After seven years of discussion, scoping and broad consultation, last July saw the Law Commission publish its recommendations to reform weddings law in England and Wales. You can download the eyeball-bruising 471 page report or various shorter versions here.
In brief, the aim was to modernise the rules surrounding weddings (first set in 1836), to bring parity to religious and non-religious weddings, and to give couples more choice in how and where they celebrate their marriage.
The celebrant community held its collective breath…
Would couples finally be able to have a meaningful, personal and legally binding wedding ceremony in their back garden or other space that is special to them?
We were told that the government had to give an interim response within six months (January 19th 2023) and a full response by the anniversary of the publishing of the report (July 19th 2023).
Well, we’re reaching that anniversary as I write, and the response so far has been crickets from the government. Although, it should be said that everything else is falling down around their ears right now, so I don’t think anyone is surprised.
Part of me is hoping that Sod’s Law will be invoked by my writing this post, and that a favourable outcome will be announced within minutes of these musings hitting my website, thus rendering them redundant immediately of course. So I’ll press on…
What the proposed changes could mean for celebrant weddings
If the recommendations are taken on, couples who want a celebrant wedding would no longer have to have a separate legal ‘signing’. And their wedding could take place just about anywhere, as the current system of venues holding licences would be changed so that celebrants held the licences instead.
Whilst that would mean you could still get married surrounded by all your friends and family in that gorgeous venue you’ve set your heart on, it also means you could have a super private and intimate elopement or micro-wedding in a place that is special to you. And it’s all legally binding but – crucially – doesn’t rely on legalese or religious wording to be so.
But if a couple does want some religious or spiritual wording (and the celebrant is happy to do so) that can be incorporated too. Currently, registrar-led weddings forbid any religious or spiritual wording, and the only place to have a legally-binding religious ceremony is in a Church of England church, which makes things tricky for mixed-faith couples or those who want a nod to their beliefs but not a full religious wedding.
And of course, what the recommendations also mean is that a couple can have a ceremony that is both legally binding AND personal, which is conducted by a celebrant that they have actively chosen, rather than being the person who is on the rota that day.
So now what?
Well, we continue to wait, frustrating though that may be.
Independent celebrants like me (that is, celebrants who are not affiliated with a particular belief system or religion) have been undermined over the past year by groups who also have a stake in the outcome of the report.
Humanists UK had a pop at us in October, saying that the offers of independent celebrants who conduct semi-religious or spiritual ceremonies “demean the institution of marriage. For them to be given legal recognition would be entirely deplorable.”
(It perhaps goes without saying that Humanists UK want their celebrants to be the only ones who can conduct legally binding ceremonies…)
And the latest objections to celebrant-led weddings have come from the Bishop of Durham speaking from the Church of England’s General Synod this week. He warns that “the move to commercialise weddings is likely to undermine the Christian understanding of marriage” and “open up the institution to abuse from profit makers”.
(It is also an uncomfortable fact to point out that churchgoing in general, not just for weddings, has been on a significant decline for years – and that a fair proportion of the couples who do get married in church are in reality more concerned with the pretty photos than they are the Christian meaning of marriage…)
Both groups paint independent celebrants as money-hungry types who are waiting to cash in on unsuspecting couples, all the while trampling on the institution and meaning of marriage.
Yet neither of them are offering their services free of charge, it should be noted. And celebrant charges, whether Humanist or independent, are around the same as those that couples would pay for a church service or registrar.
And as for the institution and meaning of marriage, well that has had some very shady history in the past, and is often invoked by anti-LGBTQ protestors in the present, and yet I feel sure will continue to rock solid into the future.
Because in an age where couples are less pressurised into marriage by society, those who are seeking it often have very clear ideas about what it means to them to be married. I for one always talk to the couples I work with about why they have chosen to commit to one another in this way, and weave their answers into their ceremony.
I believe it’s much better to commit to one another in marriage being crystal clear with each other about what it means for you, than to sleepwalk into it because ‘it’s the done thing’.
So what does this all boil down to?
If the recommendations are all approved and put into action, it’s likely that it will still be a good few years before laws actually change. But if and when they do, my prediction is not that couples will be faced with greedy, profiteering ceremony leaders and that the very meaning of marriage will be trampled into the dirt.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
Of course, there are always going to be bad apples from all walks of life. But the point is that couples will have choice – glorious choice!
Just as they’ve had their choice of venues and suppliers for years, they’re now going to have a real – and wide – choice in who will lead their wedding celebrations and reflect their story, their values and their beliefs within it.
They will be able to make their wedding all about what marriage means to them, rather than fitting into an institutional box.
And the vast majority will have, as they always have had, good discernment in those choices. Despite the fears of the big institutions.
Friends, please keep everything crossed for a future of real, inclusive wedding choice.