Neither sacred nor profane: the permitted content of civil marriage ceremonies

Pywell, Stephanie and Probert, Rebecca (2018). Neither sacred nor profane: the permitted content of civil marriage ceremonies. Child and Family Law Quarterly, 30(4) pp. 415–436.


Most weddings celebrated in England and Wales now take place in civil ceremonies. While the governing legislation and regulations specify that the proceedings may not be ‘religious in nature’, guidance issued by the Registrar General indicates that incidental religious references may be included. In this article we provide the first empirical evidence of which vows and rituals are requested and permitted in practice, based on two surveys: one of couples who had recently had, or were planning, a civil marriage ceremony, and one of registration officers who conduct such ceremonies. Our findings show that the majority of registration officers are keen to provide a service that is both professional and personal. Most couples were very positive about their experience, and only a few reported that the vows or rituals that they had wished to include had not been permitted. However, while registration officers invariably stated that they would not permit religious content in civil ceremonies, there was considerable variation in practice as to what was categorized, or recognized, as religious. The results suggest that couples wishing to draw on the traditional version of the Church of England marriage service are more likely to be asked to re-word their vows than are those drawing on vows from other religions. We conclude with a number of proposals as to how the existing advice, guidance, regulations, and – ultimately – the law might be reformed.

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