Choosing to hold a non-religious ceremony when you come from a closely knit religious family is not easy. I speak from experience- my husband and I felt strongly that we wanted to be true to ourselves (we are non-religious), but at the same time we had no desire to shove our beliefs in anyone’s face. We had been to numerous religious weddings where we felt uncomfortable and our biggest fear was replicating that for our family. We wanted a non-religious, as opposed to anti-religious, ceremony that still emphasized our core values. While there’s a lot of information out there about the “non-traditional” bride, I was surprised to find relatively little about doing a non-religious ceremony. The goal of this post is not to serve as a template. Instead, I hope that it will serve as an idea-generator and a support to those of you who would rather do a non-religious ceremony but feel pressured by family to go with the more traditional route.
So what’s the purpose of the wedding ceremony? This really shapes all of your decisions. My husband and I liked the idea of affirming the values upon which our marriage is based, both to ourselves as well as to our friends and family. It was a bit of a coming-out to our family regarding the extent to our non-religiousness, so we wanted to make sure to highlight the fact that we do have very strong moral convictions not based on any religious doctrine. Figuring out how we wanted to communicate this proved to be a great opportunity for my husband and I to really talk about our beliefs and what was important to each of us.
We realized that, at its core, we believe in respect, equality, and dignity for all of humanity. This led us to decide that it was important during our wedding to affirm our commitment to fighting for the universal right to marry regardless of sexual orientation. This hit particularly close to home since we were getting married in New York City prior to the legalization of gay marriage. One of our groomsmen was gay and my uncle and his partner would be in attendance.
That being said, we did not want to turn our wedding into a political event geared towards making anyone uncomfortable. We wanted to have a positive message. I found out that there was a general trend to use portions from “Goodridge v. Department of Public Health” (the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that legalized gay marriage in the state in 2003) as a reading during the wedding. We decided that we would make it the core reading that the officiator would read. The portion that we selected talks about what marriage means both to the individual as well as to society at large:
Marriage is a vital social institution. The exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other nurtures love and mutual support; it brings stability to our society. For those who choose to marry, and for their children, marriage provides an abundance of legal, financial, and social benefits. In return it imposes weighty legal, financial, and social obligations… Without question, civil marriage enhances the “welfare of the community. “It is a “social institution of the highest importance.”… Marriage also bestows enormous private and social advantages on those who choose to marry. Civil marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family… Because it fulfills yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.
Additionally, we had two of our friends do readings–both underlying the premium we place on mutual respect and support in our relationship. The first was The Art of a Good Marriage by Wilferd Arlan Peterson and the second, an excerpt from Tom Robbins’ Still Life With Woodpecker. Our vows then echoed those sentiments:
From this day forward I promise you these things.
I will laugh with you in times of joy and comfort you in times of sorrow.
I will share in your dreams, and support you as you strive to achieve your goals.
I will listen to you with compassion and understanding, and speak to you with encouragement.
I will help you when you need it, and step aside when you don’t.
I will remain faithful to you for better or worse, in times of sickness and health.
You are my best friend and I will love and respect you always.
It was a fairly short and simple ceremony, but it was a perfect beginning to our married life. We knew moving forward that our friends and family knew our values, but we hoped that they also saw that we were not intending to shove them down their throats. It laid a great foundation, as well. Portions of our families are fairly religious and doing the wedding this way actually really helped to clear the air.
Now don’t get me wrong, this process was not easy. My husband and I took quite a few long walks and, as you can imagine, tempers often flared. But, while it would have been simpler to capitulate and go with a traditional ceremony (at one point we though about a Unitarian ceremony), sticking to our guns and doing our own thing made it all the more special. After the ceremony, several of our religious relatives agreed that it was one of the best ceremonies they had ever attended.