Civil Ceremony, Secular Ceremony, Humanist Ceremony. What's the difference?

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by Jennifer Cram (02/03/2019)  | Categories: | Wedding Ceremony |
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I was recently asked what is the difference between a civil marriage ceremony, a secular marriage ceremony, and a humanist marriage ceremony.

In Australia, all legal marriages, whether solemnised in a church or not, can only be officiated by an individual authorised by the state, so, in that sense, all marriages are civil marriages, recognised and registered by the Australian government.  Clergy can be authorised to solemnise legal marriages. The majority of weddings in Australia (about 3 out of every 4) are officiated by civil celebrants, who can be marriage officers in the employ of the various state Registry Offices, or independent marriage celebrants, authorised by the Australian Government.

A civil ceremony
Civil marriage is defined as a marriage solemnised as a civil contract. In other words a civil marriage ceremony is one that is performed, recorded, and recognised by a government official. In many countries, a civil ceremony is one that is solemnised as a civil contract, but without a religious ceremony.

A secular ceremony vs a humanist ceremony
Neither a secular ceremony nor a humanist ceremony references a deity. While civil marriage is defined as a marriage solemnised as a civil contract, both a secular marriage ceremony and a humanist marriage ceremony can be defined as a marriage solemnised as a civil contract, without religious ceremony.

However, a secular ceremony can, and often does, embody many of the characteristics of a religious ceremony. The ceremony as performed by registry offices and by a very large proportion of civil celebrants can, and often does, include a stereotypical gender role bias, including customs from a time when a woman was legally and socially the property of the significant males in her life. As part of the marriage ceremony, her father transferred ownership to her husband. and
as soon as they were pronounced husband and wife her rights, independence and even identity - thus, the Mrs John Smith title - were overtaken by her husband's right and wishes as he became her legal guardian in every way.

A humanist ceremony, on the other hand, presents a view of marriage where the marrying couple are equal. The ceremony will also include nothing that is misogynist, homophobic, transphobic, racist, or disrespectful to anyone who is present, and will ensure that there is complete congruence between the words of the ceremony, the symbolism of the ceremony, symbolic actions within the ceremony, and the choreography of the ceremony.

There is, however, a difference between having a humanist ceremony in Australia compared to some other parts of the world. In Scotland, Northern Ireland, Jersey, and some states in the US, humanist celebrants must be accredited by the relevant Humanist organisation, which, as a belief organisation, is given the same legal standing as a religious denomination. In Australia, having a humanist ceremony requires no such accreditation.  In those jurisdictions, accredited humanist celebrants must conduct secular ceremonies with no spiritual content. Legal humanist marriage ceremonies are not yet available in England and Wales.

A wedding ceremony to suit all beliefs?

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One of the tricky things about choosing what sort of wedding ceremony you will have is that, in most families different people have different beliefs and belief systems, and of course every one of your nearests and dearests would like you to have a wedding that is in line with their personal belief system.  That's when things can get quite awkward. While a religious wedding is often (usually) seen as creating a marriage in the eyes of God, and under the auspices (and rules and regulations) of a particular religion or religious denomination, all legal marriages in Australia are marriages under Australian Commonwealth Law.

The good news is that, in Australia, expression of personal spiritual beliefs by the couple is legally acceptable in a civil ceremony in Australia, as is acknowledging, respecting and including beliefs of others regardless of whether the marrying couple have the same beliefs.

I impose no religious or spiritual content and therefore, if a couple so wish it, I encourage and facilitate such expressions, particularly where they are made as an indication of respect for elders and other important family members.

So what do you need to know if you want to include religious content in your civil wedding?
  • You can be married anywhere (some religions won't marry you except on consecrated ground, usually within a consecrated building)
  • You can include whatever readings from religious texts, readings from the writings of theologians, religious thinkers, or readings with a religious theme
  • You can include blessings (both secular and religious) and prayers
  • You can include religious music
  • You can even include hymns or sung psalms. Perhaps walk down the aisle to one?
  • How long your secular or blended secular/religious ceremony runs for is up to you because it is driven by what you wish to include in the ceremony. A religious ceremony follows a set liturgy so is generally longer than a civil ceremony.
  • With me, as your celebrant, not only will you ceremony be tailored to your wishes, my role is very much that of facilitating your achieving of your ceremony goals.
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