In the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about how hard it can be to make your wedding service feel meaningful. Last week I wrote about how to take a traditional service and make it something that feels really personal for the two of you. Today I wanted to tackle the same problem from the opposite direction – how do you create a meaningful and truly secular service? Because let’s be realistic: it can be effing hard to create a secular service from scratch.
Many of the options for secular services run the gamut from bizarre to generic, with fake wedding industry ‘tradition’ lurking in the background. You’ve got the rent-an-officiants that will sing your service like opera (um, maybe you could just say it?). You’ve got the re-written religious texts that often sound like essays written by a third grader (David and I have a secular version of the Jewish wedding blessings that we like to read out loud for hilarity, that starts with something like, “Nature is good. Everyone loves nature!” Um. Thanks.) And then you’ve got the Apache Wedding blessing, which was, you know, written by white Hollywood screen writers. (Oops.)
So I decided that it was high time to come up with a bunch of secular wedding resources that don’t suck, and that APW-ers were just the people to tackle the project. To start things off, I asked Rachel (DDay in the comments, and you can read her full wedding graduate post right here) to write about creating a totally secular wedding service. (Side note: the picture above is the AMAZING moment of her husband looking at the officiant when she referred to their wedding as a fairytale. Apparently the service ended up being great, but I feel like it’s such a great pictorial sum up of how disappointing secular wedding resources can be. And it totally slays me. Also.) Then, I wanted us all to pitch in, in the comments, with the best secular wedding resources we had. I’ll cull through them, and we’ll put together an APW Secular Wedding Resource. So let’s do this thing!
I am always surprised when Meg talks about being accused of being anti-tradition, because of how umm, traditional, her own wedding was. Even though there are aspects of her advice I can relate to, it’s still a wedding I could never have had. And what is her response when we ask for diversified content? “Write it your [damn] self.” So this is meant to balance her recent post about making a traditional ceremony your own. This post is about how we made our ceremony our own, when we didn’t really have a tradition that felt 100% right to us. There are aspects I might tweak if I had it to do over, but it married us, so it was perfect in its way.
First of all, I’d like to clarify where we were coming from. We come from families with varying degrees of adherence to Catholic and Presbyterian faiths, but my husband and I are not religious. And by that I don’t mean, “well we’re sort of [insert denomination] but don’t go to church or anything.” We don’t believe in god, period. I don’t even like the words atheist or non-believer, because it makes me feel like I’m deficient in some way. But this is just to provide some context; nothing in what I’ve said or am about to say is intended to be any kind of judgment on those who do have faith and follow a religion, or have faith but don’t necessarily follow a religion, or don’t have faith but still plan to include biblical or other religious aspects in their ceremonies.
I’d also like to say that YES, the obvious has been pointed out to me, that as far from religious as we tried to make our ceremony, the shell of it comes directly from Christian roots. Yes, you can groom a dog to look like a panda, but it’s still a dog. (I’m not sure if that metaphor works but I’m excited about the excuse to share that link)
Finding a Structure
Honestly we would not have gotten too far without our officiant. The internet is surprisingly unhelpful regarding ceremony structure and content, and I’ve gotten to the point where, if the internets can’t help me, I have no idea what to do (I’m gonna come out and admit that I wasn’t even fully aware that I could THINK for myself, before I came across APW). Luckily the internet did lead us to our officiant (thank you WeddingWire), and she helped us from there. In the interest of giving good advice, I would say you definitely want to shop around when you’re looking for a stranger to perform your wedding, and make sure they will take the time to get to know you. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll tell you we spoke with two candidates, and the one we chose was based on a telephone conversation (we didn’t meet her in person until 2 weeks before the ceremony). We had a good feeling about her approach, and it worked out – but it was a bit of a gamble.
So this is basically what our structure looked like:
- Prelude / Processional
- Welcome/Opening remarks on love/marriage/etc. (composed by officiant)
- Reading 1
- Reading 2
- Vows – Including questions with “We will” answers, then “I will” answers, then a request for the guests to pledge their support for the marriage
- Reading 3 (picked by our officiant without our input – she ended up choosing one of my all-time favorite love-related poems)
- Ring Exchange
- Closing remarks/Pronouncement of Marriage (composed by officiant)
Our officiant provided us with several different types of vows and ring exchange wording, and we pretty much picked from what she gave us, with a little tweaking. Then we added some additional vows that we would answer together (pledging to channel our loving feelings into our community rather than turn inward and isolate ourselves; to seek to understand ourselves, each other, and others in our life, and continually examine our own minds and approach life with curiosity and joy) – we were inspired by traditions that were not our own, but instead of adopting whole pieces, took the spirit behind certain traditions and incorporated them in a way that felt true for us. The structure was largely of Christian origin, some of the vows were inspired by a Buddhist wedding service, and we had our brief time alone directly after the ceremony, similar to the Jewish yichud.
When you don’t feel an affinity to the traditions you grew up with (if you didn’t really grow up with any traditions that relate to weddings), it becomes a delicate process, building a ceremony that feels right to you and your partner, and feels familiar and relateable to your guests, but above all feels True and Honest. The best you can do is basically what Meg is advising all the time: Be Thoughtful. Also, remember Google is not your friend in this. Drawing from what you already know, have already read, have already experienced, will be way more personal than any internet search results. OH. And have fun with the music.
And now. Let’s share resources. Go!
Photos by Bong Lee of Bisou Photography