Advice from Tim Maguire, a humanist celebrant, who has helped over 1,000 couples of all orientations, religions and beliefs to write their own ceremonies.
The vows are the climax of every wedding, and like the climax of a movie, they can be romantic and inspiring but – let’s be honest – they can also be a bit frightening!
That’s why some couples still choose to say the same words their parents did back in the day: ‘to have and to hold, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health’. The traditional vows kind of cover it, but they’re a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution and the one thing they’re not is personal.
We humanists realised that couples wanted the freedom to make promises in their own words, and that’s why we campaigned for more than twenty years to give you that right. Now, 15 years on from the first legal humanist marriage in Scotland, writing your own vows has become ‘the new normal’ but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Your vows will be the biggest promise you’ve ever made, so you already know that they’re a big deal. They will define how you intend to live for the rest of your life, so you want them to be powerful, but not over the top; romantic but not cheesy; honest, but not boring; inspiring, but still grounded in reality.
Where do you begin? Well, you could read We Do! (I would say that wouldn’t I?) but if you’re getting close to the wire and need some quick inspiration, here are some ideas.
1. GIVE YOURSELF TIME
This isn’t something you want to be doing in the last few weeks before your big day. In We Do!, I give you all the ideas you need to create your own unique ceremony, and it starts by going back in time and remembering what brought you together in the first place; what made you realise that this is the person you want to share the rest of your life with, and thinking about what marriage means to you. It’s not the work of a moment, but it’s that process which will create the original raw material from which your vows will flow. Pour yourself a glass of something and see how you’ve got on after an hour and a half. Don’t edit – just scribble it down, and tell the truth: you both know what’s happened so there’s nowhere to hide!
2. DO THE RESEARCH
There are lots of random collections of vows out there on the net, and it won’t take you long to get the idea. You’ll find lots on Pinterest and wedding blogs and websites, but they’re someone else’s words not yours. Read them, and be inspired by them, but then, write your own and make them original!
3. DO IT TOGETHER
Your marriage will be a partnership, so step one is to make sure that your partner is happy to write the ceremony with you. David and Jenna did that, and their promises were short, sweet and funny.
They started by making the legal declaration, and then they went their own way.
I, Jenna, accept you, David, as my husband.
I will love you always and support you,
no matter what life throws at us.
I promise to respect our differences,
and accept you as you are,
but I will always have the last word.
I, David, accept you, Jenna, as my wife.
I promise to always be there for you when you need me.
I promise to love you, care for you,
and always let you have the last word…
4. PROMISES, PROMISES
A vow is just another word for a promise, so start by thinking about all the things you can promise to do for your partner once you’re married.
5. INVOLVE YOUR GUESTS
Before you make your personal promises, you might ask your guests to make some promises to you, as Kellie and Kevin did.
Celebrant: Do you, the friends and family of Kellie and Kevin, promise to support them on this great adventure?
All: We do!
Celebrant: Do you promise to give them counsel should they falter, and remind them of the promises they are about to make, with hearts full of love?
All: We do!
Celebrant: Finally, do you promise to making tonight the happiest night of their lives?
All: We do!
6. ONE LINE AT A TIME
You might speak your vows one line at a time, so it makes it more of a dialogue. That’s what Helen and James did.
James: I promise to try to work less and smile when I come in the door.
Helen: I promise to give you more warning when I am suffering from PMT so you can understand me more.
James: I promise to try and listen to you.
Helen: I promise to remember you’re going deaf!
7. BE YOURSELF
You won’t keep your promises if they’re not true to who you really are. Speak from the heart, and don’t use fancy language. The more truthful you are, the more powerful your vows will be. This is just some of what Carly and Gordon said.
I promise to try look interested when you talk about football and cars
I promise to always remember the reasons that I love you,
should you start to annoy me.
You know me better than anyone
and yet you still love me (even when I’m grumpy).
I can’t wait to grow old with you,
living our life as an adventure.
8. SECRET VOWS
One way to make your exchange of vows even more awesome is to keep them a secret until the day. It’s ‘a high-risk strategy’, which is why I insist that couples who choose this route send me their vows by separate email, so I can check they’re on roughly the same page, and clinically sane.
9. CHECK WITH YOUR OFFICIANT
Humanist, civil and interfaith celebrants will normally encourage you to write your own vows, but ministers of religion may work by different rules, so always check with them and ask for their advice and guidance.
10. REMEMBER THE LEGAL DECLARATION
You can say what you want when you’re making your vows, but you must also indicate that you accept each other in marriage. That’s what we call ‘The Legal Declaration’ and there are various ways you can speak it, but the simplest is to say, ‘I choose you (or take you, or accept you) as my husband/wife’ either as you start your vows or as you finish them.
In a former life, Tim Maguire was an award-winning producer and director. Since training as a celebrant in 2005, he has conducted thousands of ceremonies of all kinds, including more than a thousand legal weddings. He is now the Honorary Humanist Chaplain to the University of Edinburgh.