I am ashamed to admit that out of the many weddings I have attended, there has been, on more than one occasion, a moment where I’ve looked at my watch during the ceremony and thought ‘how much longer do we have to sit through this?’ But the ceremony is arguably the most important part of any wedding – it’s where you get married, after all – so it shouldn’t be cast aside as the ‘dull bit before the party really begins’.
Currently, in England, there are three ways to be legally married; a brief registry office service, at a licensed venue with a registrar, or a religious service at, for example, a Church of England. Celebrants cannot perform legally binding marriages in England and Wales. Although, hopefully, this will change, and the right to be legally wed via celebrant is being considered as part of the Law Commission weddings review.
For those, like me, who aren’t religious or planning a traditional church wedding, you’re left to choose between legally tying the knot with a registrar or opting for a personal celebrant-led ceremony instead. But how do you know which is best for you?
Firstly, it’s important to really think about how you’d like your ceremony to look. Do you want the traditional vows, or would you prefer to write your own? Inside or outside? Do you want music or readings? What about something unconventional, like hand fasting? There’s no right or wrong answer here. It’s about what feels most ‘you’.
For me, there was only really one absolute must-have: the ceremony had to be led by someone I’d met before. I didn’t like the idea of a total stranger marrying us. And unfortunately, that rules out using anyone from the local registry office – as it’s unlikely you’ll meet the registrar before your wedding day or have a say on who your registrar is. You also don’t know how many other wedding ceremonies they might be doing back-to-back on your wedding day. And nothing fills me with more dread than being just another ‘factory bride’ with a clock-watching registrar.
Yet once we booked our venue, we were encouraged to swiftly reach out to the local register office and book a registrar for our date – the option of a celebrant was never mentioned. Luckily, I’d already cottoned on to this growing trend for couples wanting more personal and more intimate ceremonies led by celebrants well-versed in public speaking, so I asked my venue if they had any recommendations. They did!
“The issue is, that when couples find a venue, they book their date and often – without meaning to – the venue slightly scaremongers them by saying, ‘don’t forget to book the registrar and get your date secured’, so couples don’t actually realise that there’s another option,” wedding planner and co-ordinator Georgie Mitchell, tells me. “The other issue couples run into is that the parents then worry they’re not getting legally married.”
Since a celebrant-led ceremony isn’t legally binding, most couples who opt for a celebrant tend to go to their local registry office a couple of days before their wedding, to do the legal paperwork, and then they’re free to have their celebrant wedding celebration wherever they want.
Does the idea of having two ceremonies put couples off, I ask Georgie. “No, because you can literally go in, sign the documents and say a few words, as you would with registering a birth,” she says. “You can save exchanging rings, for example, for your actual wedding day.”
If people are really hesitant about not being legally married on that specific day, there are options, she says. “You can also try to get a registrar to come on your wedding day to sign the paperwork. I’ve worked weddings where they’ve had a celebrant ceremony and then nipped inside for 15 minutes to sign the legal documents.”
Of course, she’s slightly biased, having recently got married herself – and choosing to have a celebrant on her wedding day. “It’s way more personal,” she says. “We had so much feedback from our wedding about how great our ceremony was. We weren’t restricted on timings, we did our own vows, we did promises with our daughter. We even asked the celebrant to stand in the middle of the aisle, so we could take photos of us sharing our vows without them behind us. With every other supplier, you pick who you want – you scour the internet for the right caterers and florist – and yet, with a registrar, you’re just hoping you get a nice person on the day.”
Of course, there are some lovely registrars out there. Unfortunately, though, you just can’t choose who you have. Her biggest advice? “Know your options. I think people book too much too quickly without having properly thought about what they actually want.”
Armed with Georgie’s guidance, I researched a dozen different celebrants and sent emails requesting more information on price and availability. The celebrant my venue kindly recommend was a lady called Caz, an ex-BBC radio presenter who decided to become a celebrant after being asked to do the father-of-the-bride speech at her best friend’s wedding. My fiancé and I both liked the sound of her, so we booked a Zoom call to find out a little more about how she tends to work. She explained how she sends couples an in-depth questionnaire, they then meet at the venue months beforehand and go for a drink together so she can really get to know them, and then she creates a ceremony which is totally bespoke to that couple.
“On the day – during what is the most important part of your wedding – you should feel completely comfortable, like you’ve got a friend standing next to you,” she tells us. “I always want your friends and family who are sat there to think; ‘Oh, is she a mate of theirs?’ because we’ve captured everything that you want. And that’s the way it should be. A ceremony should be about telling your love story. It should really reflect both your personalities. Your wedding should be fun and engaging and beautiful – whatever it is you want it to be – from the very start. Not sat wondering when the drinks and canapes are going to come out.”
In what has been the easiest decision in the wedding planning process thus far, as soon as we got off our call with Caz, we hurriedly emailed her to say she’s exactly who we want to marry us and lead the ceremony on our big day. Because why wouldn’t we choose a restriction-free, personalised ceremony led by someone we’ve met and feel comfortable with? I’m excited just thinking about it.
And perhaps that’s the key takeaway here. Whatever you choose – church, registrar or celebrant – it should feel exciting to you. And, hopefully, your guests will leave the wedding thinking; ‘Wow! That ceremony was so very them!’
Related Article: How I Made My Civil Ceremony Just As Special As My Big Day