Ceremony Types 101

Religious or civil? That's one of the most important decisions you'll face during the ceremony-planning process. The answer will help determine who officiates, where you exchange vows, and what elements you include in your ceremony. It may already be clear to you which way you'll go, but if not, read on.

Religious Ceremonies

While a civil ceremony is all that you need to be legally married, many people want their church or congregation to recognize their marriage, too. A religious ceremony is officiated by a religious leader and incorporates the wedding customs, traditions, and rules of that faith, along with the state's legal requirements. The wedding can be short and sweet or long and lavish, although it generally follows a specific format prescribed by the religion. The precise elements may depend on the branch and, sometimes, the particular congregation.

A religious service can be held in a church, temple, mosque, or meeting room, and some clergy will officiate at nonreligious sites. You'll likely be required to have several sessions of prewedding counseling with your officiant as well

Maybe you believe in God or some other spiritual force but not in organized religion, and prefer to have an alternative, clergy member (a Unitarian minister or an officiant from the American Humanist Association or Ethical Culture movement, for example) to do the honors.

Interfaith Ceremonies

He's Jewish and you're Christian? Or, your parents are Catholic, his are Muslim, and you two practice Buddhism? If one of you plans to convert to the other's religion, the ceremony can be a great time to begin involvement with the new faith. If you plan to keep your individual faiths, you may want to create an interfaith ceremony as the first of a lifetime of blending rituals.

Each religion has its own view on interfaith unions, from "Go for it!" to "No way." Some religions and sects leave the decision up to individual clergy members. If both of your religions are somewhat flexible, you may look for an officiant from each to preside over a joint ceremony. This is the most complicated plan but also the most popular because it guarantees that each side's beliefs are included. It also reflects the meaning of marriage: You're joining your lives. Your officiant(s) about which religious traditions won't conflict with the tenets of the other. Your officiant(s) can help you identify customs which religious traditions won't conflict with the tenets of the other, and help you choose readings and musical selections, consult texts from both religions. Consider reading passages from each other's faith, or asking family members to do so. Create as many opportunities for family to participate as possible; it will make everyone feel included in this joining of two different backgrounds.

Civil Ceremonies

A civil ceremony isn't necessarily a drive-through, Vegas-style affair. "Civil" merely means in accordance with the state's laws rather than in the eyes of a church, mosque, or temple. A civil ceremony is presided over by a legal official—a judge, magistrate, justice of the peace, county or court clerk, mayor, or notary public (not, despite what you may have heard, a ship captain—unless he also holds one of the above civil titles).

The exact requirements vary from state to state (and even from county to county) but generally include a charge to the couple ("Do you, Tracy, take Todd to be your lawfully wedded husband...?), a ring exchange, and the pronouncement of marriage by the officiant. Beyond the paperwork, it's pretty much up to you where you wed (providing that your officiant agrees to come). Call the county's marriage license bureau or visit their website for details on the civil process and requirements in your wedding location.

Same-Sex Ceremonies

As laws are changing across the country (and world) with regards to who can legally wed, more and more states are recognizing gay marriages as legal unions just like any other. Others still do not allow same-sex marriages to be performed, but will recognize unions performed in other states that do recognize gay marriages.

  • Legal Ceremonies
    If you live in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage, you can ask a judge or justice of the peace to sanction your union, or you can contact an Ethical Humanist officiant. You can also ask a dear friend or relative to get ordained and do you the honor. If you'd like to have a religious ceremony, speak with a minister or rabbi from the congregation to which you or your partner belongs. Or, contact a Unitarian Universalist, Universal Life, or Metropolitan Community church, all of which support same-sex unions. You can also look for an officiant from a religion that leaves the decision to individual clergy (Buddhist, some Protestant, Reform Jewish). If you choose a religious officiant or another person affiliated with a group (such as an Ethical Humanist), he or she may give you "sample" ceremony wording from which to work. Like any wedding, the more secular the officiant, the more creative license you will likely have over what is said, read, sung, or played during the ceremony.
  • Commitment Ceremonies
    If you live in a state that does not legally recognize same-sex marriages (including marriages performed in other states), you can opt for a civil union, performed by judges, justices of the peace, or clergy. Having a commitment ceremony or Holy Union serves the same purposes as a traditional wedding: It makes a public proclamation of your love and intent to remain together; joins your family and friends to support your union; gives you a sense of permanence, stability, and security; and helps you to gain domestic partner status (in some states). A commitment ceremony can incorporate any or all of the traditional wedding customs, or you can do something completely different. Pretty much anything goes here, as you're not bound by religious or legal restrictions. A civil servant is somewhat gratuitous, since his or her primary role is normally to legalize the event, but you can ask a judge or justice of the peace or a member of your clergy to symbolically sanction your ceremony. Since it's not legally sanctioned, you can also ask a layperson to conduct your ceremony.
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