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EXPLAINED: The rules foreigners should know about German church weddings

If you are planning your wedding day in Germany, you might be thinking about saying your vows in a church even if you are not a member of a German church. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

EXPLAINED: The rules foreigners should know about German church weddings
A groom places a ring on the finger of his bride. Photo: dpa | Andreas Lander

So you’ve fallen in love in Germany and you and your partner now want to affirm that you’ll stay together “until death do us part”. Congratulations!

Now the hard work begins. You have to pick a wedding venue, whittle down your invitation list and probably arrange for friends and family to come from some far flung part of the world.

Another complication will be picking the location for the wedding ceremony itself. If you want to marry in a church there are quite a few rules you will need to know about.

Here’s a little help.

The paperwork

An important point about getting married in Germany, which everyone should know, is that a church wedding does not actually count in any bureaucratic sense as getting married.

You will need to first get married at a Standesamt (registry office) before you can marry in the Church.

READ ALSO: ‘Ja, ich will’: What it’s like to get married in Germany 

The Catholic church

If you are both Catholics who were baptised in your home country but you’ve never joined the church in Germany, it should be relatively straightforward to sort things out with a church in your neighbourhood.

“The Catholic Church doesn’t see people as foreigners,” Stefan Förner, a spokesman for the Berlin Diocese, told The Local.

“With proof of your affiliation to the Catholic Church, you can basically get married anywhere,” he added.

If baptismal certificates have to be translated from a less common language this can “lead to delays,” he warns. However, in a lot of cases, catholic baptismal certificates are written in the religion’s universal language of Latin – which makes things much easier.

“Basically, there is no need for additional documents because someone is not a German citizen,” Förner reassures.

Another rule that is important to know: if one of you is a Catholic and the other belongs to another denomination, it is still possible to tie the knot in a Catholic church.

“As far as other Christian churches are concerned, we speak of a so-called confession-dividing or -connecting marriage,” says Förner.

“A lot then depends on what the other churches understand a marriage ceremony to be: for Catholics and Orthodox Christians it is a sacrament, for the churches of the Reformation it is not.”

Förner says that the best thing to do is to arrange a meeting between the clerics from each of your churches so they can reach an agreement on how to proceed. This is especially easy in the capital. “That’s the beauty of Berlin: there are Christians from almost all countries and from different denominations.”

If you are a member of the Catholic Church you can also marry someone who is not religious. Again though, the Church recommends a tailored service that is appropriate to the beliefs of both bride and groom.

This also goes for members of other faiths. The Diocese of Mainz says that it welcomes ceremonies between a Catholic and a Muslim and that priests are happy to conduct such ceremonies outside of the church if that makes both families feel more comfortable.

On the other hand, if neither bride nor groom is a member of the church then you will not be able to marry in a Catholic church.

If you still want to use a church as a backdrop for your ceremony, you can still look into renting one which has been deconsecrated and is now used as an event location.

A bride and groom sit in a church at a German wedding in June 2021.

A bride and groom sit in a church at a German wedding in June 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Silas Stein

Protestant churches

Getting married in a Protestant church in Germany if you are a member of a Protestant church in your homeland is a bit more complicated.

“Our relationships with the various protestant churches in other European countries vary from confession to confession and so there is no one answer to how this could be arranged,” Bernd Tiggemann, a spokesman for the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKB), told the Local.

Tiggermann also points out that an Anglican couple who wanted to use a protestant church for their ceremony should contact one of the many English-speaking ministries in Germany. It would also be possible to use a protestant church for the service. This is something you would have to discuss with the local chapter of the EKB. 

Other than that, the rules in the protestant church are similar to those in the Catholic church. If one of the couple if a member of the church then they can marry a Catholic, a non-believer or a member of another faith in a church service.

If neither of you are church members, then it won’t be possible for you to marry in a protestant church.

The EKB reminds people who were once congregants and have since left that getting married might be a good time to consider rejoining.

What about other ceremonies?

Most other important church ceremonies, such as baptism and confirmation, involve becoming a member of the church or reaffirming one’s belief. Obviously, it makes no sense to perform these if one is not a member of the church.

Another delicate religious ceremony that people might want to have carried out in a church is a funeral service.

Basically, there is no rule in the German churches stopping a priest from conducting a funeral service for a non-believer.

Both the Catholic and protestant churches leave it largely up to their pastors to decide whether they are prepared to conduct a funeral service for someone who is not a church member.

This appears to be quite a sensitive issue. Clerics who are open to conducting such ceremonies are only likely to do so if the deceased was once a member of the church and indicated in his or her final days that they were once again finding their way to God.

But many clerics will refuse such a request from the deceased’s family, saying that the decision to leave the church has to be taken seriously. 

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GERMAN HABITS

7 cultural differences between raising kids in Germany and the US

The Local editor Rachel Stern, an American mom in Germany, details how she's seen children brought up in the Bundesrepublik - and the often stark contrast to parenting styles in the USA.

7 cultural differences between raising kids in Germany and the US

Early independence. According to stereotypes, the good ‘ol USA is the land of freedom-loving folks who value individuality whereas ze Germans must always abide by a strict set of rules. Yet when it comes to parenting, Germans tend to be the ones who are much more lax. It’s a common sight to see kids as young as five or six walking to school by themselves, or jovially jumping around at the playground while their parents are engrossed in their own conversations or even out of sight.

What might be described as “free-range parenting” in the US is simply the norm in Germany. Parents believe that early independence allows kids to build the confidence and common sense to thrive later in life when someone isn’t constantly glancing over their shoulders.

Safety first? While American playgrounds often consist of neatly packed padded equipment and foam floors, German Spielplätze frequently host a labyrinth of long metallic tubes, tall towers and wobbly wooden bridges. Don’t German parents also worry about their kids getting hurt? Of course, but their philosophy tends to be that if they fall, they will pick themselves up again and learn to do the task at hand better the next time around.

A six-year old at a playground's obstacle course in Hanover. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte
A six-year old at a playground’s obstacle course in Hanover. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Julian Stratenschulte

They also tend to trust preteen kids’ own basic judgment in walking to school on their own. In the US, where either bright yellow school buses or parents themselves carefully chauffeur their children to the classroom, this would usually be unthinkable in Germany. Some US states even have laws mandating a minimum age a child can be left alone, and there have been several instances of parents receiving a call from Child Protective Services for letting their preteens play in the neighbourhood park themselves, sans supervision.

Daycare vs Kita. In the US, the word daycare tends to be synonymous with a last-ditch alternative for parents who have to return to work (often shortly after giving birth). Yet in Germany, “Kitas” – childcare which stretches through the Kindergarten age – are coveted institutions in which many parents vie for a spot. Since 2013, all kids in Germany from age one are entitled to a “Kitaplatz” – and the search for one often notoriously begins during pregnancy.

By the age of three, 92 percent of all German children are in a Kita, according to the OECD. While many American parents pride themselves on keeping their kids out of daycare if they have the resources, Germans generally boast of the early socialisation and “Selbstständigkeit” (self-reliance) that Kitakinder pick up. It helps that they are free of charge in Berlin and Hamburg, and heavily subsidised in the rest of the country.

READ ALSO: What foreign parents in Germany need to know about ‘Sprach-Kitas’

Children at a kita in Hanover. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Fellowes GmbH | Fellowes GmbH
Children at a kita in Hanover. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Fellowes GmbH | Fellowes GmbH

Embracing germs. “It will build their immune system,” is a common adage for Germans to stay zen when their small child has shovelled sand in their mouth or eaten food that’s fallen under the table. American parenting publications, however, are abound with articles on how to steer children clear of germs, which one deemed “Public Enemy Number One.” German ones, on the other hand, often seek to reassure parents that exposure to Keime (the word for both germs and bacteria) is okay – and even beneficial in preventing the allergies that can arise from a too-sterile environment.

No bad weather. As with the even colder Nordic countries, there’s an expression in Germany that translates to: “There’s no such thing as the wrong weather, only the wrong clothes.” Just like how Germans are religious about opening their windows wide at least once a day in the heart of winter to let in fresh air, most are also firm believers in the benefits of bundling up babies and children and taking them outdoors daily.

This could explain why roughly two thirds of German children spend an average of 108 minutes outside per day. Compare that to the US, where children are estimated to devote four to seven minutes to unstructured outdoor play per day

Play that doesn’t fit in a plan. Most Americans know the stereotype of the soccer mom – a minivan driving, middle-class mother who shuttles her offspring to sports and a myriad of “extracurriculars”. It’s a true reflection of a culture in which children are often over-scheduled with various activities and classes by their well-meaning parents starting from an early age. 

Yet many German parents would rather that their kids “be bored”, or be left alone with their own interests in order to develop their creativity and problem solving skills. Starting at Kita, children are encouraged to partake in unstructured play, which teachers say brings much more value than being able to read by the age of five. 

READ ALSO: 7 surefire signs your kids are definitely German

Discipline, or lack thereof. A German school yard may look a little Lord of the Flies-esque, with kids playing (and often fighting) on their own. While teachers would of course intervene in a more serious situation, they often try to let kids work out their own conflicts, or engage in a dialogue with them about why they did (or did not) do something.

This attitude is common among German parents too, rather than embracing fear tactics as a consequence for misbehaving. Unlike in some parts of the US, spanking isn’t supported (and is in fact illegal) and “getting grounded” – a form of house arrest that US parents place on older kids who misbehave – is not common and frowned upon. That’s not surprising in a country where children learn to make their own decisions, independent of their parents, from an early age.

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