyone as your marriage commissioner for a day, we asked a close friend to perform our nonreligious ceremony. She and I scoured the internet for interesting and relevant pieces and parts and came up with something that highlighted our beliefs as a couple. We wrote our own vows and ended the ceremony with "The Art of Marriage" by Wilferd Arlan Peterson. It was short, sweet, and perfect for us. As long as it feels appropriate for you and your partner, run with it and make it your own. =)

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  7. Some states will let you use *anyone* to officiate a wedding. They have to go to the county building, get a day pass deputization, and follow a general script for it to be official.

    We had a non-religious ceremony (agnostics/deists represent!) and our officiant felt awkward holding *nothing*, so instead of a bible he brought his ancient, well-worn copy of "Lord of The Rings". No one noticed except us!

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  8. I'm agnostic and my fiancee is Catholic, but we decided we didn't want it to be a preachy ceremony. Since I am not Catholic, we obviously couldn't have a priest officiate (as is tradition for Catholics) and I did not want to convert just because of that, because I simply do not share those beliefs and felt I would be dishonoring his religion, him and myself were I to lie and pretend to be something I am not. Futhermore, I would have felt horribly uncomfortable having religion in my ceremony since I am not religious, so we decided on a great officiant who is a justic of the peace. It was nice that he had his own vows pre written too, because I found the task of writing my own a bit daunting with all the other things I am doing for the big day. It would have been just one more thing and would have overwhealmed me (even though I'm usually very creative). We're having a very basic ceremony, which focuses on the bond of love rather than the role of religion. It fits us perfectly and we're very pleased with it. I think you might want to look at Justice of the Peace's in your area as an alternative.
    Good luck on your big day! :)

    1 agrees
  9. I highly recommend finding a certified celebrant. I'm getting married in May in a non-religious ceremony officiated by a celebrant. She is tailoring our wedding to our personalities, desires, and vision. It is nice to be able to hand over the responsibility while still feeling intimately connected to the content. If you're in or near Chicago check her out: http://www.meaningfulmarguerite.com/

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  10. We both work in the courts, so a friend who is a justice of the peace will be marrying us. She gave us lots of examples to work with, but just googling "Secular Wedding Ceremonies" went a long way too! For the record, I'm Christian, but don't believe that I need to be married in a church for my marriage to be accepted or recognized and my fiance is an atheist. It meant a lot more to him that we be married by someone secular than it meant to me to be married in a church. Compromise is everything!

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  11. I was just in my friends wedding (which was very "onbeat'). I felt this way during their ceremony, that is just wasn't for them at all and since I am also planning our very different wedding this whole thing was perfect for us! Thanks

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  12. We had the town's mayor officiate, and he said a generic "Do you promise to X, Y, and Z?" But the bulk of the ceremony was taken up by Hubby's sister reading Edward Monkton's "A Lovely Love Story". The whole thing took about 10 minutes, in and out and adorable all at the same time :)

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  13. Some states have a basic legal requirement that looks something like this:

    Officiant to bride: Do you?
    Bride:Yes
    Officiant to groom: Do you?
    Groom: Yes.
    Officiant: I now proclaim you are married.

    Everything added beyond that is just frosting on the cake.

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  14. I was honored to officiate at my sister's wedding – I put all the vows in a Curious George binder – everyone loved it! :-)

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  15. Crystal- actually you could have a priest officiate, but you couldn't do a Mass (or it's discouraged, don't remember exactly). We did the Catholic thing, and I remember seeing that in a lot of places.

    We tried really hard to make the readings reflect us-not easy in a Catholic ceremony! But we picked one from the Song of Songs (which is a poem about lovers), the Corinthians bit which, while very very common, meant a lot to us (Love is patient, love is kind…), and, my favorite, the story of the wedding at Canaan- the water to wine bit (husband and I enjoy a good drink…or several).

    Sorry, I think I got off-topic. I love all of the non-religious readings, though. Some I've seen on the site are beautiful. Hooray for meangful passages!

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  16. We used a magistrate from the courthouse & he was nice enough to come over to our venue. Agreeing with Danielle, we had to agree to it and that was about it.

    Here's a link to our vows, if you're interested in it.
    http://tinyurl.com/n5t3hu

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  17. My fiance and I are going the easy route: civil ceremony at the courthouse downtown, party the next day. We love each other but don't love planning and ceremony. The civil ceremony will be just us and our parents and will be elegant and to the point. We'll probably have some speechy toasts at the party, but I don't particularly want to do my marrying in front of a crowd, and as it turns out, I don't have to.

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  18. I haven't fully decided on the setup of our ceremony but I do like the words of Susan B. Anthony, originally written by Lucretia Mott: "May your independence be equal, your dependence mutual, your obligations reciprocal."

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  19. "I think it's disrespectful to smile and nod your way through a religious service you don't actually believe in, so I vote for secular couples going for secular ceremonies"<—Such a GREAT point. I am a practicing Christian, so obviously a lot of the rituals mean something to me, but I would much rather see a couple who isn't Christian pick something that is relevant and close to their hearts. I love ceremonies that seem to really represent the couple. My advice for planning a secular ceremony is to be creative… are there song lyrics that mean something to you? a poem? a story? a line from a movie?

    2 agree
    • Agreed, that it is a great point not to just smile and nod your way through something because that is what others expect!!

      I'm an ordained Christian minister and have married a few folks who I know aren't practicing Christians and have basically said, "You're making these promises, don't fake any part of it" so we've reworked things to respect where the bride and groom are at in their faith walk or lack-thereo-of. That said, I am a Christian minister so if I work with a couple who want a totally secular ceremony I just refer them out to a judge (we have 2 in our congregation).

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  20. We were lucky to find a retired Unitarian Universalist minister who married us– none of the judges would come out on a Saturday! (Unitarian Universalists do not subscribe to a particular creed, but have an open mind about religion– it is not a Christian church). She emailed us the ceremony in advance and edited it when we met with her. She had one reference to the G-word that we omitted. UU ministers are probably a good resource. We definitely lucked out!

    1 agrees
    • Just to clarify, some UUs consider themselves Christian, and many UU ministers are happy to incorporate Christian elements in their ceremonies. But I wholeheartedly agree that UU churches/ministers are a great resources for building an individualized ceremony.

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  21. I too am glad that this issue has been addressed. As a practicing Christian, I find it disrespectful when one uses such ideals within their wedding ceremony for the sake of convenience rather than reverence. Major props for showing secular couples that there is a way to have a meaningful wedding ceremony without making a mockery of one's beliefs.

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    • I sort of agree with you. My wedding will be completely devoid of references to the supernatural because my fiancée and I are physicalists. I would regard anything less as disrespectful toward us and toward the believers of the supernatural beliefs that we were faking.

      My parents will not be attending my wedding because, to them, a non-religious wedding is not a "real" wedding. I hope that my siblings will be attending, but I'm not sure yet. Fortunately, this is a relatively minor price to pay for integrity, and they will still be part of our lives before and after the wedding. That is not the case for everyone.

      My sister hears what my parents say when I'm not around and, consequently, she has decided to never reveal to them that she is also not religious. As a young single mother, she needs their support in a visceral way that I do not. She may someday have a religious wedding ceremony, and I trust that she has very good reasons for that. I agree that there are many very bad reasons for a non-religious person to have a religious ceremony, and I also give props to anyone who refuses to participate in an untruth, but I really don't feel that you or I are in a place to judge whether someone else's "convenience" is worth faking a religious ceremony.

      10 agree
  22. I like the book, "Weddings From the Heart" by Daphne Rose Kingma – it has many ideas for ceremonies, including vows & readings. another one I really like is "Handfasting and Wedding Rituals" by Raven Kaldera & Tannin Schwartzstein. Intended as a guide for pagan weddings, this book has lovely rituals that can be incorporated into any non-religious ceremony. I've used it as a reference several times when planning ceremonies for couples who wanted secular weddings.

    Hope that helps!

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    • We found this book really helpful, too. It has an outline of the typical protestant ceremony, with explanations of what each section is. We took that outline and built our own secular ceremony around it.

      1 agrees
  23. Great question! I've been wondering the same. I can't wait to look into everyone's ideas!

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  24. Are non-religious weddings not that common in the US?

    I'm in Australia, and all the weddings I've been to, plus 99% of the ones I've heard about second-hand, have been non-religious. I would regard non-religious weddings as the norm and religious ones as out of the ordinary – but that could just be down to my family and peer group I suppose.

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    • Bonnie, that's a great question. 75% of Americans identify as Christian, so if you want to extrapolate from there (some Christians won't have a religious service, but then there are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc weddings as well) I would say it's safe to assume that at least 3/4ths of American weddings are religious. That sounds about right to me in terms of the weddings I've attended, too.

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  25. In the UK, civil (non-religious) marriages are pretty rigid. They can have NO religious wording, songs or readings at all and have to be performed by a registrar at an approved premises. You can add readings and music and other bits and pieces to personalise it, but they are all checked for mention of gods/religion first. Also there are two legal requirements, one that you say you are free to marry and one that you agree to marry and these must be said in English.
    None of these factors bother me as I'm not religious and speak English, but I am always so envious of those in the US who can have a friend officiate, and hold the ceremony wherever they want, rather than an "Approved Premises" as we do here.
    @Bonnie – I guess I've been to about 50/50 religious and civil weddings – not sure if that's the norm here though…

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  26. We're both Christian, but she's MtF transgender and I'm bisexual, and we both have been on the boards for educational kinky groups and have lived together for a few years, so we needed a ceremony that fit us and our own community, and didn't squick out the vanillas or family who don't know about that part of our lives. Our welcome mentioned that our love had grown and deepened in our time together and we had decided to live our lives together in marriage. We got an officiant who is prominent in our lifestyle who is also able to do weddings, and she was Fabulous! She had enough force of personality to make sure some of my twitchy family didn't say a word when it came to objections.

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  27. We asked our town's mayor to conduct our ceremony. We gave him a few things to say about us and then my wife and I recited our vows. The wedding was short and simple and our guests got to enjoy and extended party.

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  28. Thank you SOOO much for this post! I am a non-practicing Catholic and my Fiance is Athiest. Interesting yes indeed!! I have been wondering how we were going to do this. I am having one of our closest friends to marry us as she knows us and our views. I will share more after halloween (our wedding date) on how it goes!

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  29. Ineed some advice. My fiance and my families are SUPER religious – his is devout Catholic and my family is so religious that there are four generations of ministers in front of me. That being said, neither of us are religious and feel like we would be hypocrites to stand up there and go along with someone else's beliefs.
    I actually am ordained online so i could officiate my best friend's wedding. When i had done this, my Episcopalian minister father almost literally had kittens about my decision and he is still quite miffed.
    So… how does one have a non-religious wedding to appease the religious in the family? My family would not be ok with us asking a friend to get ordained as they wouldn't see it as us taking it seriously.
    We are trying to work in customs from both sides of our heritage (inlcuding an Irish blessing) to make them happy but who do i ask to preside over the ceremony? Do i hire a lawyer or something?
    Any ideas would be fabulous!! Thank you!!

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  30. I had great luck googling "unitarian wedding ceremonies" and "secular wedding ceremonies" as others above have states. We also wanted a traditional format so I looked at several Christian formats but worked with the secular example to find appropriate replacements. (Ex. Instead of a priest leading a prayer, the officiant is offering a moment in silence for contemplation.)

    Our friend is officiating and just had to apply for a one-day license from the state governor's office (Massachusetts allows this, not all states do). He's crafting the welcome/intro around the Mass Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage.

    In the early stages, I collected any and all passages and readings that spoke to me and then created a broad outline of the main components of the ceremony where I cut and paste them in, made edits, rewrote things, etc. It took some time to do the initial research, but actually putting it all together happened pretty quickly as by that time we had a good sense of what we really wanted to convey.

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  31. My family is also super religious, and my mother was very upset about my brother getting married on the beach in Mexico by an internet ordained friend. Luckily, in the end they were able to appease her by asking her to do a reading for the wedding that meant something to her. Of course, she read something from the Bible, but it was sweet and she was happy and therefore…so was everyone else.

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  32. Just to follow up on my previous question – I've just read a news article saying that in Australia last year, 65% of wedding ceremonies were performed by civil celebrants (i.e. they weren't religious ceremonies). That's actually a fair bit lower than I would have estimated, but I guess you can put that down to me not hanging out with many religious folk.

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  33. I'd love to share my secular wedding. Today is my 1 year anniversary. Happy Fall Equinox!

    http://www.mywedding.com/TomAndRebecca

    We posted our entire ceremony script that we wrote ourselves using little bits we found around and a whole lot from our hearts.

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  34. My husband and I were married in a ceremony that was completely non-religious, never once named any God or god or Goddess, no one prayed and yet, it was one of the most meaningful weddings I've ever been to. Our guests agreed! We had our most amazing officiant to thank, she worked with us diligently with suggestions back and forth until we all came up with the perfect ceremony.

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  35. I whole heartedly agree. This is your day, why include something that means nothing to you or your intended spouse when there are so many ways to incorporate ideas that do mean something to you.

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  36. One thing that I discovered that we are doing to be inclusive of everyone is a stone blessing — we will have stones for each person in attendance and our officiant will ask everyone to silently say a blessing over their stone for my fiance and i. the stones will be collected so we can keep them in a vase in our home. This is a really diplomatic way to be super-inclusive of everyone! We both come from super-religious families who are gritting their teeth at the idea that we're having a secular service, and they all breathed a sigh of relief when they found out that they would, after all, be allowed to celebrate our marriage in their own way without causing us any grief.

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  37. I had no idea what to do either, but I got lucky and a pair of secular/pagan friends got married this last fall. They had different music, different readings, different unity ceremonies, it was so cool! The vows opened with "You cannot own me…" I was over the moon. Neatest ceremony I have ever been to.
    So I have employed this friend for her wise ceremony advice. She's so awesome to help me.

    1 agrees
  38. i do not mind either ceremony, really. There are many different types of religions and religious ceremonies other than Christian that I have to sit and listen to. I have been to Hindu weddings, Christian weddings, Muslim weddings, and they were all heavily religious. I just have respect and understand completely where they are coming from!!!! I do hope guests I invite to my wedding will do the same.

    1 agrees

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