When is a wedding not a real wedding?

Recently, I had the huge honour of conducting a wedding live on ITV’s ‘This Morning’, at an incredibly special venue. It was the first ever time in its 150 year history that the Royal Albert Hall has hosted a wedding. The place was bedecked with beautiful flowers, friends and family of the happy couple were gathered along with Phillip Schofield, Holly Willoughby and other ‘This Morning’ regulars, the fabulous Kingdom Choir sang and Shane and Sarah, the gorgeous couple, nervously said their vows that they’d written themselves before exchanging rings.

It was a beautiful ceremony (though I say it myself…!) You can watch it here:

But, as is often the case, some people started complaining on Twitter, and the tabloids took up the rallying call…

‘Groom’s disgusting act during ceremony’ (they accused him of chewing gum – he was actually nervously chewing his mouth)

‘Holly cries fake tears’ (really…?!)

‘Phillip wasn’t wearing a tie’ (someone call the wedding police!)

But most enduring of these were the headlines shouting about the ‘shock twist’ that the pair were ‘ALREADY MARRIED’ (duh, duh, duuuuuuh!!!)

These were followed up with tweets from some viewers who had aired their feelings of ‘what’s the point?’, ‘it’s a con’ and ‘it’s just a mock ceremony’.

Admittedly, I’m not used to this sort of confrontation being in the newspapers, but I am familiar with the concerns that some people have about celebrant weddings not being seen as a ‘real’ wedding.

So let’s unpack this ‘fake wedding’ thing a bit…

Most couples I work with – like Shane and Sarah – choose to have a very simple, no frills legal marriage registration sometime before their wedding ceremony. Note that technically, the legal term is ‘marriage’, whereas a ‘wedding’ refers to the ceremony, which can include the legal part or not.

The basic marriage registration involves saying some contractual words declaring there are no reasons they shouldn’t marry, giving consent to marry, and signing the register in the presence of a registrar. These are the key parts that make a couple legally married.

All other parts of a wedding that we have come to expect – the dress, the father of the bride bit, the readings, vows, rings etc – are all ceremonial. And this is the part that many couples are now choosing to celebrate with the help of a celebrant.

Celebrant-led wedding ceremonies can include these traditions if the couple want. They are full of love, laughter and powerful symbolism and can be endlessly tailored to fit a couple to perfection.

A celebrant led wedding isn’t a marriage ceremony but it IS a real wedding ceremony. And it is most definitely NOT fake or ‘a con’.

But why would you go through the faff of having two wedding ceremonies when you could have just one?

A good question. In fact, this is THE question. And there are quite a few answers actually. Let’s start with the practical reasons:

  • Because a celebrant led wedding is much more personal and very flexible. Working closely with the couple, a celebrant can create a wedding ceremony that reflects their love story, their interests, their values and their beliefs. It can be traditional in feel or something very new and different, depending on the desires of the couple. It’s not just an ‘insert-name-here’ type of ceremony.
  • Because the couple get to choose their celebrant and therefore feel much more open to sharing their story, their thoughts, their dreams and their big day with them – not just whoever is on the rota that day.
  • Because their wedding can contain religious aspects if they’d like it to, or quotations from Lord of the Rings, or songs, or anything at all they’d like to include. There are no restrictions.
  • Because (and this was the case with the This Morning wedding at the Royal Albert Hall) couples can have their ceremony anywhere they want, licensed or unlicensed. Whilst the unlicensed Royal Albert Hall will never be generally available for weddings(!), ceremonies in back gardens, on boats, in the forest, or just about anywhere are all possible with a wedding celebrant. Registrars can only marry people in a space that is licensed for weddings.
  • Because a couple might feel that the most important part of getting hitched is the part where they are standing in front of their family and friends, making a public declaration of their bonkersness for each other and the fact they’re going to stick together for the rest of their lives, and celebrating that in their own unique way. Not the legal bit, which is useful for tax reasons and other practical implications, but is rarely personal or romantic in any way.

And that leads me on to a more philosophical point:

The transformational aspect of ceremony

When is a couple actually married? Is it when the register is signed? Is it when they have made their vows to one another publicly? Is it when they have given and received rings? Is it when the handfasting cord is tied? Is it when the priest has blessed their union? Or does it happen much earlier than that, when they realise ‘this is it’, and get engaged, have a baby or commit to buying a house together?

Legally, the answer would be when the register is signed. But emotionally and socially, it’s a little harder to define.

My husband and I got married in church and we had a rehearsal with the vicar a couple of days beforehand. In his office, he got us to look into each other’s eyes and say our vows. We really felt married to one another from that point. And yet the ceremony itself had the further transformative power of the social declaration, the blessing, and the legal formality. It was certainly not a one-shot thing on the transformation front!

This Morning wedding Royal Albert Hall wedding ringsA good ceremony or ritual is all about transformation – you go in one way and come out another. And so, even though the legal recognition might have happened a day or two before, the transformative element of a celebrant led wedding is no less powerful. For as long as humans have been on this planet, we have celebrated unions (for politics, survival, social climbing purposes and eventually for love!) in a number of ways – being solemnised by an elder of a village, handfasting ceremonies, the exchange of love tokens or making vows in church porches. The documentation of such unions, in church records or later in public registers, has been a relatively very recent introduction. And the acknowledgment of this being the most important aspect of a wedding ceremony is just as new.

An important question (which I always ask couples I work with) is ‘what does this wedding mean to YOU?’ – and that will go some way to answer where the point of transformation is for them.

Not everyone will want a two ceremony wedding. Not everyone wants to have their love story shared and celebrated at their wedding. Not everyone wants something that challenges convention a little.

That’s fine. We celebrants can’t marry all the people!

But for those couples who see the benefits of having a personal, bespoke wedding ceremony to celebrate their union in any place or style they’d like, we’re here to help.

If you want to explore whether a celebrant-led wedding ceremony would be right for you, get in touch now and let’s chat.

And if you’re interested in comparing and contrasting the difference between a registrar wedding and a celebrant-led wedding, do take a look at the previous This Morning wedding at the Shard.

This Morning Wedding live Royal Albert Hall celebrant Claire Bradford