Can a Secular Ceremony be Warm
Yes! You can stop reading now--but don't, I have plenty of ideas below for your secular ceremony.
What is warmth? It is the feeling of being cared-for. We want a wedding to be warm in the sense that we want the couple's relationship to be cared-for--to be safe in the hands of the officiant. In a wedding ceremony, we find safety--and thus warmth--in the officiant's style, tone, and treatment of the couple and the guests.
Many think of secular ceremonies as cold and impersonal, and there is good reason for this. A lot of secular ceremonies are conducted at City Hall by a clerk or a judge who met the couple two minutes before, has absolutely no investment in their relationship, and includes nothing in the ceremony that resonates with the couple's personality or relationship, and maybe the ceremony gets shoehorned in before lunch. In such a ceremony, the couple's relationship is not wrapped in the safety necessary for a beautiful, touching, joyful wedding.
A wedding ceremony can include several forms of relationship investment (and by the way, I mean figurative investment); my favorite is a reading that is intended to offer a new vantage point to the bride and groom, or grooms, or brides. Maybe read by the friends or family of the couple, it could also be read by the officiant. (Want to cry happy tears? Read "Marriage Joins Two People In the Circle of Its Love" by Edmund O'Neill.) The gist of the reading should be something that the couple can use in their relationship. It is also a gesture of caring by the person reading it.
Another lovely way for someone to invest in the wedding, and by extension the couple's relationship, is to sing a song or perform a piece of music. Music, sung and instrumental, can be very evocative, reminding us of the magic of true love. (Just think of "A Thousand Years" by Christina Perri.) Sometimes hearing a piece of music connects us with emotions we otherwise are not cognizant of, and this is good for both the guests and especially for the couple.
The couple can invest directly in their relationship during the ceremony. A unity ceremony is a physical, kinetic representation of the merging of two lives that happens in a long-term relationship. Unity ceremonies can be very romantic, such as with handfasting, and usually leaves the couple with a keepsake--the knotted cord, a box of love notes, a vessel of sand, and so on.
A wedding is a very intimate experience. It is something that we want to experience in a safe-harbor, and the officiant offers safe harbor through the way he or she relates to the couple. Standing at the front of the venue, before the couple and before the guests, the officiant sets the tone of familiarity, which is essential for intimacy to blossom. A professional officiant achieves this by getting to know the couple, and rather than repeating a canned script, speaks with knowledge of them and their relationship. An officiant who speaks to a well established couple as though they had just met is missing the mark.
The officiant must also have some idea of who the guests are. Guests want to feel safe, just as the couple does. To put the guests at ease, the officiant must first acknowledge them, must thank them for joining in the celebration, and must express that he or she understands them (specifically that he or she understands their relationship to the couple). To communicate that the he or she understands the guests, the officiant may make reference to a moment that (many of) the guests had with the couple. The officiant, however, must be careful not to insult the guests by sharing an embarrassing story.
Ceremony resonance is the cousin of familiarity. The wedding ceremony should be a mirror of the couple's relationship. To that end, it should be crafted in a way that brings out the personality of the couple. The playful couple might write vows that say "I'll squish the spiders for you". A serious couple may opt for the stately Pachelbel's Canon as their processional. Whatever the case, the guests should leave the ceremony thinking "that was so them!". When the ceremony is authentic to the couple, it lets them be present in an unguarded way--so important.
Just like familiarity helps guests feel safe, so does a ceremony that resonates with the couple. It signals "we're in the right place".
Putting it Together
If you are considering a secular ceremony, consider a professional officiant over a "City Hall" wedding. These officiants are experts when it comes to putting together--and delivering--a warm ceremony. When you reach out to professional officiants, ask them "How will you make this a warm experience?". Don't be shy when it comes to asking for a secular ceremony; a good officiant understands that the ceremony must reflect you. Look to see whether the officiant takes an interest in you as a couple. To gauge his or her personality, tell a (tasteful) joke that you find funny--look to see how it goes over, as this will be a good bellwether of how you will work together, and how well he or she "gets" you. And above all, work with someone who makes you feel good!