What is a humanist wedding ceremony?

A common question from couples just venturing into the world of wedding planning. And one that we’ve certainly seen an increase in just recently. Who better to tell us what a humanist wedding ceremony is than Rachael Meyer, a full time humanist celebrant in Harrogate. We’ve asked Rachael to explain the differences between civil ceremonies and humanist ceremonies and what you can expect from a celebrant-led ceremony.

Dare to be different with a humanist ceremony at The Sun Pavilion in Harrogate

Couples often spend months sourcing suppliers and details to make their wedding day different and memorable. Rightly so. But more often than not, the detail in the beating heart of the day – the wedding ceremony – is overlooked. Many couples don’t realise that a humanist ceremony offers a bespoke, highly personalised and relaxed alternative to a civil ceremony. Humanist wedding ceremonies are an ideal way to surprise and delight you and your guests. Completely different from the norm, they are never boring. They’re couple-centric, interesting, romantic and fun. A humanist wedding ceremony will get everyone buzzing from the outset and it’ll be sure to leave a lasting impression.

How does the experience of a civil ceremony and a humanist ceremony differ?

A civil ceremony is a standardised, legal ceremony delivered by a Registrar and assistant from your Local Authority. Bar name changes, readings and music, once you’ve seen one, you’ve pretty much seen them all. The legal paperwork is carried out within the ceremony. Humanist ceremonies are completely different every single time because every single couple has a different story and a different outlook. They are written and delivered by a celebrant who you can choose to fit your style. The content can be led entirely by the couple to include anything and everything they so desire. The legal paperwork is carried out separately to the ceremony.

What happens in a humanist ceremony?

Humanist ceremonies are not new – they’ve been around for over a hundred years. What makes them so special is that they’re written and delivered by a professional celebrant, trained and accredited by the charity Humanists UK. They provide a non-religious, meaningful alternative to a civil ceremony. The structure can be fairly traditional or highly creative. They’re based on modern life and relationships rather than archaic laws.

Humanist wedding ceremonies often include all the excitement, trappings and traditions of a civil ceremony but always have tons more personality. During a lengthy ceremony planning meeting, you get to know your chosen celebrant and they get to know you. You’ll be guided through a host of options and ideas to include, based on your personalities and story. Your celebrant will then take time to write you a completely original script, which she or he will deliver on the day, like an old friend.

You can include contributions from family and friends, children or even your dog, (yes!) The ceremony can feature readings or poetry, rousing songs, any kind of music you like, your own vows, and rituals such as a ring exchange and the signing of a certificate. Also included are the couple’s love story and their views on their relationship, love and marriage.

What else can be included in a humanist ceremony?

Some couples like to keep it simple and traditional but if you want to be creative, you can add another symbolic act or ritual. Examples include handfasting, oath stone vows, sand mixing, the sealing of a lock box or a unity candle ceremony. Whatever the content, humanist wedding ceremonies tend to be a roller coaster of sincerity, visual delight, romance, humour, tears of loveliness and belly laughs.

After you walk down the aisle, you will not spend the whole ceremony with your backs to your guests. You’ll engage with friends and family who will laugh and cry through your love story. They’ll understand your values and watch you make lifetime commitments to each other. They’ll be reaching for their tissues or cheering as you perform some visually emotional or hilarious symbolic acts.

At the end of it all, you get to keep your documented love story and personalised wedding script. This is delivered to you in a lovely presentation folder.

Who is Humanists UK?

Humanism is a centuries-old non-religious philosophy centred around kindness, fairness and respect for all humans, other species and the planet we all share. Humanists believe that we only get one life that we know about, so we should live it to the best of our ability, think for ourselves, treat others well and celebrate life as best we can. Humanists UK is the UK arm of the international charity that supports human rights, equality for all and freedom of thought. It has a specific team to train, accredit and monitor its national network of humanist celebrants to ensure a consistently high standard of meaningful non-religious ceremonies for all of life’s milestones.

Can anyone have a humanist ceremony?

Couples usually engage the services of a humanist celebrant because they identify as humanists or feel that the general ethos matches their own. You don’t have a to be a humanist to have a humanist wedding ceremony but most people wanting a humanist ceremony share humanist beliefs and values.

Most choose a humanist ceremony just because they are religion-free, bespoke, joyous, relaxed, different and memorable. Some couples appoint a celebrant because the Registrar is not available to come to their venue. Some couples choose a humanist ceremony because they want their wedding ceremony to be held in an unlicensed venue, on a beach, in a village hall or in a garden.

Humanist ceremonies also often appeal to couples whose families have different faiths or cultural traditions. They are so much more meaningful than a quick civil ceremony and everyone feels included.

Are humanist celebrants the same as independent celebrants?

There are two types of celebrant: humanist celebrants (accredited by Humanists UK) and independent celebrants. Humanist celebrants offer non-religious ceremonies only. They work independently of each other, have their own unique style and set their own fee structures but they are all trained the same way. They are trained by Humanists UK and bonded by regional and national Humanist Ceremonies networks.

A humanist celebrant will not lead any prayers or permit any act of worship in their ceremony but religious and cultural reference may be included. This could be in the form of a song, cultural symbolism (eg candle lighting, handfasting or glass smashing), or a personal blessing or reading by a family member or friend if the couple so wishes and if the celebrant agrees! Just ask the question!

At the outset, humanist celebrants are interviewed for their writing, presentation and people skills. They undergo extensive, separate training and mentoring for each discipline and are accredited and regularly peer reviewed by appointed celebrants to ensure professional competency, quality and consistency across the board. Each year, every celebrant is required to demonstrate many hours of continual professional development through conferences, workshops, independent learning and information sharing via the network. This creates a platform and a passion for sharing ideas on styles, vows, symbolic acts, readings, music and anything else that’s traditional, unusual or trending.

Celebrants also pay fees to Humanists UK to support the work of the charity and to be part of this network. Celebrants are supported and insured by Humanists UK and they can provide cover for each other in an emergency. New humanist celebrants are very well supported and get plenty of experience and mentoring before they start their professional journey.

What about independent celebrants?

Over the past ten years, there’s been a big influx of new, independent celebrants on the scene. This is due to the rising popularity of celebrant-led ceremonies. Independent celebrants will include religious content and lead prayer in their ceremonies but other than that, in terms of structure, style, content and fee, a ceremony may – or may not – be similar to that of a humanist celebrant. Anyone can perform a non-legal ceremony so there is no requirement for an independent celebrant to have received any official training. They also don’t have to demonstrate any qualification in order to advertise their services.

Independent celebrants are however usually trained by commercial organisations and all have different skills, style and experience. Some independent celebrants hold a Level 3 qualification. Once their training is complete, they work completely independently. They set their own fees and are not required to undergo peer reviews, demonstrate competency, CPD or be part of an official network.

Currently (February 2021) the Law Commission for Weddings is looking at the rules for the legalisation of humanist ceremonies and independent ceremonies separately.

How do I book a humanist wedding?

If you like the idea of a humanist wedding, vow renewal or civil partnership, the first thing you should do is search for a celebrant. One based close to your venue is ideal. Step two is to ask if they’re available and have a chat with them. Popular celebrants can get booked up quite far in advance as most only do one wedding a day. This is so they can be flexible with timings, get to venues easily and give you their full attention.

Some humanist celebrants have their own website and some rely solely on the “Find a Celebrant” facility on the Humanists UK website. In order to find the best celebrant for you, read reviews, ask your venue for recommendations, look at photographs of ceremonies the celebrant has performed, watch videos of them in action, ask them questions about their experience and training and read the content on their websites, on blog posts and social media. This will give you an idea of their style, flexibility and creativity and will showcase professional talents that will make your day incredible.

What is the legal situation?

If you want your marriage or civil partnership to be legally recognised, you need to engage the services of a certified Registrar or a religious minister in a licensed building (not all religions are covered).

A non-religious civil ceremony can take place in the Register Office or in a licensed venue. The legal ceremony is short, basic and standardised. Although you can include readings and music, the ceremony script is fairly rigid in terms of what is permitted. The wording contains contractual agreement terms, you may not be able to have your choice of music etc, and you may not have met your officiants before your big day. The focus of your ceremony will be the legal contract you sign. You may have a blessing by a religious minister or a humanist ceremony after the legal ceremony, but the ceremonies must be entirely separate. You will be legally married at the end of a civil ceremony.

Humanist ceremonies are not legally binding but they are completely unique to each couple, highly personalised, engaging, meaningful and fun. There are no rules, you know your celebrant well and the ceremony usually lasts anywhere between 20 and around 45 minutes.

Is this likely to change in the future?

Humanist ceremonies are legally recognised in Scotland, Ireland and some Channel Islands but not yet in England and Wales. Thanks to a body of work by Humanists UK and the Law Commission, it is hoped that the government will grant legal recognition for humanist weddings in any location in the UK within the next couple of years.

Until then, couples choosing a humanist ceremony will continue to look at signing the legal marriage certificate as just completing the necessary paperwork from their wedding day. In much the same way as they might when registering a birth or death at the Register Office. This is how all civil weddings are conducted in some European countries and so it’s nothing new.

The most common and cost-effective route for couples wanting a celebrant-led wedding ceremony is to go through the Local Authority protocols. Having a statutory civil ceremony with two witnesses at the Register Office. This could be in the days or weeks before or after their humanist ceremony. This is usually in the region of £50, depending on your Local Authority. These ceremonies are very short and usually offered on midweek days. Some couples choose to ask the Registrar to attend their venue on their wedding day to complete the legal paperwork. This is certainly possible but more expensive.

The plus side of not being legally recognised just now is that humanist ceremonies can be held anywhere. The venue does not have to hold a license for weddings and ceremonies can be conducted anywhere – inside or outside.