Civil ceremony with religious vows?

  • December 4, 2018
  • 125

Should couples marrying in civil ceremonies be able to use religious rituals and vows within their ceremony

According to a new study by Dr Stephanie Pywell from The Open University Law School and Professor Rebecca Probert from the University of Exeter Law School, couples marrying (or entering into a Civil Partnership) in civil ceremonies should have the choice to have religious vows, readings, music and rituals during their ceremony. Their work has been reported as being the first investigation into the words and rituals that are requested by couples. It is anticipated that this research will feed into a new Law Commission review on current marriage legislation.


The current position


This issue was raised in 2013 when a couple due to wed in Wilton’s Music Hall were told that the words ‘in sickness and in health’ and ‘to have and to hold’ could not form part of their marriage vows as they were ‘too religious’ for a civil ceremony.

When civil marriage was first introduced in 1836, there were no such restrictions. There appear to have come into being with the Marriage and Registration Act 1856 which stated that “ … at no Marriage solemnized at the Registry Office of any District shall any Religious Service be used at such Registry Office.”

There have been various pieces of legislation over the years which have set out what is and what is not allowed to form part of a civil marriage ceremony. These provisions have perhaps most clearly (and most recently) been stated in the Marriages and Civil Partnerships (Approved Premises) Regulations 2005. These include provisions such as:


  • Any proceedings conducted on approved premises shall not be religious in nature.
  • In particular, the proceedings shall not—
    • include extracts from an authorised religious marriage service or from sacred religious texts;
    • be led by a minister of religion or other religious leader;
    • involve a religious ritual or series of rituals;
    • include hymns or other religious chants; or,
    • include any form of worship.
  • But the proceedings may include readings, songs, or music that contain an incidental reference to a god or deity in an essentially non-religious context.
  • For this purpose any material used by way of introduction to, in any interval between parts of, or by way of conclusion to the proceedings shall be treated as forming part of the proceedings.


These requirements have since been included in the Registrar General’s Guidance for the Approval of Premises as Venue for Civil Marriages and Civil Partnerships, Sixth Edition (June 2015) where it is made clear that the registrars themselves are compelled to exclude anything that they deem to be “religious in nature”.


Conclusion of Research


The study highlights the unequal footing of the current prohibition on the inclusion of religious practice in the ceremony and further illustrates the presumption of registrars being experts in the marriage traditions of all religions.

The study asked registrars for their views on whether they would allow a selection of vows and rituals from various religions to be included in the civil marriage ceremony. The findings were:


  • 93% were willing to allow a vow taken from a Hindu marriage service


  • 79% were willing to allow words taken from the marriage vows of the Baha’i faith


  • only 25% were willing to allow the familiar words “to have and to hold”, which originate in the Church of England marriage ceremony. However, 89% were happy to allow the Church’s less familiar updated wording: “all that I am I give to you, and all that I have I share with you.”


Clearly this demonstrates that those who wish to marry using traditional Church of England vows are facing more issues because registrars are more familiar with those than other religious vows.




The study concluded that those entering into a civil partnership need clearer advice as to what they can and cannot do in their ceremony, and equally registrars need to be provided with better guidance on what is permitted.


Professor Probert stated that “the law in this area is in urgent need of reform – at a minimum to clarify what is required, and to eliminate inconsistencies in practice, and ideally to permit greater flexibility in what can be included in such ceremonies,” She further stressed that any new regulations must be carefully drafted to ensure that registrars are not expected to read religious wording as part of the ceremony, but allowing them to simply observe the words being said, or rituals performed. She stated that “this would mirror what registrars can already do when they attend places of worship to register religious marriages,”.


It is hoped that by reforming this aspect of the law, couples would be able to create vows based on their own beliefs and practice, and ensure that the solemn and magical occasion is perfect for every individual couple.


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