Photo: Kate Harrison Photography
While most wedding ceremonies follow a similar format and script (particularly if the ceremony is religiously based), there is usually an opportunity to customize a ceremony to reflect your relationship. If you're having a non-denominational wedding and are starting completely from scratch, you've got free rein — but might not know where to begin. So we turned to JP Reynolds, M.Div., a celebrity officiant who has officiated over 1,000 weddings (including BRIDES Live Wedding!) and has even written books on the subject (check out How to Officiate a Non-Denominational Wedding Ceremony!). Keep reading to start assembling your wedding ceremony, with a little expert help.
No matter where you're getting married, whether it's at a five-star resort or in your backyard, in front of 10 guests or 200, every wedding does three things. Says Reynolds, "All weddings give thanks for the past, celebrate the present, and honor the future. It's an affirmation of who the couple is at this moment in time, as well as who they want to become, individually and as a couple. It's both that simple and that profound."
If you're deciding to craft your own non-religious ceremony, don't feel that your only option is a civil ceremony. "There's a third alternative," says Reynolds. "That's a ceremony that honors the couple's life in a way that is warm, personal, and includes meaningful ritual." As you start planning your ceremony, keep these two concepts, what Reynolds calls Core Truths, in mind:
People have limited attention spans.
The ideal ceremony length is between 20 and 25 minutes from when the officiant takes his or her place to your first kiss. "Anything shorter than that and guests feel gypped and might wonder why you bothered to have a ceremony. Anything longer than 25 minutes for a non-denominational ceremony, and you'll need Cirque du Soleil to perform!"
A wedding is not the time and place for the officiant to lecture on the definition of marriage.
"No one attends a wedding hoping for insight into the existential meaning of marriage," says Reynolds. "They won't remember what was said five years from now, but they'll remember the tone and how the ceremony made them feel. When done well, guests should leave your ceremony feeling refreshed and ready to celebrate your love."
With those ideas in mind, it's time to start building your ceremony. "The first thing to do is figure out what you do (and don't!) want in your ceremony," says Reynolds. "Is there a tradition you love, or something you saw at a wedding that made you think, 'never at mine!'?" These will become key elements as you put the ceremony together. You'll also want to talk to your future spouse about what the ceremony means to you. "Is the ceremony the heart of your celebration, or is it something you have to do so you can get to the party?" Reynolds asks.
When you sit down to write your ceremony, there's a formula to follow, including three key elements: Structure, content, and presentation.
"Keep the structure simple. The heart of the ceremony is the exchange of rings, and everything before and after that is icing on the cake — rituals that add texture," says Reynolds. Make sure your ceremony has a beginning, middle, and end, with a continuous flow throughout.
No one moment should stop the ceremony in its tracks and disrupt the flow. Explains Reynolds, "This means there shouldn't be any particularly long readings, and more than two readings is too many. And you don't want to turn it into a concert by having someone sing while everyone stares at the couple while listening." Instead of pausing the ceremony for a song, Reynolds suggests using music in the body of the ceremony to accompany some other action, such as a unity ritual or a moment honoring your families. "And make sure your singer is a true professional!" Reynolds adds. He also encourages couples to include personal touches. "People go to a ceremony merely hoping it won't be too long or too boring. A personalized ceremony allows people to feel rooted and renewed, and provides people with the opportunity to give you that big, tight hug and bless and confirm your union."
Avoid cluttering up your ceremony with "stuff" just for the sake of filling time and space. "Everything you include in your ceremony should be in service of highlighting the two of you and your relationship," says Reynolds.
Looking for ways to further personalize your ceremony? Here are some of Reynolds' favorite ideas:
- Have the mother of the bride join the bride and her father at the end of the aisle, and have both parents respond when asked "Who presents this woman in marriage?"
- Invite unexpected but meaningful relatives to serve as flower girls. "A recent couple had two 70-year-old grandmothers sashaying down the aisle — it was sweet, whimsical, and totally unexpected!" says Reynolds.
- Instead of a single reader, ask multiple guests to participate by dividing the reading into shorter segments. You could also keep them seated, scattered throughout the rows of guests, to surround your guests with the feeling of community.
- If your families are from different cultures, offer readings in multiple languages, followed by an English translation.
- If you don't have bridesmaids or groomsmen, ask someone who has a meaningful connection to the two of you, such as your parents or your children, present the rings as a sign of their love and blessing.
- Amplify the emotion of a wine box ritual by asking your parents, your wedding party, or all of your guests to write letters to the two of you to include in the box along with your letters to one another. "I always put this in the context of family, and urge the couple to take the best of the people who love them and use that to create a home that is a safe haven," Reynolds explains. "I remind the couple that when they reopen the box, the love and support of the people they care about will come tumbling out.