While you might be thinking about the cake, dress, DJ and favours, you’ll find the part of the day guests often remember the most is the ceremony.
Full of love, emotion and joy, the wedding ceremony is where you’ll exchange your vows with your partner and make some of the most precious, meaningful promises you can in life.
If you’re having a religious or civil ceremony, this will be the legal part of your wedding; if you’re having a celebrant-led ceremony, you’ll need to do the legal part before or after. Whichever kind of ceremony you have, it will be one of the most important and happiest moments of your life.
Planning the structure of your wedding ceremony can be tough for some couples: do you want to go with a traditional wedding ceremony or something quirky and original? What order does the service go in? How much can we personalise it?
We’ll guide you through all the options so you can understand what happens during a marriage ceremony, the basic structure, and some unexpected things you’ll need to consider.
- How to Get Married: Your Step-by-Step Guide
- 10 Traditions to Ditch or Reinvent for a Same-Sex Wedding
- Everything You Need to Know About Registry Office Weddings
What is the Order of a Wedding Ceremony?
Once all your guests are seated, the wedding ceremony will begin. Make sure you’ve carefully walked through the ceremony before the day, ensuring you’ve worked out the timing and logistics. Don’t leave any decisions to the big day.
Here’s the traditional order:
Typically known as the bride’s entrance. The processional is where the bride and bridal party make their grand entrance and walk down the aisle. The guests will stand for your entrance and take their seats when you’re all at the front.
There’s a couple of different ways of doing this. In the UK, the groom and groomsmen will be waiting at the altar for the bridesmaids to walk down one by one, ending with the bride walked down the aisle by her father. If you’re having flower girls and page boys, they’ll walk down just before the bride. In the US, the bridesmaids and groomsmen often walk down together in pairs and then peel away to opposite sides when they reach the front.
At a same-sex wedding, you may both choose to walk down their aisle, just one of you or perhaps you decide it isn't right for either of you. The processional is really completely up to you and you can choose which members of your wedding party and family take part.
Practice this before the big day. Think about where the processional will line up prior to the ceremony (out of view of guests)? What order will everyone walk in? And where will they stand once they reach the end of the aisle?
Once the couple are at the front, the officiant will welcome the couple and kick off the proceedings. Discuss what you’d like with your officiant before the ceremony - if it’s a religious ceremony, there may be a set introduction, but a celebrant will write a bespoke ceremony welcome for you.
3. Song or a Reading
There tends to be a song or hymn at the beginning of the ceremony but you can replace this with a reading if you’d prefer.
4. The Marriage Ceremony
The official marriage ceremony begins with the charge to the couple, where the officiant reminds them of the responsibilities and meaning of the vows they are about to take. This is also the part where the officiant asks if there’s any reason in law why the couples should not marry.
The couple will then exchange their vows. To make your marriage legal, there are certain declarations and contracting words you must say. However, the rest of your vows are up to you.
You will often need to run these past the registrar or religious officiant before the wedding as they can have strict rules about what you’re allowed to say. If you plan to write your own vows, read our guide on how to make them as personal and significant as you can.
5. Exchanging of Rings
It’s not actually a legal requirement to exchange wedding rings, but may couples do opt for this. The officiant will be handed the rings, usually by the best man, and then in turn the couple will place a ring on the other’s finger with a dedicational phrase of your choice.
6. Declaration of Marriage/First Kiss
The officiant will officially announce you’re hitched, and say something along the lines of “By the power vested in me, I now pronounce you husband and wife” (or wife and wife, or husband and husband). The officiant says you may kiss and this is your cue to celebrate with a lovely big smooch in front of all your loved ones. They’ll likely be cheering, clapping and whopping at this point. It’s one of the most important pictures your photographer will capture.
7. Optional Address, Prayers, Reading and Song
At a religious ceremony, you’ll often hear a talk from the vicar, bible readings and prayers at this point.
In a non-religious ceremony, this is a lovely point to do a reading or a song to be sung.
8. Signing of the Register
The final step in making your marriage legal is to sign the marriage license. It might be worth having some background music playing at this point as your guests will be sat for a few minutes while you do so.
The license needs to be signed by two witnesses (you should choose these in advance and it can be anyone, but is often the maid of honour and best man) and the officiant.
9. Ending of the Service
Your officiant will speak some closing remarks. Usually these are congratulations, well wishes and occasionally a few words of thanks.
10. Recessional and Exit
You and your partner now get to walk back up the aisle and head off to your reception party. You’ll walk down together to music, and will either be showered with confetti while you walk or outside of the venue. Your wedding party will follow you out (usually in pairs) and then your guests will start exiting from the front row following you out.
What Are Some Alternative Wedding Ceremony Ideas?
You’ve got much more creative freedom for how your wedding ceremony runs if you have a celebrant-led ceremony. Humanist celebrant ceremonies are legal in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but in England and Wales, you’ll need to do the legal part before or after. This means you don’t need to worry about the legal declarations.
One of the best ways to make a ceremony feel unique and personal is to perform a symbolic, unifying act. Examples of these include a sand ceremony, handfasting, a candle ceremony or jumping the broom.
Here’s an outline of what a humanist wedding ceremony looks like from humanism.org.uk:
- Arrival of the couple (individually or together)
- Introductions and welcomes
- Words about love and commitment from a non-religious perspective
- Reading or poem
- The couple’s story – how they met, their shared values, hopes for the future
- What marriage means to the couple
- Reading, poem or song
- The couple’s promises/vows
- Meaningful symbolic act (e.g. handfasting)
- Exchange of rings
- Pronouncement as married
- Words of well-wishing
- Closing and departure
It's not too dissimilar from the traditional ceremony structure, but you've got a lot more freedom. Any one of these parts can be left out or made the core of your ceremony.
What Are the Words in a Marriage Ceremony?
There are standard declarations and contracting statements that you must make for a legal wedding ceremony, but there’s still lots of room to personalise your vows. Here are the minimum vows you need to say, and around these you can make a statement of your love, commitment and future wishes.
Traditional Legal Declaration and Contracting Words
I do solemnly declare, that I know not of any lawful impediment why I (your name) may not be joined in matrimony to (your partner's full name).
I call upon these persons, here present, to witness that I (your full name) do take thee (your partner's full name) to be my lawful wedded wife/husband.
Modern Legal Declaration and Contracting Words
I declare that I know of no legal reason why I (your name) may not be joined in marriage to (your partner's name).
I (your full name), take you (your partner's full name) to be my wedded wife/husband.
Simple Legal Declaration and Contracting Words
Registrar: "Are you (your full name) free, lawfully, to marry (your partner's full name)?"
Reply: "I am."
I (your full name) take thee (your partner's full name) to be my wedded wife/husband.
7 Things You Need to Consider for Your Wedding Ceremony
The Seating Plan
If you’re following a traditional ceremony, you’ll want to reserve the first few aisles for your immediate family. Most guests know that they shouldn't sit in the first few rows, but it might be handy to mark this out with some reserved signs. These seats are usually kept free for your bridal party, the groomsmen, you and your partner’s parents and any guest readers you may have.
If you don’t want to go traditional, opt for alternative ceremony seating ideas like a circle or a wedding in the round. Again, a few handy signs and on-the-ball ushers will help out guests who aren't used to this.
Wedding Party Roles
Make sure your wedding party know who’s doing what. For example, the ushers should be on hand before the ceremony to ensure all of your guests are politely welcomed, that everyone’s seated, and hand out an order of service if you have one.
Make sure they know other useful info too, like where the toilets are, and where to meet after the ceremony for any transport to the reception.
As mentioned before, you may have guests doing readings during the ceremony. If this is the case, ensure they know when they’re supposed to do so and are ready for their part.
The Walk Down the Aisle
Grooms: "Choose if you’ll watch your partner walk down to you or look straight ahead and then turn when your partner is at your side. Looking, then looking away during their entrance looks like you're terrified! Pick a view and stick with it!" says wedding expert Kelly Mortimer.
Brides and Bridesmaids: "Many brides and bridesmaids hold their flowers at chest height, hiding their beautiful dresses and creating hunched shoulders! Practice holding something of similar size to your bouquet at your belly button height in front of the mirror and see your shoulders go back and the relaxed appearance it gives. The perfect photo," says Kelly.
The wedding ceremony can be as short or long as you want, however, remember your guests don't want to be sitting for hours. In a registry office, your ceremony may be as little at 10-15 minutes long; a civil service at a venue with a registrar will be around 20-30 minutes. A celebrant ceremony may last 30-45 minutes, while a church ceremony can go on for an hour or longer.
Make sure you don't leave your guests waiting around too long without some food or drink. They'll have arrived 15-20 minutes ahead of the ceremony, and then potentially have to travel to the venue after the ceremony. Spare a thought for their stomachs with a swift delivery of canapes and drinks when they arrive at the reception!
The wedding ceremony music is an important factor to consider for the ceremony. Are you having background music as guests are seated, will you have a bridal entrance song, and a ceremony exit song? Will the music be live (for example, a harpist or orchestra), or do you need to prepare a USB stick or CD? Preparing these in advance will guarantee a stress-free and seamless order of events.
Once at the top of the aisle, who will do the final “fluff”? It’s likely your dress or veil has moved as you walked down the aisle – to ensure perfect photos ask someone responsible to fluff before the registrar begins! Make sure they know how you want it. Will the train be straight behind you or curled towards the front for the best photos?
The Confetti Shot
This needs coordinating! Most venues and churches won’t allow confetti on the aisle, so this may happen outside your ceremony room or even later in the day (on pretty steps, for example). Have the groomsmen arrange guests at your chosen location and THEN hand out the confetti to the guests, and get ready for that perfect photo!
If you’re still searching for your dream venue then don’t miss our list of the essential questions you need to ask your wedding venue.