Distinctions between celebrants, registrars and religious officiants

Church wedding

Many couples choose to have a celebrant-led ceremony that is not legally binding, with the aim of having a wedding experience that is more significant and tailored to their preferences than what current English law permits. In England, marriages hold legal validity only when presided over by a registrar or a religious officiant.

Understanding the distinctions among independent celebrants, humanist celebrants, registrars and religious officiants is crucial. Here’s the basics:

Registrars are government-employed officials who can conduct legally binding marriages. These ceremonies occur in registry offices or approved premises licensed for civil marriage ceremonies. Registrar-led ceremonies typically follow a standard format with prescribed words, limited readings, and music and do not include religious or spiritual content, nor include the couple’s love story or personalised elements. These ceremonies are often brief, and couples may not meet with the registrar before the ceremony.

Religious officiants, representing various religious groups, can officiate legally binding marriages in accordance with their specific beliefs and customs. The nature of these ceremonies varies among religious groups. Religious officiants typically meet with the couple beforehand and may provide practical and spiritual guidance to prepare them for marriage. The format of the ceremony will be in line with the beliefs of the particular religious group.

Independent celebrants work independently and craft unique wedding celebration ceremonies tailored to each couple’s preferences. They meet with the couple before the wedding to understand their desires, then create a highly customised ceremony that may include their love story told beautifully by the celebrant, symbolic elements such as handfasting or, a rose or sand ceremony, spiritual elements, vows, exchange of rings, music, poems/readings, and can include religious components if desired. Basically, the couple can have the ceremony wherever they want, wherever they like and at any time of day or night! Currently, in England, independent celebrants cannot legally marry couples, so the very brief and inexpensive legalities must be completed separately. There is a proposal from the Law Commission that might permit independent celebrants to officiate weddings in the future, but we await the government’s decision on this matter.

Humanist celebrants differ from independent celebrants in that they conduct wedding celebration ceremonies based on humanist beliefs. Couples who choose humanist celebrants usually share these beliefs.