Earnest? Joyless? No, writes Lynne Wallis, this humanist wedding was fun - and deeply moving
When a close friend announced last year that she was getting married, I was delighted. She'd had a series of unsuitable partners, and finally she'd found someone she loved who really cared about her. But when she explained that it was to be a humanist ceremony, my enthusiasm waned. I didn't know exactly what a humanist wedding entailed, but I knew it wouldn't be legally recognised. The whole idea sounded to me like PC gone mad, and if they weren't married in the eyes of the law, what was the point? Although I'm not especially religious myself, I couldn't help thinking: if you're going to take the plunge, there's nothing quite like a traditional church wedding, with confetti, posh hats, saucy best man's speeches and weeping aunties. A bunch of people standing around under a cherry tree holding hands didn't hold quite the same appeal. But before I knew it, the invitations had gone out and the glorious day was upon us.

As atheists, the couple chose to have a humanist ceremony first, backed up by a register office the following weekend, more to keep their families happy than for any need they felt to legalise their vows.

They hired a huge 14th-century country house in Sussex for their wedding weekend. Such opulence certainly hadn't been part of my idea of an "alternative" wedding. The house slept 20 and came with pool, tennis courts, sauna and fabulously well kept grounds. The bride and groom welcomed their 80 or so guests at the door, she in a stunning blue satin, full-length, boned-bodiced dress with a net wrap around her shoulders; he in a trendy wool suit and clogs.

The crowd was ushered through to an elegant drawing-room for the ceremony, while the bride and groom escaped for a few minutes to prepare themselves for their big moment. Grannies, parents and elderly aunts sat at the front in comfy sofas and armchairs, while remaining guests stood in this now rather full room. The scent of lilies wafted in from the hall and there wasn't a sound as the bride and groom walked in and sat down, facing their guests, in two high-backed wooden fairy-tale chairs, like the King and Queen of Hearts, ready to vow their love for each other. It was such an emotionally loaded moment that clapping them seemed appropriate, so we did. I'd imagined some dreary, earnest types dressed down for the occasion in defiance of tradition, rather than up. Instead, here was a room full of colour, sparkle and excited anticipation, with no sombre priest or po-faced organist to dampen the mood.

The couple could have arranged for a "celebrant" from the Humanist Society to perform their ceremony. Instead, they opted for one of the groom's two best men, who explained what the ceremony entailed and proceeded expertly to "MC" it. The bride had a six-strong coven of best women - she had so many close female friends that she'd felt unable to pick a "best" one.

Friends each read some quotations chosen by the bride, from Jane Austen to the 10th-century poet Frau Ava. The last two, love poems, moved the groom almost to tears, which of course started the whole room off. There were speeches from the bride's mother and father, blessings, asked of grandparents and willingly given ("we've only been waiting for four years!") and finally the couple's vows, written by themselves. They promised to look after each other and love each other in the future, whatever that might hold, then exchanged simple gold bracelets and kissed.

Seeing their faces as they took their vows made the whole thing more meaningful, for me, than anything else could have, and it made me question the sense of church weddings, where the only person to see the important bit close up is someone the couple possibly met only a few days before, at rehearsals. Here, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. OK, God was out of the picture, and so for the moment was the law, but these two now regarded themselves as husband and wife, fully committed to their relationship for the future.

The bride invited a photographer friend to take candid shots whenever he could, and the results are better than any posed wedding album photographs I've ever seen. So, instead of an hour of posing, it was straight through to the dining-room for an excellent lunch, followed by the traditional bit the couple were keen to retain: champagne toasts and cutting of cake on the lawn outside. At about 5pm, everyone drifted off for sleep, tennis or swimming, then reassembled for an evening party, or rather, parties. The groom's dad led a piano-accompanied sing-song in the smoking-room, some exhausted parents sat in the kitchen chewing the fat, while the more energetic of us pranced about to hits of the Eighties.

So shame on me. This wedding ceremony wasn't some petty, two-fingers- at-the-Establishment act of rebellion. It was, simply, what they wanted. So hats off to humanist weddings, or should that be hats on?

The Humanist Society (0990 168 122).