Civil, Religious and Secular Ceremonies. Do you know the difference?

How to choose the one that is best for you.

Congratulations on your engagement.

You said yes to the marriage proposal and you are glowing brighter than that gorgeous sparkler of the engagement ring that sits beautifully on your finger. The excitement is rising, the advice is flowing and you begin to realize just how much there is to planning a wedding.

Now you have some decisions to make in your wedding planning with some priority areas to pay attention above all else. One of your first things to think about is the kind of wedding ceremony through which your nuptials will be performed and you say those two little words ‘I do’ are uttered that change your marital status. There are so many options of how you can tie the knot with your partner now available to couples getting married which is great, but it can be confusing.

So how do you decide which ceremony type is for you? To narrow it down a tad there are only three categories under which you can be legally married.

No matter which category you decide to get married under, there are six things that need to be in order for the wedding ceremony to go ahead.

The six basic elements

  • 2 People who meet the criteria to legally marry.

Sounds obvious, but yes there is strict criteria about who can get married. You must be in free to marry your partner and have all the paperwork to back it up. So have all your paperwork in order if you are divorced or widowed or were born outside the Republic of Ireland. Remember photo ID, proof of address and documents translated if they are in a language other than English.

  • 1 Wedding Venue

You will need a wedding ceremony booked before you go into declare your intent to marry. This can be a different wedding venue to the reception if you wish but it is not necessary. Most wedding reception venues will accommodate the wedding ceremony.

  • 1 Solemniser

Only a solemniser can perform a legally binding wedding ceremony. They have the authority to sign the Marriage Registration Form (MRF) which is your register. Only people on the Register of Solemnisers can perform the civil element of a marriage ceremony making your ceremony legally binding.

To declare your intent to marry and nominate your solemniser/celebrant to perform your ceremony.

  • 1 Marriage Registration Form (MRF form issued by the HSE)

This is effectively your ‘register’ that is signed on the day of the ceremony by the solemniser, the Couple and the Witnesses

  • 2 Witness’s

To sign the Marriage Registration Form (and a pen that works)The witness’s must also meet the criteria set by the state to sign the form which basically states they witnessed you do what you are supposed to do to get married.

What kind of ceremony do you want to have?

Church Wedding

One of the big decisions you will have to decide what kind of ceremony you want, a church or a non-church wedding. Church weddings are probably more familiar to most people; they include the mass as well as the Sacrament of Marriage. The Priest/Vicar/Reverend/Rabbi will have to be on the list of Registered Solemnisers to sign your legal paperwork.

Non – Church Legally Binding Ceremonies

If you decide to go for a non-church, wedding there are some things you need to know that will help you decide which alternative you choose.


Firstly let me clear up the misnomer that all ceremonies that happen outside a church are civil ceremonies. This term is used regularly and is incorrect to attach it to all non-church wedding ceremonies. There was a time when being married outside a church meant you had a civil ceremony in a registry office because that was all that was available.

But that changed a number of years ago whereby legally binding ceremonies could take place outside of the church setting and the registry office. It also means that there are now people with the authority to perform a legally binding ceremony who are not registrars and they are called Solemnisers. They are licensed by the organisation who, are recognized by the HSE as a body who can perform legally binding ceremonies. The license issued to them allows those people nominated to perform the ceremony and sign the Marriage Registration Form (Green Folder) that is issued to you when you declare your intent to marry with the HSE alongside you the couple and your two witnesses’.

Categories of ceremonies

Hold on to your hat as we take a whistle stop tour through the categories of ceremonies you can have to be legally married. These categories are clearly outlined in the Register of Solemnisers as Civil/Religious/Secular. This list is updated on a very regular basis and is dated letting you know how up to date and accurate the information in it actually is.

Terminology has become a tad blended to describe non-church ceremonies and confusing people greatly.

When it comes to Civil Ceremonies do take notice that only HSE personnel are listed beside the ‘Civil’ category. So if you want someone other than HSE registrars to perform your wedding ceremony that means you are having either a Religious or Secular wedding ceremony.

Let’s look at the categories in a little more detail.

A Civil Ceremony is performed by a register. The registrar works for the state and can perform a wedding ceremony in either

  1. The registry office


  1. Depending on availability can come to your venue if it is approved by them.

There is limited ability to personalise your ceremony. There can be no mention of anything religious or spiritual in either the readings you choose or music you wish to have played. You are also not guaranteed the time of day you would like. The ceremonies can only take place within the office working hours of the Registrar.

A Religious/Secular ceremony is performed in line with the beliefs and philosophies of the particular organisations.

It might surprise you to know that not all Religious ceremonies have to take place in a church or other religious type building. Although this category does include all established religions which typically take place in their places of worship. But there some ceremonies that fall under the religious category can happen in hotels and other bespoke venues.

This may have you scratching your head and wondering “How can that be, I thought all religious ceremonies happen in a church” and that is simply not the case.  Nor do you have to subscribe to their beliefs in order to be married by them. All you need to know is that you are married under the Rites and Ceremonies of that body.

Spiritual Ceremonies is one body that falls under the religious category that respects and acknowledges all beliefs allowing you to decide what is Spiritual to you. It also means you can take time in your wedding ceremony to remember those who have passed on by lighting a candle to symbolise their presence. Family members and friends can be remembered in a variety of ways in your ceremony and this can be discussed with your celebrant as to how you want that to happen.  You are afforded the option to have the freedom to include readings and music that have a religious/spiritual tone.

It is important to note that not all religious bodies that fall under this category will facilitate this so do check if it is something that is important to you.

Secular ceremonies are performed by bodies that have a view point that does not include anything religious or spiritual. They have no belief in the after-life with the ‘here and now’ being the corner stone of their philosophy. So if you wish to acknowledge your loved ones in your ceremony this is more than likely not possible in alignment with their philosophy. So do check this out before booking if this is important to you. You will also have to check if you have to subscribe to their philosophy in order to be married by them under their rites and ceremonies.

Wedding Celebrants

It is also worth mentioning that if you have booked a celebrant to perform your ceremony you would be wise ask them can they Solemnise the marriage as in sign the paperwork. Don’t assume that everyone who is titled celebrant has this authority.

So there you have it. There are so many more options available now to be legally married than there ever was in Ireland and yet so much confusion about who and where they can take place. My best advice is to think about how you want your ceremony to reflect you as a couple.  Ask for recommendations from other couples to get a sense of their experiences with your potential celebrant. Take your time to do your research and endeavour to have conversation with the celebrant to see if you click with them personally.  Also enjoy being engaged, it is a special time in your transition from dating or living together to becoming a married couple.

Finally may I wish you all the happiness in world in your married life and here’s to enjoying the best day of your life.