The Difference Between Religious, Spiritual, and Civil Wedding Ceremonies

A bride and groom holding hands as they say their wedding vows.

In the past, religious wedding ceremonies were just a given if a couple was tying the knot. These ceremonies were usually held in a house of worship and filled with rituals, scripture, and songs, and the officiating was handled by the priest or other religious figure. While religious ceremonies are still a popular choice for couples, today there are many other options to choose from if you and your future spouse either don’t consider yourselves religious or don’t follow a specific religion.

The most common types of wedding ceremonies are religious, spiritual, and civil, but what exactly are the differences between them? And how do you know which one to choose? Here’s everything you need to know about religious, spiritual, and civil wedding ceremonies.

Religious Marriage Ceremony

A young bride and groom getting married by a priest in a church.

If you’ve ever attended a wedding in your life, it’s likely that it was in a house of worship and that the ceremony was officiated by a religious official like a priest, rabbi, or minister. Religious ceremonies are done when one or both members of the couple have grown up in a specific religion or regularly attend services at a church, or other house of worship.

When a couple has a religious wedding ceremony, there is usually an expectation that the couple will get married in a house of worship and that both spouses are official members of the congregation (although it’s increasingly common to see dual religious ceremonies if each person in the couple follows a different religion). Religious ceremonies have a lot of tradition in them, and it’s unlikely that the couple will get much say over the order of the ceremony, what the vows will be, and in some cases even what songs or readings will be performed. All that being said, religious ceremonies can be deeply meaningful and full of symbolism, which can be very special for those couples whose faith is important to them.

Spiritual Marriage Ceremony

A bride and groom getting married in a spiritual ceremony.

According to the Pew Research Center, 27% of Americans identify as “spiritual, but not religious.” So, what does this mean exactly? It depends on who you talk to, but generally it means that an individual doesn’t exclusively believe in one religion or they believe in a higher power, but aren’t exactly sure of the nitty gritty details.

When a couple doesn’t attend a specific church regularly, but they don’t want to have a completely secular or civil ceremony, they can have what is known as a spiritual ceremony. Because the ceremony won’t follow the traditions of one specific religion, the couple is free to personalize it as they see fit. They can feel free to incorporate a traditional Christian prayer alongside a Hindu poem and write vows that reflect their spiritual values. A spiritual ceremony can work well for those couples who come from different backgrounds and religions so that they can choose which traditions they’d like to include in the ceremony and both families and belief systems are represented.

Civil Marriage Ceremony

A bride and groom getting married in a civil marriage ceremony.

A civil ceremony is one in which there is no religious or spiritual element. However, there is a common misconception that a civil ceremony is a common law marriage or civil union, which is not the case. A civil ceremony is a legal wedding ceremony—just minus any of the traditional religious aspects such as prayer, scripture readings, or a religious officiant.

Many couples choose to have a civil ceremony because they want more control over what their ceremony will look like, as many religions don’t allow couples to write their own vows or have a specific tradition of how the ceremony will go. Other times, couples choose to have a civil ceremony because they don’t want to get married in a house of worship and prefer to get married in a nontraditional venue like on the beach, in a forest, or on a quaint vintage farm, which may not be allowed for the church’s clergy who would be presiding over the ceremony.

A civil ceremony will still have all of the routine order of a religious ceremony such as a procession, vows, ring exchange, and a proclamation. As long as you have these pieces (and you have a properly certified officiant), there’s no need to have a separate ceremony at the courthouse.

How to Choose Which Type of Ceremony to Have

With many couples, there’s absolutely no question that they will be having a religious ceremony. For others, the waters may be a bit murkier. Talk about it with your partner and see what is most important to them and try to come to a conclusion together.

There also may be pressure from your parents to have a religious ceremony, but at the end of the day, remember one thing: Iit’s your wedding! While you could compromise and include some spiritual or religious elements to appease them, remember that it’s your day and no one else’s.

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