Choosing and Using a Professional Celebrant for Your Marriage Ceremony

Your wedding ceremony is the opening act in the multi-act experience your guests will have of your wedding. So it sets the tone for the day. There are quite a few major advantages to hiring an experienced professional to perform your wedding ceremony. But with so many celebrants in Australia, and more being authorised virtually every day, how do you choose?

My father used to say "The Advertisements speak highly of it" if he thought we were taking somebody's claims at face value. Truth be told, nobody who is in the business of providing a wedding service is going to tell you they are mediocre, average, or anything other than fantastic, amazing, and awesome (all imprecise descriptions that depend on subjective opinion!).

First and second steps

The first step is to a successful choice  is to understand exactly what you need when you set out to find a celebrant to marry you.

While some jurisdictions allow anyone to be licensed to marry people by being 'ordained' free on the internet, Australia is not one of them. In this country an aspiring celebrant must obtain a vocational qualification and meet the test of a 'fit and proper' person and must also acquire resources and infrastructure in order to meet the requirements of the Code of Practice in order to apply for registration. This involves not inconsiderable expense and some time.

In order for your marriage to be legal it must be solemnised by a professional celebrant, a government officer based in a courthouse or a registry office,  or member of the clergy authorised to do so by the Australian Government. While you are free to include family and friends in the ceremony (with the agreement of your chosen celebrant),  there are legal requirements before, during and after the ceremony that only an authorised marriage celebrant can fulfil.

The second step is to understand what your ceremony needs

There are many advantages to hiring a professional celebrant who has the necessary knowledge, experience, and skill to understand what you want, use that understanding to create a quality and emotionally satisfying ceremony and to deliver it with poise and grace. Ask any photographer or videographer whether they prefer to work with an amateur or a professional celebrant and they will tell you that knowledge, experience, and skill count so there is no contest. 

What your ceremony needs

  • Writing a ceremony is very different from writing a speech, a presentation, or any of the other categories of public speaking or performance.
  • A ceremony is not a monologue. It includes others so the script needs to accommodate interaction from the key players (the people who are the focus of the ceremony) and others.
  • A ceremony is not about the person who leads it. The focus should be on you.
  • The ceremony is not an essay read out loud. It needs to sound right when spoken to an audience.
  • The ceremony script needs to incorporate staging and stage directions - not quite 'exit left, waving' but prompting the flow of the ceremony.
  • The ceremony script needs to take into account how the ceremony looks, feels and flows as well as how it sounds. It needs an internal logic.

Why choose a professional celebrant?

Most people choose a professional celebrant to develop, create and perform their ceremony for the benefits a good choice brings.
  • Experience: The number one reason to choose a professional celebrant is experience. The environment in which your ceremony will take place is unpredictable. Things happen. Your celebrant has to do more on the day that just read the ceremony. Multiple things are going on at the same time. Guests can be distracting - they can chat amongst themselves, children can cry and run about, the photographer and videographer will be moving about, guests can be popping up and down in their seats or moving around to take photos on a range of devices. It can start to rain. Planes can fly overhead. And random people can wander into the ceremony space. And don't forget dogs and other animals. All of this can seriously throw someone who has little or no experience at leading a ceremony. On the other hand, a skilled and experienced celebrant will remain calm and focused, will know when and how to intervene if necessary.
  • Knowledge, Wisdom, and Guidance: With experience comes not only knowledge, but wisdom (which I once saw defined as experience combined with common sense, a definition that has stuck with me). A skilled and experienced celebrant will be able to give you advice about things someone with less experience wouldn't even know to ask about. A skilled and experienced celebrant will be able to fairly accurately gauge how long your ceremony should be, and will be, will be able to identify any logistical challenges or risks and work with you to minimise the impact of these, offer you options for traditions, customs, and/or rituals that reflect your heritages, your circumstances, your personalities and your vision for your ceremony.
  • Teamwork: This is where professional experience really shows. Whether or not your celebrant has ever worked at the venue you have chosen, or with the photographer, videographer, wedding planner, musicians, or other wedding service provider you have hired, a professional and experienced celebrant will know that the key to success is teamwork. All of these service providers have responsibilities that overlap or are related. Each depends on the competence and consideration of the others to make sure your ceremony runs smoothly. It might seem simple, but it is extremely complicated. Where one is not experienced the others will, of necessity, have to adopt a babysitting role rather than being able to totally concentrate on what they have to do. You need your photographer to be concentrating on capturing fantastic images, not having to coach your celebrant in where to stand, where to move and what to do next, or worse, having to try to navigate around a celebrant who just gets in the way of good shots.
  • Reliability: The last thing you want is to have the person you thought you had locked in as your celebrant cancel the arrangement. The less experienced the person you've tapped to be your celebrant is, the more likely they will get cold feet or decide that they would rather go away for the weekend. A recurring theme on bridal forums on Facebook is Help, I need a  .... my wedding is on .... and my ...... has just cancelled on me.  An experienced professional celebrant will understand that accepting a booking to officiate at a ceremony is a serious commitment, a matter of professional integrity.
  • Capacity to Retain Control: When you hire a professional, you are the customer. This immediately gives you much more control than if you are using a friend, for example. When you have a personal relationship with someone who is providing a critical service for your wedding, things can get somewhat awkward if you have to worry about offending them if you don't like what they suggest. With a professional, who is focused on finding out what you want, and working with you to achieve that, you don't have to worry about being clear about what you like and don't like!
A skilled and experienced professional celebrant will:
  • abide by the Code of Practice, as required by the Attorney General's Department
  • understand what you want to achieve in your ceremony
  • be dedicated to helping you have the ceremony you want
  • be creative and sensitive in making suggestions to ensure your ceremony meets your needs and delights and engages your guests
  • write your ceremony from scratch, ensuring that the tone of the ceremony is authentic to who you are.
  • involve you in the ceremony development process
  • be flexible about the way he/she approaches your ideas and requests
  • provide a PA system for all but a very small ceremony to ensure that everyone present hears every word
  • deliver the ceremony in a warm and friendly fashion with an appropriate mix of dignity and formality/informality
  • work collegially with other wedding service providers to ensure that your ceremony runs smoothly
  • manage and diffuse any issues that might arise during the ceremony
  • ensure that your ceremony is truly memorable for all the right reasons.

How to choose a professional celebrant

Choosing a celebrant is like choosing any other professional service provider. You should
  • Provide the celebrant with the full details of
    • what type of ceremony you wish to have
    • who the ceremony is for
    • where the ceremony will be held (if you don't have a precise venue you should at least provide a clear idea of the approximate location)
    • the date and time of the ceremony
    • the number of guests 
  • Speak with the celebrant to gauge whether you can establish a rapport
  • Be sure to clarify the detail of what the celebrant provides and the fee. In particular be sure you understand what is included in the fee and what may be added at an extra charge.
  • Ask the celebrant for their list of terms and conditions
  • Ask the celebrant about their qualifications and experience in general and with your type of ceremony in particular

Having a friend lead your ceremony

Having a friend lead your ceremony gives you the benefit of having someone with whom you already have a relationship and who understands your personality and your likes and dislikes.  While this is common in the US, where in many states it is legally possible for any adult to be authorised for one day to conduct a single wedding, in Australia an authorised celebrant must be present and must play a significant part in the ceremony.

At a marriage ceremony, the authorised marriage celebrant must:
  • consent to be present as the responsible authorised marriage celebrant 
  • take a public role in the ceremony
  • identify themselves to the assembled parties, witnesses and guests as the celebrant authorised to solemnise the marriage 
  • be responsible for ensuring the validity of the marriage, according to law 
  • say the words required by section 46 of the Marriage Act in the presence of the parties, the formal witnesses and the guests before the marriage is solemnised 
  • be physically close to the couple when the vows required by subsection 45(2) of the Marriage Act are exchanged. It is the exchange of vows that constitutes the marriage and the authorised celebrant must see and hear the vows being exchanged  and ensure that the vows include the legally required words
  • be available to intervene (and exercise the responsibility to intervene) if events demonstrate the need for it elsewhere in the ceremony 
  • be part of the ceremonial group or in close proximity to it; and 
  • sign the papers as required by the Act
Before you choose a friend to create and deliver the ceremony in tandem with an authorised celebrant it would be well to consider a number of things:
  • the extent to which your friend understands what is required to deliver a satisfying ceremony
  • whether your friend understands how much the ceremony means to you
  • how reliable your friend is
  • how confident your friend is not just speaking in public but orchestrating and facilitating the ceremony
  • whether your friend will go along with your vision for your ceremony rather than imposing ideas on you (it can be very wearing to have to continually deal with "you can't" and "you must" responses to your plans and ideas
  • who will write the script
  • whether your friend will stick to the script
  • whether your family and friends will take the ceremony seriously if it is lead by your friend (this can be a real issue  as family and friends are less likely to view it as a serious event if the ceremony is conducted by someone other than a professional celebrant)
  • what backup plan you will have in place if some unforeseen emergency prevents your friend from conducting the ceremony.