When I performed my first elopement ceremony recently, a number of people were curious. Did this take place in secret? Were there elements that you wouldn’t have expected in a “normal” ceremony?
The circumstances were as follows: Anita and Bruce (not real names!) simply did not want razzamatazz. They definitely dreaded being the centre of attention. They got married officially in the States, where they live, but booked a photographer and myself to conduct what was to be the “real” wedding in London (where nobody else could follow them!).
They wanted a part-religious (spiritual rather than conventional) ceremony, so a celebrant made sense.
We all dressed up (I was a little more conventional!), as the photo shows.
Unusually for London, the weather played along, and it was a beautiful day. Also, the venue was very atmospheric: the lovely ruins of St Dunstans-in-the-East, near Tower Bridge.
The service had been agreed over the months and consisted of the following:
After a short introduction, I read a poem called “Why marriage?”, which seemed appropriate!
I then gave an address about the significance of marriage (not too heavy, though!) before moving on to the Exchange of Vows. Anita and Bruce chose to recite traditional vows, but also wrote their own. After agreeing the basics, they had composed their vows independently, and this was the first time either of them had heard what the other had prepared.
It was predictably moving and very beautiful.
Anita had written more of an essay (!), but what was clear – if it hadn’t already been – was that they were deeply in love and were absolutely serious about their relationship.
We then heard a poem “The Meaning” by Kellie Spehn before moving on to a Handfasting, preceded by an explanation of the ritual. The couple were bound together for a minute or so in an infinity knot.
Then it was time for the ring exchange before we concluded with the Blessings of Divine Qualities and the pronouncement allowing a kiss! (This was certainly the longest I have witnessed!
A round of applause from some (distant) onlookers followed, and we were done!
After a week in London, our couple returned to the States, to commemorate the event with a couple of (small!) receptions.
Their testimonial was heart-warming (“magnificent!”) and made me proud to have ben part of such a joyous but significant occasion.
Just as there are many types of weddings, a mixed-faith service can vary ceremony by ceremony. Not just because the couples are different. Or because the religions highlighted might be different.
As with any celebrant-led ceremony, you can tailor the components to fit in with what you believe and want to include.
The ceremony can be 100% religious (or almost). I have conducted a couple of mixed-faith ceremonies, which were, to all intents and purposes, pretty much traditional Jewish wedding services (albeit with less Hebrew). In both cases, there was a Christian reading and/or prayer included. That’s how the couples wanted to play it out, and it worked.
In most cases, the couples want religious elements, despite not being active worshippers. In one case, it was simply to placate parents. Usually, it is because the couple, though not active participants, feel attached to their religion and want to include this as part of their important day.
There’s nothing to stop you mixing religious and pagan elements into one ceremony.
In all cases, the couples need to agree beforehand what they actually want. If they don’t, it’s a recipe for dis-harmony and potentially resentment. Of course, discussing things with the celebrant can clarify how things are going to appear on the day and make it easier to choose.
It may be that the couples want to clear things with their parents too. That’s fine, although you might be walking a tightrope here. Naturally, you want to please everybody (especially if your parents are helping to bankroll the event), but it is ultimately your day. You don’t want to get railroaded into doing what doesn’t sit comfortably with you.
One thing to bear in mind is how “heavy” you want the ceremony to be. For example, when I do a Jewish (or part-Jewish) wedding, I weigh up how much Hebrew should go in. You will need to decide on how many, and which, prayers you include. What sort of rituals will you put in? How about a few spiritual readings? Do you want a balance of religions, or is it OK, if things are a bit lop-sided?
Again, discussing this with your celebrant should illuminate things better for you. You could do worse than to have a word with me!
The short answer is “no”, but, in fact, I am much more than that. A Humanist is not supposed to include religious elements (or even the word “God”) in their service. However, if you want a secular service, you don’t need to resort to Humanists.
A civil celebrant can conduct a non-religious ceremony (as well as a part-religious or mixed-faith one). So that’s simple enough.
How much contact time is there between myself and officiant?
You will only meet the registrars for the first time at the marriage ceremony. The same may go for your vicar, if you’re having a church service. That’s not normally the case with a civil celebrant.
Apart from an introductory, discovery call (or visit) after your initial contact, you have access to your celebrant at all reasonable times from the time of booking until the day of the ceremony. So if you have queries or issues, it is easy to resolve them and you will feel more relaxed on the day because you will have established a close relationship with your celebrant.
How much control do I have over what goes into the service?
Only if you are working with a civil celebrant will you get free choice. Of course, you will also get guidance and advice, if wanted. Your ceremony will not be not standard or pre-ordained. You can have your own readings, vows or rituals – anything to make your ceremony personal and unique.
A church service is set in stone and the registrars offer a standard service, although sometimes they offer a modicum of choice.
So the content is basically unrestricted, if you work with a civil celebrant.
What about location and timing?
The church or Register Office ceremony is normally limited to “office hours”. A civil celebrant has no restrictions on when the ceremony can take place.
Likewise, with the location. A civil celebrant will conduct a ceremony for you almost literally anywhere. That’s clearly not the case with church weddings, and there are conditions to be complied with, in the case of Register Office services.
Hopefully, this will have clarified things a lot, but if you have further questions, please feel free to ask me!
Do you get value for money when you engage a civil celebrant? Well, how much are you paying, for a start? How can you be sure that your supplier will provide what is wanted? What value do you put on a bespoke ceremony, impeccably delivered? Why bother with a Civil Celebrant in the first place – what’s wrong with DIY?
Let’s take the last point first.
Doing it yourself can work out. It’s obviously cheaper getting an amateur to compile and conduct the ceremony, but the key could be in the word “amateur”.
It’s quite a challenge to understand what is required, what the couple’s vision might be. Then choosing readings that are appropriate is not the easiest thing in the world. Finally, projecting and delivering a meaningful, memorable ceremony on the day is not something everybody can successfully do.
A civil celebrant will be trained to do all these tasks and, with luck, will have experience of the whole process. They take pride and pleasure in doing a good job. They are also aware that their reputation as a professional is at stake.
So what can they offer you, and how much can you reasonably expect to pay?
Again, “it depends”!
The celebrant will consult with you and ask questions (as well as answer them). They will endeavour to eke out your vision for the day so that they can include the most suitable elements. These may include rituals such as a wine ceremony or handfasting, but there is a huge variety available.
They will suggest and advise what might work best and what, if anything, to be wary of.
Celebrants will discuss the processional (entry) and exit, music, readings, choreography and participants. They will offer guidance with the preparation of the vows.
After agreeing the ceremony order and content with you, the celebrant will know what to do on the day itself. Experience will be invaluable, especially when checking that everything is prepared beforehand and calming the nerves of all concerned.
Finally, the celebrant’s presentation skills will make all the difference to the actual ceremony.
To some extent, you get what you pay for. The amount charged may fluctuate depending on how complicated the work is likely to be. I might charge more for a foreign language ceremony, as I would have to put in quite a bit of extra work to get it perfect.
Whatever the quote, be sure you understand what is included. Is travel extra, for example?
Some celebrants will ask over £1,000 for the whole thing; others may barely charge half of that. So how can you judge which will give better value? I think the answer also depends!
If you’ve seen the celebrant in action or you know somebody who has worked with them, then you’ll have a feel for them. Otherwise, start at the website (including testimonials) and see if the celebrant appears to be on your page. Whatever you do, have a call (face-to-face, zoom or even just by phone), so you can see if you like the celebrant. Ask plenty of questions. Do they listen to you and understand what you have in mind?
Most civil celebrants are professionals in the best meaning of the term. This one would love to make a real difference to your big occasion, and you have only to contact me to set the wheels in motion.
I’m often asked to talk about my favourite ceremony. Wow! I’ve conducted nearly three hundred in my nine or so years as a civil celebrant, so which to choose?
And why would it be my “favourite”? Because of the people involved, the venue, the ceremony itself, or a combination?
Even if we ignore the funerals, baby blessings and vow renewals, and stick to weddings, there’s quite a choice!
I shall force myself to settle for three, so these might be them:
This category could encompass so many families, but I particularly enjoyed my rapport with a Guernsey family. They had to pay for board and lodging for me when I came over to officiate. That was standard: I had to stay two nights to accommodate a rehearsal and the wedding itself. What I didn’t anticipate was the beautiful hotel they booked for me in the centre of St Peter Port. They even suggested a restaurant for me, which they paid for, and it certainly was not one of the cheapest!
The family treated me so well, wanting me to have positive memories of Guernsey, and they really succeeded. I wasn’t “just a supplier”.
But the icing on the cake came when I left.
Despite glorious sun in St Peter Port, dense fog greeted us at the airport, and all flights for the rest of the day were cancelled. Not the family’s fault, but, when they found out we had had to stay at a hotel (a different, but still very acceptable, one) for another night, they reimbursed me fully.
I’ve been so lucky to have officiated in some stunning country houses and hotels. Any of them deserve a mention, but I’m going to be disciplined and plump for one only.
Thanks to my knowledge of Russian, I was booked to conduct a ceremony in Cyprus (that sounds illogical, but it wasn’t!). The couple took over a 5* hotel about 45 minutes’ drive up from Paphos. The venue overlooked the ocean and the terrace was decorated with hundreds of pink flowers. Quite unforgettable!
At the other end of the scale regarding budget, I experienced a really memorable ceremony one January. The couple arranged for me to set up (which I did an hour in advance) in the open air at Old Sarum. This is a very exposed Iron Age fort overlooking Salisbury.
The couple were to get legally married at the local Register Office before driving up for the bespoke ceremony. Unfortunately, traffic delayed them about 45 minutes.
Remember, this was January and I was in a spot with no shelter for what turned out to be a couple of hours, even before the ceremony started!
Somehow, despite local flooding and although it poured the night before and there was a thunderstorm later that afternoon, the weather held off for me and the wedding party.
The ceremony – already special – stood out because it was a half-Jew marrying a pagan, with elements from both religions being included (and explained by me!). I’ll never forget the Unity Cup ritual, where, rather than drink a modest drop of wine, the groom virtually demolished the whole bottle on the spot!
I hope you’ve enjoyed joining me down memory lane (I certainly did!). If you want me to help you create some unforgettable memories, just have a word.