Church Wedding vs. Civil Ceremony: Which Should You Choose?

When planning a wedding, there are so many decisions to be made - from the dress, to the venue, to the guest list. Planning a wedding is certainly not easy if you’re indecisive!

One of the first choices you’ll have to make when it comes to wedding planning is what type of service you’ll have. Should you choose a religious ceremony at a church (or other holy building), or a civil ceremony at a secular venue, such as a hotel or town hall?

Obviously, some people will know immediately what they want based on their religious beliefs. But for some couples, it isn’t as easy. It might not immediately be obvious whether a church ceremony or civil ceremony would suit you better.
In this guide, we’ll go through the two types of service, including the similarities and differences - giving you all the info you need in order to make a decision that works for you and your partner.

What’s the Difference Between a Church Wedding and a Civil Ceremony?

Up until 1863, churches were the only venues in England where weddings could legally take place. Though you might have had your reception at a hired hall or even your own home, the ceremony itself always took place in a church.

Even after secular weddings became legal, the tradition of marrying in a church persisted for over a century. Your grandparents, for example, almost definitely got married in a church – even if they weren’t particularly religious.
But times have changed, and nowadays, many venues are licensed to hold civil (or non-religious) wedding ceremonies. This includes, among others:

1) Registry offices
2) Town halls and guildhalls
3) Hotels
4) Golf clubs
5) Private and publicly owned manor houses and castles
6) Farm buildings, such as barns
7) Certain forests, beaches, and other outdoor beauty spots

The main difference between a church wedding and a civil wedding is the religious aspect. Civil weddings that aren’t held in religious buildings are legally not allowed to mention any religious content.
If you’re having a civil wedding, you won’t be allowed to read any bible verses or sing any hymns during the ceremony. There can be no mention of a God or higher power in your vows, either.

If you and your partner are religious, a church or chapel is probably where you’ve always pictured getting married. But if you’re not religious, or just don’t want a wedding in a religious venue, a civil ceremony may be the one for you.

What to Expect at a Church Wedding

As we’ve mentioned, church weddings take place in churches, chapels, and other places of religious worship. This has been the most common type of wedding in the UK for many years, but these traditional services are on the decline. Nowadays, weddings taking place in churches account for just a quarter of UK ceremonies.

For some people, the religious aspect isn’t that important, but it’s the tradition that matters. Because these were the most common weddings that took place for decades, when we think of weddings, we think of churches. Some people opt for a church wedding purely because they like the aesthetic of it, even if they don’t follow a religion themselves.

F/stop Poetry via Rock N Roll Bride

There are some things to remember if you want a church wedding:

1) Catholic churches require both parties to be baptised as Christians, and at least one of you has to be Catholic. You may also need to take part in “marriage classes” - designed to give both of you an insight into how to be a good partner.
2) You don’t have to be religious to marry in a Church of England, nor do you have to take classes. However, some churches may require you to attend a certain number of services before they agree to marry you there.

Usually, if you want to get married in a church you need to have some connection to it. For example, you or your partner may need to live (or have lived) in the parish where the church is located.
Church weddings, as mentioned, are more traditional, more formal, and will involve readings from the Bible, hymns, and prayers. These ceremonies can last for up to an hour.

What to Expect at a Civil Ceremony

Civil ceremonies are now far more popular than church weddings, but there is still some confusion over what a civil ceremony is.
The main difference, officially, is that civil ceremonies are officiated by a government official called a registrar, rather than a priest or vicar (or other religious leader).

Civil ceremonies usually take place in a registry office or town hall, but this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Couples in the U.K. can choose to marry in any venue that is licensed to hold wedding ceremonies. This means that you can choose from a huge variety of venues, and aren’t limited to religious or government buildings.

Civil weddings are generally more relaxed, as the scope of the day is entirely up to you. You can have a casual, short ceremony in a registry office wearing jeans and a t-shirt, if you want – or you can have a grand wedding in a hotel ballroom. Civil services also allow same-sex marriages, which unfortunately isn’t always the case with religious ceremonies.

When it comes to the ceremony itself, there won’t be any hymns, prayers, readings from religious texts, or blessings. In fact, you aren’t allowed to mention anything even slightly religious in a civil ceremony. A civil wedding ceremony typically lasts around 20 to 30 minutes.
You can write your own vows if you’d like, as long as you don’t mention anything religious. There are also two government-mandated vows that you must recite. The declaratory vows state that you are legally free to wed, and the contracting vows state that you take your partner to be your husband or wife.

Religious vs. Civil Wedding Ceremony: Planning Considerations

Each type of service, whether religious or non-religious, comes with its own set of challenges when it comes to planning. Generally, church weddings take a little more planning, whereas civil weddings are more flexible in their time frame.
If you want a church wedding, you can expect your first port-of-call to be with the priest or vicar of the church you want to get married in. They usually like to meet with both you and your partner, several times. They will likely want to discuss marriage and what it means to you in significant detail.

You should also be aware that churches get booked up quite a while in advance. So be prepared to wait 6-12 months for a date.
Conversely, a civil wedding can be planned in as little as a month. With this choice, you have a lot more freedom to plan the day exactly as you want it. However, while you can get the planning done faster, you also have a lot more options, so be prepared to make some big decisions.

Registry offices usually have a lot more availability than churches, so the waiting times are usually shorter. But you have to “give notice of marriage” (that is, legally register your intent to wed) at least 29 days in advance.
Of course, the earlier you plan for either of them, the more chance you have of everything being exactly as you want it. Don’t wait until the last minute to book a celebration or reception, as these go fast!

Should I Have a Church Service or Civil Ceremony?

We can’t tell you which option is better for you - only you and your partner can do that. But with the above info, you should be able to get a better feel for what suits you more - and what fits in with your dream wedding scenario.

Most couples, or at least one half of a couple, will have some idea of what they want. Be it a large church affair, or saying I do with your toes in the sand. If this is the case then your decision is already made for you - as you are more limited with where you can marry your loved one.
A civil wedding is recommended for those who want something more relaxed, more lowkey, with a greater choice of what you can and can’t do on the day. However, church weddings provide that traditional feel - which many feel is an integral part of a wedding - regardless of religious beliefs.

And if religious content – such as hymns and bible verses – are important to you, then you’ll need a religious wedding, as you legally can’t have such content in a civil ceremony.
Ultimately, marriage is you and your partner expressing your love for one another in front of all the other people you love most. So where you get married is your choice. What type of service you choose should reflect who you and your partner are as a couple, making the day feel truly unique and special to you.

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