What Are the Differences Between a Religious, Spiritual, or Civil Wedding Ceremony?

This is the fourth and last guest posts by Rev. Judith Johnson author of The Wedding Ceremony Planner. Rev. Johnson also writes a weekly column about spirituality for The Huffington Post.

The first question you should answer about your wedding ceremony is  “do we want a civil, religious, or spiritual ceremony?”  Each one is distinctly different, and only one is truly right for you.

It is important to understand that there are two governing authorities for wedding ceremonies.  The legal requirements of marriage are legislated by the state (Alan – province in Canada) in which the ceremony will take place.  Who can be legally married in a given state, who can officiate at the service, and the content of the ceremony are all regulated to some degree by the state in which it takes place.  Here is a website where you can check out the requirements for the state where you will be married: www.1800bride2be.com/articles/marriagelaws_chart.htm.  The second authority for wedding ceremonies applies to religious ceremonies only.  Each religious tradition, and in some cases the specific officiant you choose, will have rules about what you can and cannot do in a wedding ceremony under their auspices.

The reason to choose a religious ceremony is to have that particular religious tradition recognize and sanction your marriage. If you want a religious wedding, here are some questions you should discuss with the particular officiant you would like to choose:

  • What rules and requirements does this religious tradition have regarding who and where a couple can be married?
  • What, if any, additional requirements does this particular officiant have?
  • Do they use a standard ceremony?  If so, what, if any, customization is permitted?
  • Are there any clothing or other regulations for the couple or the guests?

Another consideration for a religious ceremony is whether or not both individuals share the same religion.  If not, it might be appropriate to have a spiritual but not religious ceremony that can reflect the beliefs of both individuals but without the sanction of any religious tradition.

There is no religious authority governing either a civil or spiritual ceremony.  A civil ceremony is the fastest, easiest, most cost-effective way to get married.  Civil ceremonies are most commonly performed at a City Hall or Town Clerk’s office by a Justice of the Peace, Judge, Town Clerk, or Notary.  Some of these individuals are also available to come to another desired location to officiate at your ceremony.  A ship’s captain might also marry you at sea.  In some cases a minister, priest, or rabbi might be willing to marry you outside of their religious location and/or doctrines.  The faster a couple wants to get married in a civil ceremony, the less likely they are to be involved in designing the content of the ceremony and may be best served by letting the officiant use a standard and abbreviated text.

A spiritual ceremony offers the greatest opportunity to customize the wedding ceremony for couples who are not looking for religious sanction of their marriage but want a more spiritual expression than is available in a typical civil ceremony.  This is a good choice for couples who self-identify as spiritual but not religious or come from two different points of view regarding religion and spirituality.  They may want to acknowledge a spiritual dimension to the wedding union in language that speaks most profoundly to them. They might also include specific elements from their respective religious traditions or those of their families such as the use of a chuppah and the breaking of the glass in the Jewish tradition or incorporating the Lord’s Prayer in a Christian wedding.   For couples who want to have a unique ceremony, it is important to find an officiant who is supportive and willing to help them create the ceremony that is just right for them.  The best resource for finding an officiant for this kind of ceremony is either the location coordinator where you plan to be married or websites that list local resources for wedding vendors.  In this case look for an interfaith or ecumenical officiant and be sure to meet with them either by phone or in person to evaluate if they are the right fit for you.

The decision of whether to have a religious, civil, or spiritual wedding ceremony is important.  Be sure to talk this through with you partner and to find the right person to officiate so you can have the ceremony that is just perfect for the two of you.

Reverend Judith Johnson, PhD is an interfaith minister, ordained in 1985, and author of The Wedding Ceremony Planner: The Most Important Part of Your Wedding Day – the bestselling guide to wedding ceremony design.  If you have any questions or topics you would like her to address in a future blog, feel free to contact her at: judithjohnson@hvc.rr.com .

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