Vows, Personal Promises, and what goes first

by Jennifer Cram - Brisbane Marriage Celebrant © (07/07/2021)
Categories: |  Vows |  Wedding Ceremony |
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D and G reading their personal promises in
                      unisonRecently, there has been some lively debate amongst Australian celebrants about whether personal promises (often referred to as personal vows or just vows) must follow the legal vows.

Often what shaped the opinion of  those celebrants who are adamant that personal promises absolutely must follow the legal vows. was the opinion of the person who conducted their training, passed on to students as fact, and/or other factors such as the advice provided by the Guidelines issued by the Attorney General's Department. I'm of a different opinion for several very logical reasons. Here's why.

What the Marriage Act says

Personal promises are not mentioned in The Marriage Act. It is totally silent on the matter. It doesn't even mention personal promises. The reason being that the Act sets out who is allowed to solemnise marriages in Australia, who can get married in Australia, and what must be done for a marriage to be a legal marriage - both in terms of the paperwork and what must be said and done in the ceremony.

All the Act says about vows is that the couple must, in the presence of their celebrant and two adult witnesses, say to one another

I call upon the persons here present to witness that I, [Name], take you, [Name],
to be my lawful wedded wife/husband

("... or words to that effect" which means you can say spouse or partner-in-marriage, and you can also say I ask everyone here)

The Guidelines are advice

The Guidelines are lengthy, and extremely useful, advice provided to celebrants by the Attorney-General's Department. They clarify various provisions of the Act and guide celebrants towards best practice. Where they are not dealing with the hard and fast legal requirements., they are generally couched in terms of should rather than must.

Personal promises can take many forms

While you can't make your legal vows in different formats, any additional promises you choose to make can be made any way you like. So yes, you can read, recite, or repeat after your celebrant a statement about what you, personally, promise. Those are the most common methods. But you can also read or say them in unison, something definitely not permitted for your legal vows. Or you can respond to questions posed to you by your celebrant (or anyone else present either physically or via electronic mechanisms) with whatever expression of agreement you are comfortable with. So you can say a loud and positive I Do, I Will, or Hell, Yeah - or anything else that's makes it clear that you are freely and willingly saying yes to the marriage. You could make a positive gesture, such as a vigorous nod, clapping your hands, or doing a fist bump. You could even have your celebrant read your promises to you, and you sign them. On a large whiteboard, an iPad, or a nicely printed card.

Just as long as any personal promise or statement you make does not impose conditions on your agreement to marry, you're good to go.


Consent is critical in getting married. Both parties must be entering into the marriage of their own free will. Celebrants are forbidden to proceed with the marriage if they pick up any indication that either (or both) parties may not be entering into the marriage willingly or not giving real consent, which means they must understand what they are doing, and what marriage entails.

So it seems a bit back to front to me to insist that a couple must make their legal vows first. The legal vows create the legal marriage. They are a statement in the here and now and include no promises at all.  So insisting that a couple must be  legally married before they make the personal promises about how they will treat one another in the marriage feels uncomfortable..

It can be somewhat one-sided - for a brief moment

The most common form of vows is where one person says both their legal vows and their personal promises first, and the other person follows doing the same. The legal situation is that you are legally married when both of you have said the legal vows. Which means that, in this scenario, one person hears the personal promises after they have made their legal vows, while the other doesn't have to make their legal vows until after they've heard what they are being promised. I think it is pretty obvious (though highly unlikely) what could happen between the two sets of vows.

Where you have negotiated your personal promises (something I encourage) and so you have agreed on what might be called the performance targets for your marriage, no problem. Where the vows are kept secret until the day, different story.

Legal vows must be said AFTER the Monitum

The Monitum is the statement of the Celebrant's Authority to solemnise the marriage. It includes the legal definition of marriage in Australia. The Marriage Act mandates that it must be said before the legal vows are said.

There is no such requirement for personal promises.

Personal promises, personal choice

Whether or not you make personal promises to one another is your personal choice. As is how you make them. So, it seems to me that it is logical that where in the ceremony you make those promises is personal choice too. And that we take the flow of the ceremony into consideration.

Thanks for reading!

Jenny xxx Let's talk soon about how you can
                    have the best ceremony ever
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