Friend or Professional Celebrant? Everything you need to consider ...

when deciding who will conduct your wedding ceremony
by Jennifer Cram Brisbane Marriage Celebrant © (02/12/2018)
  | Celebrant | Wedding Ceremony | Wedding Legals |
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How to have a gracious
                        wedding - Jennifer Cram CelebrantIt started ïn the US with a TV program (Friends, the one where Joey marries Monica and Chandler). It continues because, for many couples,  deciding to have a friend officiate is based on a false premise or belief that they have to make their own arrangements if not getting married in church, a false premise presented as a fact in a recent New York Times article which asserted "Not all people have a pastor, rabbi, imam or other religious leader in their life, especially one they would want to handle such a big event. And for many same sex couples, who are still regularly turned away by churches, having a friend officiate is their only choice if they want something more than a legals-only ceremony officiated by a judge or similar public official. "

The Australian context is very different in that our well-established civil celebrant program provides a wide choice of trained celebrants who are required to work with the couple to give them the ceremony they want, and marrying in a religious ceremony is the exception rather than the norm. Nonetheless there are indications that more Australian couples are exploring the idea of having a friend officiate their marriage ceremony.

Before I go any further, let’s look at whether you can have a friend marry you in Australia. And the answer is a simple No, at least not unless that friend has met the requirements to be authorised to solemnise marriages, and has been appointed by the Attorney General’s Department to do so.

Unless you carefully check the source of your information to make sure the website you are reading is based in Australia, you might be misled by references to being ordained online, or to obtaining a one-off, one-day licence to conduct a legal wedding. That is possible in some (not all) states of the US. It is not possible in Australia, where an aspiring celebrant has to complete a lengthy (and expensive) course, has to meet criteria for being a ‘fit and proper person’, and must apply (paying a considerable application fee) to be appointed. All of which takes, on average, a year or more.

So what are your options?
You can have a legal wedding by a celebrant or at a Registry Office/Courthouse and then, at a later date, have a non-legal ceremony with all the bells and whistles, conducted by whomever you choose, as long as it is made quite clear to everyone present that the ceremony will not change your legal status. Usually, this is when you share that you are already legally married if everyone doesn't already know that.

OR, you can have what celebrants call a tandem wedding – where your friend creates and performs the ceremony but an authorised celebrant fulfils all the pre and post ceremony legal requirements and, on the day, identifies themself to your guests as the authorised celebrant, makes the statement required by the Marriage Act, ensures that your vows meet the legal requirements. The authorised celebrant is required by the Attorney General to and to step in and take over if your friend says or does anything that may compromise the legality of your marriage, or fails to do something that is required.

Short answer – while other people can be involved in your ceremony to a greater or lesser extent, to be legally married you must have an authorised celebrant conduct all or part of the ceremony.

What do you need to consider if you are thinking about having a friend conduct your ceremony?
[Disclosure, as a professional celebrant of course I’m going to suggest that using a professional celebrant has significant benefits. But I am also going to be fair-handed and do my best to give you a detailed blueprint of everything that you and your friend need to take into consideration if you choose to go down that path. And then I’m going to give you suggestions about how you can have the best of both worlds!]

First, let’s look at some of the reasons couples give for wanting to have a friend rather than a professional celebrant conduct the ceremony.

1. "It saves money"
When you consider that the services of a professional celebrant is one of the least expensive parts of your wedding, any savings will be minute. But, in Australia, because your friend cannot substitute for the professional celebrant, you probably won’t save anything at all.

If you are going for the tandem ceremony it is unlikely you will get a discount from the professional celebrant because the professional celebrant is legally responsible, something that the Attorney General has stressed over and over again. What this means is that celebrant’s registration on the line, along with the celebrant’s insurance,. if anything goes awry, even it the friend who caused the problem. If the professional, authorised, celebrant does their job properly, they will put as many, or possibly even more, hours into the ceremony than they would otherwise because they will not only meet with you and take care of the legal side of things, they will spend time ensuring that your friend understands the legal requirements of the ceremony itself, and will work with your friend to ensure that the ceremony meets those. In fact, you will probably end up spending more as not only will you have to pay the authorised celebrant, you will want to give your friend a decent sort of thank-you gift, won’t you?

If you decide to have two ceremonies, you’ll need to fork out for things that a professional celebrant would provide as part of their services – like a PA system. Either you’d have to hire one (can be pricey) or have a DJ for the ceremony (also not cheap) unless you’re holding the ceremony at a venue that provides a ceremony space plus a PA (also pricey).
2. "It will be more personal"
Having a friend or loved one perform your ceremony may make it feel more personal and intimate, but it can also feel a bit awkward, particularly if nerves and feeling not quite up to the job drives your friend to make the ceremony at least partly about them rather than solely about you. You also need to be absolutely confident that your friend or loved one won't mention things that they know about you that you'd rather not have mentioned or shared! There's a huge difference between personal and too personal. And there is also the question of writing. Having your friend deliver a ceremony that they cobbled together from bits on the internet, or one they just copied whole and changed the names in, is hardly personal. It would also be a breach of copyright, which can have serious consequences.
3. "We will be able to control the content of the ceremony"
Being able to have input into the ceremony is definitely an issue where a pre-written ceremony is used, something that is way more common in the US than in Australia. In Australia all civil celebrants are required by the Code of Practice to give you the ceremony you want, within legal constraints, of course.

Do you have a process in place to enable you to provide your friend with a blueprint of what (and who) you want included in your ceremony, what tone and feel you want for the ceremony, and what you absolutely do not want? Will you feel comfortable with critiquing what your friend comes up with and asking for changes?

Does your friend meet all of the requirements of the job?
When choosing who is going to officiate your ceremony, you need to apply the same selection criteria you would when looking for a professional celebrant:
  • Comfortable and highly skilled at speaking in public and in reading from a script in a ceremonial but conversational way.
  • Comfortable and highly skilled (and tactful) at directing others.
  • Skilled at laying out how and where the wedding party will stand and at managing both processional and recessional (formal walking in and walking out).
  • Flexible and accommodating about what you want included in the ceremony, and how you want your ceremony to feel.
  • Capable of writing an original script for the ceremony and willing to put in the time and effort to do so.
  • Ultra responsible and ultra reliable.
  • Someone you feel comfortable with, a good fit.
  • Someone you can trust to keep private matters confidential.
The following would also help a lot in ensuring you have a ceremony that reflects who you are:
  • Can your friend work within constraints of time and the physical space available for the ceremony?
  • Does your friend understand that there are legal requirements that must be complied with?
  • Is your friend confident when using a microphone and PA system, and capable of doing sound checks and making any needed adjustments?
  • Is your friend capable of both working the crowd and controlling the crowd?
There may be things you might not have thought of
  • Having a friend as your celebrant is essentially a DIY project. It will mean a lot of extra work for you, because you won’t have anyone who can explore all your options with you. You will have to research all aspects of a wedding ceremony, and take care of things that a professional celebrant would have done as a matter of course.
  • Whose friend? Generally speaking, though friends of one or other of the couple often become a friend to both, there will be one of you who is closer to the friend than the other. Will that affect the ceremony? Will there be a bias towards on one or other of you that might affect the balance or tone of the ceremony? How will you work round this?
  • Whoever you choose, someone else’s nose is going to be put out of joint. I remember vividly a surprise wedding where the couple were not having a bridal party. When the question arose as to who would be their legal witnesses the groom told me that he had six brothers, so choosing a witness would be a political nightmare. That’s when I stepped in and suggested we do lucky door tickets as people arrived and draw witnesses out of the hat. Problem solved. You can’t pull the name of the person who is going to officiate your ceremony out of the hat at the last minute.
  • There is way more to leading a ceremony than being a great public speaker. The person who acts as your celebrant needs to be good at thinking on their feet if something untoward happens. The ceremony has to be stage managed, and the celebrant needs to manage the guests as well, including intervening if someone gets belligerent, or children run riot.
  • Not being an experienced celebrant, your friend might not understand that there are a thousand little details that add up to a great ceremony. Are you willing to overlook some or all of these? And how will your friend feel about being responsible for things they may not be aware of? For example, it is very common for a novice celebrant to forget to tell the guests to sit back down after the bridal party has entered, leaving them standing for all or part of the ceremony.
  • Your friend will need to write the ceremony. As well as a being good speaker, are they a good writer? Do they understand that writing a ceremony that will be spoken is a bit different from writing a letter or an essay? Will they write the ceremony from scratch or will they be relying on mining the internet for a ceremony, or for the various components of the ceremony? If you want a non-traditional ceremony you need to be aware that almost every wedding ceremony you’ll find on the internet leans heavily towards the traditional, except for those few that are ultra flippant or just downright weird. They also tend to be very short, little more than a sermon and the vows!
  • How will you feel about your friend giving you a "lecture" about how to run your marriage as part of the ceremony?
  • Does your friend have the time and the willingness to practice, practice, practice? They will be conducting a ceremony for the first time, without the benefit of experience and training.
  • What will your friend wear?
  • The wedding party (including you, the marrying couple) will expect leadership and direction from your friend on the day – including how to walk in, where to stand, when and how to move, etc etc.
  • What will your friend read the ceremony from?
  • The person who conducts your ceremony needs to work as part of a team – photographer, videographer, musicians, DJ, venue coordinators, wedding stylists. Does your friend understand what each of those service suppliers needs to be able to deliver their best?
  • What is your backup plan if your friend is unable to perform the ceremony on the day?
The third option – how to have the best of both worlds
This is actually quite simple. Hire a professional celebrant, but choose one (like me) who is:
  • comfortable with not being the centre of attention or focus of the ceremony.
  • up with the trends, but not a trend-junkie
  • knowledgeable about the legal requirements for your ceremony
  • willing to use that legal knowledge to loosen their control and encourage you or your friend to take a leadership role in your own ceremony.
Apart from ensuring the legal paperwork is done and the required legal words are said during the ceremony, the authorised celebrant in Australia is legally required to do only two things in the ceremony:
  • say the required passage from the Marriage Act
  • be in close proximity to the couple when they say their legal vows.
For example, if you’ve always dreamed of having your grandma involved in your ceremony, have her lead you through your vows (repeat after grandma) rather than just doing a reading.  That way you have professional help in creating those vows and grandma has the pleasure, but none of the pressure. You could even have both grandmas do this.

And that’s just a start. Feel free to talk to me about it.

Related information

Thanks for reading!

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