In Britain many minority religious groups such as Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs still regard the two ceremonies (in their case civil and religious) as normal, and prefer to hold two weddings even if their particular religious community can perform a legal ceremony. In many other parts of the world such a two-stage marriage has become traditional. A civil marriage followed by a personal wedding can add an exciting and meaningful dimension to this important and emotional event in human life. It can allow a couple to interpret marriage in their terms, and provide an opportunity to express the love one feels for another in a unique way.
To humanists it is the relationship between the two people that is of prime concern, and not the civil contract. For this reason there may be some couples that would like to express mutual love and commitment to each other in a marriage ceremony that would not be legally registered. Some couples live together as partners and may welcome this kind of wedding occasion in which they can express their love, respect for, and responsibility to, each other, without a legal contract. Indeed, not all couples today see marriage as necessary to an already mature, close relationship in which both individuals feel thoroughly fulfilled. Here, a marriage certificate is unlikely to make any difference to an already stable relationship. A harmonious and balanced relationship, in which a couple has a good “working” partnership, is neither enhanced nor harmed by a piece of legal paper.
In writing a personal ceremony, there is scope to express and share emotions, joy, and solemnity with friends and family in a very intimate way. Whether or not the legal registering of the marriage takes place before, after, or not at all, the planned wedding can take place anywhere — at home, in a garden, at a hotel, in a castle, by the sea, or in the heart of the countryside. And the ceremony can be filled with favorite music, poetry, and personal words that express the mutual love and commitment between two people. It is particularly sensitive to individual needs, with information not only for those who are seeking a legal marriage, but also for those who wish to remain, partners, those who are divorcees, and those who are gay.
The format of the ceremony can vary, but it is usually first to have some kind of special entry of the couple accompanied by music. An introductory speech by the celebrant who conducts the ceremony follows, initially to welcome everyone and state the purpose of the occasion, and then to supply more general words about marriage. If a specifically humanist wedding is being celebrated, the celebrant may explain something about the nature of humanism at this point, though it is not necessary that only humanist words are spoken, and poetry or personally composed words might be used in the opening address.
The most important part of the ceremony will be the affirmations of love that the couple will make to each other. Concluding words will usually follow and the couple may exit to music. Symbols are sometimes used in the ceremonies. The most common is the exchange of rings, but candles representing the light of love, and flowers for the fragrance of the full bloom of love, are sometimes used.
The heart of the ceremony will be the “vows”, the statements of love and declarations of commitment from the couple. Because the marriage is personally planned, there is so much scope here for the true emotional sensitivity of the ceremony to be conveyed in these precious words. Some may wish to make personal statements; others may wish to respond to questions of the celebrant. Humanists do not generally favor the word “vows” since the term tends to connote religious promises that should not be broken. It is important that, while many may want to vow to be with each other for life, no guilt or blame should be directed to those who, later, cannot fulfill their vows.
Because it is such a special time, a couple may feel that they want to promise to be with each other “forever”, though a humanist couple will know that will really be only one lifetime. Their promises are in the joy of the moment, in the glow of new love. Being in love is a happy state, through which one sees the world positively, and rarely thinks about the end of life. While planning a ceremony can be such fun, it can also help to articulate the deeper expressions of emotion and secular spirituality in the self. Such words of affirmation may be said by both individuals, or each can compose his or her own words. The opportunity and space to express what one feels at such a very special occasion are without constraint.
However much people may come together in a loving relationship, we are all only too aware of the love that has turned sour in many marriages and relationships — sometimes after a couple have been together many years. While separation and divorce are overtly prevalent in today’s world, it is likely that covert separation in the relationship between man and wife characterized many marriages of the past when divorce was difficult for a woman and shameful even for a man.
Even in today’s world, Roman Catholicism deplores divorce, and many Protestant clergies will not perform the marriage ceremony for divorcees. For most Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, or Orthodox Jewish women it would be a disgrace to divorce their husbands, and for some, it is almost impossible to do so (and yet, in some of these traditions, men can divorce their wives by merely stating that intention).
To vow in a religious context to love another “till death parts” is unreasonable, for love can fade into all sorts of negative modes from tolerant acceptance to complete hatred or utter indifference. In the past, women especially had to put up with their lot; today most who are perpetually unhappy in a marriage can obtain freedom from it. The distress of a divorce is perhaps the tip of the iceberg in comparison to the ongoing distress of living with someone who is no longer loved. Because humanism emphasizes quality in individual and societal life, it is supportive of couples who might wish to end an irretrievable marriage.