I’ve attended literally hundreds of wedding ceremonies. I would love to say that I was invited – but actually I was being paid to be there! Even so, watching all these wonderful couples go through this most romantic and life changing moment has been a privilege and an honour. I can almost recite the words by heart, but do you really know what goes on at a civil wedding ceremony? Hopefully this will help a little if you don’t!

What’s it all about?

In England, Wales and Scotland couples can choose to be married, or have a civil partnership (see the government information about this here). There are differences in the ceremonies, but since the government allowed same-sex couples to have a ‘marriage’, more couples are choosing this option and this is what I will focus on here. Legally, they are very similar, but in a civil partnership ceremony couples do not take vows, instead legally committing to their relationship, rather than making additional promises. For both ceremony types the following process is followed, but you would need to check with your local registry office regarding which is more appropriate for you.

What happens first? Choosing your venue (sorry, roof)!

You’re engaged! Yippee! You’ve decided that for whatever reason a religious ceremony isn’t for you, and therefore you are going to have a civil ceremony. This will be organised and conducted by staff from your local registry office, either in the Register Office itself, or somewhere else that holds the correct licence.So the first thing to do is choose your venue.

Many hotels, golf clubs, restaurants and pubs in the UK now have a wedding licence. It is relatively easy and inexpensive for them to get and it enables their clients to legally marry on the premises, meaning that your whole day can happen in the same place. Many registration services produce a list or magazine detailing all of the venues in the district that they will travel to (be warned – some counties, such as Kent, are split into more than one district, so you might need to contact a couple of offices!). It may be easier to find your wedding venue first, as the wedding co-ordinators there will be able to tell you which registry team to contact.

In the UK, unlike those American films we all know and love, you have to get married under a licenced roof. Yes. A roof. This means that a venue will need to get a licence for each and every room that they will allow couples to get married in. It also means that if you want to get married outside, there needs to be a gazebo or similar that has been approved for use as a wedding location. If you have your heart set on a garden wedding, just make sure that your chosen venue has a licenced gazebo. Some venues cheekily publish mocked-up pictures of garden weddings, even though they don’t actually have the right licence for you to get married outside. Many venues now have multiple licences, so that there are several ‘roofs’ for you to choose from, but do check as not every room will have a licence, so you won’t have completely free choice, even with an exclusive use booking.

Once you have chosen your venue and date, you will need to apply to the Registration Service to attend. Many wedding venues will give you the form and / or apply on your behalf, but just check that this is happening – you don’t want to find that your wedding isn’t in the Register Office’s diary!

Step 2 – Giving Notice

In the olden days when everyone got married in a church, this was known as ‘Reading the Bans’. The current equivalent is ‘Giving Notice’. You make an appointment at the Register Office, when you both take all of your (hundreds!) of ID documents to prove that you are who you say you are. Often these appointments are only Monday-Friday 9am-5pm, so you may have to factor in taking a day of holiday to get this done!

Once you’ve had this all approved, your names will be displayed in the Register Office for (at least) 28 days, giving the general public the opportunity to tell the registrars if they object to the marriage. This doesn’t ever happen, but this is how some journalists find out about celebrity weddings before they take place!!

Step 3 – Deciding on your ceremony choices

Most registration services will send you a script with various options for your ceremony. These will include:

  • Whether you have traditional wording, or a more modern, simple text
  • Whether you would like to include any readings or poems to personalise your ceremony
  • Whether the bride is being given away
  • Whether you are giving and receiving any wedding rings
  • Whether you would like to kiss to seal your marriage!

Often these are a tick form, that is then sent back to the Register Office in advance. Once they have sorted out who will be conducting your ceremony, the chosen registrar will telephone you to go through what you have chosen and check that they have understood your wishes correctly. The most important thing to remember is that nothing can have any links or suggestions of anything religious (not even the title of a piece of music with no words), so just remember this when you are making your choices.

On the day – The Preparation

On the day of the wedding itself, several things have to happen, which you wouldn’t necessarily realise. The ceremony room needs to be set up, with one table (or two, depending on which Registration Service it is, as they have difference requirements) at the front. Some also ask for two chairs in front of the table, but most just ask for two behind. Also in the ceremony room should be glasses of water and boxes of tissues (provided by the venue) just in case you need them during the ceremony. If you are not having live music (and why not!!?) the sound system will also need to be set up and sound levels checked.

The two registrars will arrive between 30 minutes and an hour before your chosen ceremony time. There will be one person to lead the ceremony (known as the celebrant) and another who is actually more important, as they are the registrar who records your marriage in the marriage register and writes your certificates. They will both need to see all of the following people, so make sure that they are all on hand during this time, as it always a bit of a rush. If they can’t find these people, you run the risk of being late!

  • The couple getting married. Both of you will be interviewed separately before the ceremony, one usually in the ceremony room itself, and the other either in the Bridal Suite where you are getting ready, or in a separate interview room so that you don’t see each other. The purpose of these are for the registrars to check that they have the people that they are expecting to and will check the contact details that you gave at the Office when you Gave Notice. They will also talk you through what will happen during the ceremony.
  • The witnesses. For every marriage in the UK there needs to be two adult witnesses. They will need to have a quick chat with the registrar, as sometimes they are asked to stand at the front for part of the ceremony and will then need to be on hand to sign the register. It is usually best to warn your witnesses in advance of what is involved and give them a reserved seat on the end of a row.
  • Any person who might be ‘giving away’ one of the happy couple. This is an old tradition in the UK, which does not have to be part of your ceremony, where a member of your family ‘gives’ you away to your betrothed. You do not have to follow this custom, but if you do, the celebrant will want to have a word with whoever has got this job!
  • The readers. If you have chosen to have readings as part of your ceremony, the celebrant will want to see the readings (if they haven’t been sent through prior to the day) and chat with the readers to explain where in the ceremony their moment of fame is.
  • The photographers / videographers. There are certain parts of the ceremony that cannot be photographed and therefore the registrars will want to talk to your photographers to make them aware of this. If you have chosen a professional photographer, they will already know, but will also be used to the registrars wanting to talk to them and will make enough time.
  • The musicians (or person controlling the iPod!) such as …. me! As music will play a key part of the ceremony, including the entrance of the bridal party, during the signing and finally for the exit, the registrars will need to chat to the musicians to make sure that they know their cues.

Right, now we are FINALLY ready to start…!


Yes, I know, that’s what you thought that you were reading about! But without all of the above, the ceremony itself isn’t possible, so I hope that you found it useful.

Between 15 and 30 minutes before the ceremony is due to start, the guests will be asked by members of the venue staff to take their seats. It is worth considering this if you are thinking about having drinks and / or entertainment beforehand, as this can get cut short. The more guests that you have, the longer the staff will allow to get everyone seated. If I am booked to play for a wedding ceremony, I always ensure that I am set up ready to play in the ceremony area for whenever the guests come through. I do tend to suggest that I don’t play before this point due to having to see the registrars, which can take some time with all of the people that they have to see! The registrars will then disappear to check the bridal (processing) party are ready, then come back, tell everyone to turn off their mobile phones and then…

Here comes the bride! The registrar will ask all of the guests to stand, which is then the cue for the entrance music to start. Once at the front, the music will stop, and the guests will be asked to sit. The legal wedding ceremony is actually incredibly short. All that legally has to happen is that you both say the following in front of the registrar and your two witnesses:

The Declatory Words
I do solemnly declare that I know not of any lawful impediment why I [name] may not be joined in matrimony to [name]
The Contracting Words
I call upon these persons here present, to witness that I [name] do take thee [name]to be my lawful wedded wife / wife-husband / husband.

That’s it. All that there is to it! Everything else, such as rings, promises to love each other, etc., is just to make it nice. All that you need to do is say the above and you’re done! Of course, many people find this too brief and impersonal, hence the addition of readings, music, additional promises and the giving of rings. But technically this is all that you have to do!

Once you have got to the end of the spoken ceremony, you and your new husband or wife will need to sign the register. This precise moment cannot be photographed in any way and therefore the registrars will suggest that you choose some music to entertain your guests whilst this is happening. After you and your witnesses have completed the paperwork, the registrars will give you a ‘mock’ register to then pose for photographs with. Due to this extra ‘stage’ this part of your ceremony can take as long as fifteen music, so do chose enough music to cover all of this. I usually suggest choosing four songs, which is often plenty.

Once all of your guests have had the opportunity to come and take your picture, the celebrant will stand you both in front of the register table and present you with your marriage certificates. Once these have been safely stowed away (or given to someone trustworthy to look after), your guests will be asked to stand and greet the happy couple. The music will start and off you go back down the aisle, having made this enormous commitment by saying a few  words and signing an old-fashioned book!

I hope that this is in some way helpful to planning your wedding day. Some registration services will provide you with a lot more information than others, and they don’t all quite follow the same process, so do check well in advance to avoid confusion.

Photograph taken by Louisa Dettmer Wedding Photography at The Orangery, Maidstone, Kent.

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