Chapter 3

Understanding the Ceremony


Your choice of ceremony will be guided primarily by your religious affiliation, if you have one. Established religions (including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Paganism, etc.) and denominations (Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Methodists, etc.) all have wedding ceremonies that can be used with very few adaptations for same-gender weddings. The form used by many other wedding ceremonies (dictated by group and ethnic affiliations) can also be adapted well to your same-gender wedding.

If you have no religious affiliation, or do not choose to be married in a church or synagogue, then it’s worth taking some time to think about the ceremony that you want to have, that will speak mostly clearly of the couple that you are becoming and the values that you hold.


The Shape of the Liturgy

Let’s talk for a moment about the shape of the liturgy, because your ceremony really is in fact a liturgy, the act that the people make before God/the Universe (however you experience Him/Her/It) to their community, and to each other.

The late and brilliant Aidan Kavanagh of Yale University, gave some principles for putting together a liturgy:

A liturgical event, like a sentence, contains parts which function in different ways. As a writer must know the nature and function of various parts of speech, so one who is responsible for putting a liturgy together must know its parts and their different functions.

So the liturgy is important for your ceremony to not only be beautiful but to also be meaningful, and its meaning is made apparent through its shape.

Let’s take a minute and look at what it is that you want to do:

1. Gather: take a moment and acknowledge that you are present—to each other, to the celebrant, to any witnesses, friends, and family that are with you.

2. Declare: this is where you define the gathering. This is not an accidental situation, it is not haphazard or casual. Rather, it is being undertaken soberly and seriously, and the liturgy marks and affirms this declaration.

3. Explain: Every human action needs to be placed into a context. Nothing that we do or say or think happens in a void; and this most serious of all human endeavors cannot do so, either. So we place the ceremony in a context by providing some grounding in the reasons you are doing this. This is most often accomplished through a series of readings.

There’s something of a dotted line here, for this divides the first section of the ceremony from the next. We have gathered, defined, and explained our presence: now we will move into the actual acts that constitute the core of the ceremony. 

4. Commit: This is the central part of the ceremony, the place where the couple speaks not to the world or the community, but to each other.

5. Recall: This section remembers that we are forgetful creatures, and seeks to give us lasting remembrances of this event via concrete objects.

Again there is a pause here as we move from the core of the ceremony back into the context of the marriage.

6. Declare Again: You are now joined, and this part of the wedding ceremony opens up again to the community that you have around you as the celebrant declares you legally married and invites those present to witness and remember.

7. Bless: Finally, you are sent forth differently than you were at the gathering: separate and together.

These seven sections, or “movements,” of the liturgy are what observe, narrate, and in fact create the magical transformation that happens during liturgies. 

And it is nothing less than magical! You came to this ceremony as two individuals, and you leave still individual—but also mysteriously transformed into something different, something new: one couple. 

This human transubstantiation is the work of the wedding ceremony.


The Liturgical Actions in Action 

So let’s line up a sample wedding ceremony with the liturgical framework that we just looked at!

Greeting: We are here today to welcome Name and Name, who have come here to be married. Their marriage is being entered into reverently, with the recognition of the true union they have discovered together. For what greater joy is there for two human souls than to join together to strengthen each other in all their endeavors, to support each other through all sorrow, and to share with each other in all gladness?

(This is section one: GATHER)

I hope that the words and spirit of this afternoon may be filled with a truth that will deepen with the passing years. I hope, too, that the meaning of the vows that Name and Name are about to share with one another will deepen as well, as they discover the endless possibilities of this life together. This is a love that will not be tarnished by common events, but which will flower both in deepest adversity and in greatest joy. As the years go by, you will find more and more in one another a loveliness which neither comes nor goes, which neither flowers nor fades, no longer even taking the form of face or hand or words or knowing. Everything in your marriage can partake of this mysterious beauty beyond beauty, until wherever you turn you see reflections of this loveliness.

I ask that the vision you have of one another be always informed by that radiant power that first brought you together. Love is stronger than your conflicts, bigger than life's changes, the miracle always inviting you to learn, to blossom, to expand. It is to love that you must always return.

(This is section two: DEFINE)

First Reading:

Why is it that people get married? Because we need a witness to our lives.There’s a billion people on the planet. What does any one life really mean?But in a marriage, you’re promising to care about everything…The good things, the bad things, the terrible things, the mundane things, all of it… all the time, every day. You’re saying “Your life will not go unnoticed because I will notice it.Your life will not go unwitnessed—because I will be your witness.”

Second Reading:

Matrimony is called holy, because this brave and fateful promise of two persons, to love and honor and serve each other through thick and thin, looks beyond itself to more fateful promises still, and speaks mightily of what human life at its most human and most alive and most holy must always be. Every wedding is a dream, and every word that is spoken there means more than it says, and every gesture—the clasping of hands, the giving of rings—is rich with mystery. And so it [is that] we hope with every couple, that the love they bear one another, and the joy they take in one another, may help them grow in love for this whole world where their final joy lies.

(This is section three: EXPLAIN)


The Vows & Ring Exchange

Why do we speak our vows? Because, for many of us, language makes the abstract become real. Speaking them means standing behind them. Our marriage vows can help save us from our own conflicted selves, and they can also save us from the undermining behaviors of others. They can help preserve our romantic loves, our long-term attachments, and the integrity of our families and communities.


Blessing of the Rings

As circles have no beginning and no end, rings have naturally come to symbolize eternal love within the union of mind, body, and spirit that constitutes the sanctity of marriage. They are freely offered as gifts of faith and hope as visible signs of the promises given this evening. May these rings be blessed and hold the dreams Name and Name share for their union. May the shiny metal mirror the sacred vows made between them, now and forever. 

Name, do you take this woman/man, Name, to be your lawfully wedded wife/husband, to have and to hold, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, and only allowing death to separate you?

I do.  (places ring on Name’s finger)

Name, Do you take this woman/man, Name, to be your lawfully wedded wife/husband, to have and to hold, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others, and only allowing death to separate you?

I do.  (places ring on Name’s finger)

(This is section four: COMMIT and section five: RECALL)


Lighting of the Unity Candle or Sand Ceremony

Candle: The two outside candles have been lighted to represent both your lives in this moment. They are two distinct lights, each capable of going their separate ways. As you join now in marriage, there is a merging of these two lights into one light. From now on your thoughts shall be for each other rather than your individual selves. Your plans shall be mutual, your joys and sorrows shall be shared alike. As you each take a candle and together light the center one, you will extinguish your own candles, thus letting the center candle represent the union of your lives into one flesh. As this one light cannot be divided, neither shall your lives be divided.


Sand: Today, this relationship is symbolized through the pouring of these two individual containers of sand one, representing you, Name, and all that you were, all that you are, and all that you will ever be, and the other representing you, Name, and all that you were and all that you are, and all that you will ever be. As these two containers of sand are poured into the third container, the individual containers of sand will no longer exist, but will be joined together as one. Just as these grains of sand can never be separated and poured again into the individual containers, so will your marriage be.

(This is section five: RECALL)


The Declaration

Name and Name, you have consented together to marriage before me, pledged your faith and declared your unity by each giving and receiving a ring, and, as you are now joined together in mutual esteem and devotion, it is my privilege as an ordained minister to pronounce that you are married. 

(This is section six: DECLARE AGAIN)

“Now you will feel no rain, for each of you will be shelter to the other. Now you will feel no cold, for each of you will be warmth to the other. Now there is no more loneliness for you, but there is only one life before you. Go now to your dwelling place, to enter into the days of your togetherness, and may your days be good, and long upon the earth.''

Congratulations, you may each now kiss the bride/groom!

(This is section seven: BLESS)

It’s clear from this analysis that wedding ceremonies are, at their best, a thoughtful and celebratory acknowledgment of the couple’s place in the community and their commitment to each other.

With that in mind, it’s time to turn to what you want to have included in your ceremony. This can be anything from people to pets to religious accoutrements … the important thing is for you to talk them over with each other. You may want someone or something there for sentimental reasons, and when that happens, you may wish to consider why you wish to include these components. 

Anything that does not feel consistent with what your ceremony should be about is worth a second look and a second thought.

The first question for you is whether to have a ceremony that reflects the beliefs and customs of a certain religion. In the Appendices at the end of this book you will find some standard ceremonies from a number of the established churches, denominations, and religions, and even if you do not plan to be married “in” the church, you can use its order of service as a starting-point for planning your own.


A word of caution: while it may feel like something interesting and “fun” to borrow components from the wedding ceremonies of various other religions or groups, it’s important that you not do so haphazardly. These components are in their context for a reason, and taking them out of that context may alter them. 

If you’re not Jewish, for example, yet want to be married under a canopy or break glasses under your feet, ask yourself why. If those actions are meaningful to you in some special way, it may be possible to include them in your ceremony; talk to your celebrant. 

But remember that weddings aren’t like dining a la carte: choosing one component from column A, one from column B, etc. may give you, in the end, a ceremony that really doesn’t know what it is about.


You may want to have the shape of the ceremony affected by the people who are invited to witness and share in your declaration of commitment. If there are several people who are close to you, you may wish to have more than two readings, for example, so that more people can participate in the ceremony.

If you are having your ceremony out-of-doors, the weather may be a factor. One couple determined to have the ceremony near the ocean—even though the day they chose turned out to be cold, windy, and raining. They decided that being by the water was more important to them than having the long readings they’d previously selected, so shorter ones were inserted.

While shortening or extending the ceremony via readings is perfectly acceptable, beware of playing around too much with the rest of the ceremony. Remember that its shape is there for a reason.



Many couples prefer to write their own vows, and this is a wonderful place to put your own stamp on the proceedings. There are a lot of good reasons to write your own wedding vows. The most obvious is that they’re personal, they reflect you—both as two persons and also as a couple—and they can reference thoughts and events that are special and unique to you. They also serve to tell your guests a little about how you’re viewing the ceremony and perhaps give them a glimpse of your journey together. In a sense, personalized vows serve to tell each other why you’re there.


In my experience, when asked if they wish to write their own vows, many couples panic. And there’s really no need to! Follow the simple steps below and see if you can’t create something beautiful, lasting, and special for your wedding day. (And if you’re still stuck, remember that your celebrant is available to help!)

The first thing to do is be sure that writing your own vows is something in which the two of you are equally invested. Often one partner really wants to do it, and the other partner really doesn’t! If ever there was a time for clear communication, this is it. Talk to each other. Make a list, if necessary: what are the pros of writing your own vows, and what are the cons? Which of you feels most strongly about it? Which of you is willing to compromise?

What I'm going to suggest here is that you do your vows together. This isn’t the only way to do it, and you can certainly look at the steps below and go through them on your own. I know that many couples want to surprise their soon-to-be-spouse with vows that have been kept secret; that is, of course, your choice. But my view is that if you’re looking at making a commitment to lifelong intimacy, that commitment should be something that’s shared. Your mileage may vary!

Once you’ve decided to do it, set aside an afternoon or evening: this isn’t something that should be jotted down in the car, while cooking dinner, or ten minutes before you have to leave for work. Make it a special time: put on some music you both love, reserve a glass of champagne (for when you’re finished: drunken vows don’t look so great the next day!), and get comfortable. This is one of the most intimate things you’ll ever do in your relationship, far more intimate in some ways than making love, so acknowledge that and take care to make it a special time.

Have lots of paper and writing utensils nearby, because you will no doubt want to jot ideas down as they come to you. A notebook computer is fine also. A tape recorder works if you’re not a writing sort of person/couple.

So you’ve taken the first step. You’ve decided you want to write your own vows. Now you have to think about what it is, exactly, that you want to say to each other.


Sharing Memories and Creating Dreams

• How did you meet? How did you feel when you met? Was it love at first sight, or did love develop slowly?

• What is the single most wonderful thing about your partner?

• Where do you hope to be 10 years from now as a couple?

• Is there something about your partner that drives you crazy, yet that you can both laugh about?

• How beautiful is your partner in your eyes? Go on, try to put it into words!

• Has your partner ever said anything to you that’s stuck with you, that you find profound and/or significant?

• Imagine your life without your partner in it. Say something about how different that life would be from the one on which you’re embarking.

• What do you most enjoy doing together? What makes that activity special?

• Did you ever dream of getting married? How does the vision you had of marriage match up to what your partner is offering?

• Remember what the vows are for: words of commitment to each other. How would you like to commit yourself to your partner?

Now take a look at your answers to those questions, each of you individually. Are you starting to see a form develop? Is there a way that you can put this marvelous story into words? (Again, if you can’t, it’s not a problem: send your notes to your celebrant, and chances are he or she can weave them into vows you’ll love.)

Then again, there’s the …

Mad Libs Approach: Remember Mad Libs? Paragraphs in which you needed only to fill in the blanks provided with random nouns, verbs, and adjectives, to create a funny little story? Well, this isn’t random, and it’s (maybe!) not funny, but it’s a viable approach if you feel overwhelmed by the whole process.  Try this:

(Name), you are my (best friend / one true love / the one I want to spend the rest of my life with / your choice of words). Today, I take you to be my (spouse / wife / husband / life partner / your choice of words). I promise that I will be (faithful / worthy of your trust / worthy of your love / your loving partner / your best friend / your choice of words). I vow to (honor you / cherish you / love you / respect you / laugh with you / cry with you / support you in your goals / your choice of words; this section can include as many phrases as you want), (for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, for as long as we both shall live, or whatever else makes sense for you).

No matter how you do it, writing your own vows can be a wonderful and memorable way to personalize your special day.

Same-sex couples are far more likely than heterosexual couples to have lived as partners for a significant number of years, for obvious reasons. This reality brings a different dimension into the wedding ceremony and is addressed in one of the appendices.

Whatever ceremony you choose, it is the center of your wedding. Everything else—the site, the preparations, the guests, the reception, the cake—flows from the ceremony, which is the raison d’être for the gathering. 

It’s a party, but remember that the party is celebrating something significa nt, even earth-shaking: the serious and joyful commitment of two people to each other.