What’s the difference between a humanist celebrant and an independent celebrant?

What’s the difference between a humanist celebrant and an independent celebrant? ~ Sussex celebrant Claire Bradford of Creating Ceremony
Photo by Tachina Lee on Unsplash

A question that I’m asked a lot (and more frequently due to the news in recent weeks) is ‘what’s the difference between a humanist celebrant and an independent celebrant?’

In fact, many people don’t realise that there is any difference at all. Even funeral directors and wedding suppliers and venues often don’t know the difference between humanist and independent celebrants.

The reason that this has become a popular question of late is that at the beginning of July 2020, six couples took a case to the High Court because they felt that to deny humanist couples in England and Wales a legally recognised wedding that reflected their beliefs, was against their human rights. Similar court cases in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Jersey have resulted in humanist celebrants being permitted to conduct legally binding wedding ceremonies in those countries, and Humanists UK hoped that the same would happen here.

Friends and wedding colleagues were soon messaging me with comments like ‘ooh I heard about the court case – fingers crossed!’

Well yes, for the humanists, but also… no, as that would mean independent celebrants would not be included in any ruling that was made on the grounds of this case (the judgment is still pending and the celebrant world is collectively holding its breath…).

I, like the vast majority of celebrants in the UK, am not a humanist celebrant but an independent celebrant. And yes, there is a difference between the two, although you might not notice it at all unless you know what you’re looking for!

So what ARE the differences between humanist celebrants and independent celebrants, and how can we spot them?

Well I’m glad you asked! So here goes (got your binoculars?!):

Spot the difference ~ Sussex celebrant Claire Bradford of Creating Ceremony
Spot the difference

The biggest difference between independent celebrants and humanist celebrants is their belief structure. But even this isn’t at all obvious!

Humanist celebrants are members of Humanists UK and are trained by them too. Humanists UK is an organisation of non-religious folk who trust in the scientific view of the universe and reject any idea of the supernatural, and they share that view whilst doing charitable work. So far so good.

(Interestingly enough, their non-religious views make them, at least in the eyes of the Scottish law, a ‘belief body’, along with several different religious groups who can also conduct legal marriages there.)

Independent celebrants differ from humanist celebrants in this because our religious, spiritual or atheist beliefs vary from celebrant to celebrant. Some independent celebrants are Pagan, some Christian, some Buddhist, some agnostic… you get the idea. 

Where independent celebrants and humanist celebrants are the same is that we all want the couples and families that we work with to have a ceremony that reflects them and their beliefs.

How you might spot the difference…

  • Humanists UK state that a humanist celebrant “shares the beliefs and values of the couple”, so the chances are that the couple will be humanists too (indeed they have to be paid-up members in Scotland). Although some humanist celebrants allow some religious aspects to the ceremony, as long as they are not ‘leading worship’, they are most likely to be non-religious.
  • Independent celebrants don’t necessarily have to ‘share’ the beliefs and values of the couples they work with, but they will be highly attuned to them. So if, for example, one half of the couple has religious beliefs but the other doesn’t, or both of them want to have some religious or spiritual aspects but without a full religious service, the celebrant can cater for that within the ceremony, working closely with the couple to make the ceremony fit their values. This would be done with sensitivity to the religion in question so as to avoid cultural appropriation.
  • Some independent celebrants are atheists (but not necessarily humanists) and might not feel comfortable including religious aspects, in which case they would communicate that early on in their work with a couple. Some independent celebrants are religious and might include this in their marketing so as to work with couples who would like more of that in their ceremony.
  • In my experience, the majority of couples don’t want any religion in their celebrant-led ceremony, but don’t necessarily identify as humanist. Indeed, the phrase ‘humanist ceremony’ has become synonymous with ‘non-religious ceremony’, which means when I’m asked about it I always check how the enquirer understands the word humanist, and pass them on to a humanist colleague if (as rarely happens) they actually mean humanist ‘with a capital H’. It’s a bit like when people describe ‘hoovering the lounge’ but they do it with a Dyson…
  • So the actual answer to the ‘how can you spot the difference’ is that if you see or hear any religious or spiritual readings, music or references in a ceremony it might well be an independent celebrant conducting it – or a humanist celebrant who considers the inclusion ok. But a ceremony with no religion in it could be conducted by a religious independent celebrant for a non-religious couple, or by a non-religious independent celebrant, or by a humanist celebrant… You see why this is tricky now?!?

OK, so now I’m even more confused…

And so, dear reader, I’m hoping that you get my point now that there really isn’t much of a difference between humanist celebrants and independent celebrants. We’re all thoroughly lovely people who want to provide unforgettable ceremonies for the couples and families we work with.

There is no real reason to divide us at all but, if it is decided that only humanist celebrants (and not independents) can legally conduct weddings in England and Wales, then there will be a big divide which, to my mind, would be greatly unfair.

Instead, I’m keeping my fingers and toes all crossed that ALL my celebrant colleagues (both independent and humanist) will be considered in the upcoming Law Commission Review on weddings and that any win in the recent court case will push forward a decision for ALL of us to be able to offer super personalised, celebratory and LEGAL weddings to awesome couples in awesome places very soon.

So if you’re a believer in such things, pray for a happy outcome for all celebrants. If you’re not, write to your MP (you could even pray and write to your MP if you’re feeling bougie). However you make things happen, please help make things happen! I can’t wait for a day when, together with my independent and humanist celebrant friends and colleagues, we can perform legal weddings.

And in the meantime, if you want a non-legally binding but beautifully personalised ceremony that reflects you, your personalities, interests and beliefs (religious, spiritual or otherwise), you know who to call… 😃


In case you’re wondering, I was brought up bog standard CofE and (fun fact) even worked for the Diocese of Chichester for two years. For a while (a long time ago), I seriously considered going for the priesthood but decided I couldn’t fully nail my colours to the beliefs mast – a situation I also found myself in about 6 years ago when I wondered about training as a celebrant with Humanists UK.

Nowadays I’m a bit of a ‘pick and mix’ when it comes to religion and spirituality – and I do love me a bit of woowoo every now and then! I pretty much embrace it all on the religion and spirituality front and love it when people want to include aspects in their ceremonies – though I’d probably draw the line at sacrificing a virgin on an altar or anything like that (it’s a nightmare to fill out the risk assessment…)