Wedding Planning

How To Marry Yourselves: Everything You Need to Know About Quaker Wedding Ceremonies

Pennsylvania is one of the only states where you can perform self-uniting ceremonies.

Did you know as a couple you can actually marry yourselves? It’s true, and Pennsylvania is one of the only places you can do it. With a Quaker wedding, there  is no officiant present at the wedding ceremony — a few witnesses and their signatures is all you need. With this traditional wedding custom going mainstream, people in Philly are getting married in all sorts of places that suit their personalities and styles, from iconic local dive bars like Dirty Franks to beautiful rustic locations in Chester County.

What exactly is a Quaker wedding?

Quaker weddings, also known as self-uniting weddings, are a special type of ceremony where no officiant is needed to wed two parties. To hold a Quaker wedding in Pennsylvania, first you need  you, your partner and two witnesses. You’ll need to apply for a marriage license (there’s a $90 marriage license fee) as well as a Quaker/self-uniting license or certificate (additional $100 fee) through the City of Philadelphia Office of Wills . Then you need a self-uniting certificate declaring your intention to be married. The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends offers the traditional language here, but couples may modify and customize the certificate. (In fact, Etsy is full of Quaker wedding certificate vendors.) Once you get the license and all parties sign the certificate in a ceremony of your choosing, you’re married. 

The tradition has its roots in Quaker faith, where weddings tend to happen with little fanfare. However, in many states, like Pennsylvania, uniting without an officiant is gaining popularity amongst people outside of the Quaker faith.  The result: a number of new, and sometimes unconventional Quaker-style weddings popping up all around the area.

Quaker weddings were not always open to the general public — at one point you had to prove that you were part of Quaker or B’Hai faiths. That all changed in 2007, when the ACLU filed a civil-rights lawsuit on behalf of a couple in Allegheny County who were denied a self-uniting marriage license on behalf of their religion.  After this case, many counties in Pennsylvania provide self-uniting marriage licenses, regardless of the couple’s religion. (In addition to Pennsylvania, states like Colorado, Washington D.C., Wisconsin, Illinois, and California also have similar policies).

These types of ceremonies have some great benefits, which is probably why they’re growing in popularity locally. For starters, the process removes the need for an officiant, so it’s easier and more flexible to arrange than a regular wedding. In Philadelphia, you can get the necessary paperwork, two witnesses to sign the document, and tie the knot wherever, and however, you see fit.

What are Quaker weddings like here in Philly? 

Couples in the Philly area have added their own unique flair to Quaker wedding ceremonies. Christina Matthias and Charles (Hank) Garrett held a gorgeous, hippie-inspired Quaker wedding last June. Their high-production wedding, which took place on the bride’s family farm, was a unique hybrid of a bohemian rustic aesthetic with the Quaker tradition mixed in. The vibrant and colorful outdoor wedding — complete with glamping tents for guests — also included a Quaker-style signing of the marriage certificate. The certificate, signed by all of the guests at the wedding, now hangs in their South Philly home.

Matthias describes how the decision to have a Quaker wedding was influenced by her own family’s tradition: “My parents married themselves with a self-uniting license. When Hank and I were planning our wedding that was the easiest choice for us.  We loved the idea that we could marry ourselves and be empowered legally to make our own marriage official, with all of our friends and family as witnesses.”

Although more and more Quaker weddings are popping up in the city, there also are many couples who married before the 2007 lawsuit allowed the custom to go mainstream. In fact, Philadelphia magazine’s digital editorial director and his wife got married in 1990 in a self-uniting ceremony at a Chester County bed and breakfast. Their wedding included an adapted 300-year-old Quaker certificate from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania that all attendees signed. He recalls that the decision to have a Quaker wedding as a logical one, since both he and his wife had no interest in a clergy-led ceremony.

While Quaker-style weddings can be carefully planned events with all the glitz and glam of a modern celebration, they can also happen on a whim. Morgan McKenna and Rowena D’Souza got married at Dirty Franks, a cash-only dive bar in Midtown Village. The couple had opted for a self-uniting ceremony license, and knew they wanted to get married sometime that day, but didn’t know where. As they wandered the city in search of a venue that felt right, they decided the bar was the perfect location. Two witness signatures later, and a happy hour turned into a wedding reception. Does it get any more Philly than that? 

What are some tips for pulling this off ourselves?

If you’re interested in a Quaker or Quaker-style wedding, here are some quick tips to make sure yours is everything you want it to be.

1. Carefully plan out the program of the ceremony and think about how your guests will play a role in the wedding. Christina and Hank, for example had attendees share stories, read poems and give advice during their ceremony, some planned and some unplanned. Create a program for the wedding that will make it feel intimate for you and your partner, and the inform guests of that plan. Be clear with in advance about if you will open up the floor for guests to speak, and make sure that some are planned, but also leave time to open the floor for unscheduled remarks.

2. If you’re looking to have a Quaker wedding rooted in a family or historical tradition, do some research and find things that may be meaningful to you and your partner. Consider if you want your wedding to focus on the spiritual and religious aspect of having a self-unifying marriage. Think about if your family has Quaker roots and traditions passed down, or even what kind of documents you want to utilize during the ceremony.

3. Make sure the ceremony location exudes the energy of the kind of wedding you want to have. Farms and small rural venues can lend the Quaker wedding a quiet and peaceful aura. Family properties or landmarks can act as a nod to the generational tradition, and spontaneous locations can make a Quaker-style wedding extra-fun and memorable.

4. Plan out the certificate signing, and think about where to display it. Marriage certificates for Quaker weddings generally have some significant meaning for the married couple—the ceremony places a lot of emphasis on witness participation. How will your guests sign the certificate, and what will you and your spouse do with it after the wedding? A great way to have guests sign the certificate is to display it on an easel and have everyone come up and sign it after the ceremony ceremony. Framing and hanging the certificate in your home after the fact will serve as a reminder of the special occasion.

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