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Officiant vs. Celebrant: Marriage Titles Throughout History

Tomato (toh-may-toh) vs. Tomato (toe-mah-toe)

Unraveling the difference between the titles of one who performs marriages from religious officials to the modern day officiant/celebrant - it's more than just what we call ourselves that has come a long way.

So, you have starting your wedding - elopement - vow renewal - etc. planning and you have gotten to the part where you are looking for someone to perform the marriage vows (or at bare minimum make this whole marriage thing legal so you can partake in all the benefits that come along with that piece of paper). Those someones who perform the marriage vows have taken on numerous titles throughout the history of couples coupling.

Photo of the interior of a catholic church with moody lighting
Marriage has been confined to hallowed walls for much of modern wedding history.
Image of a priest with crucifix holding a bible

Very traditionally - in the not so recent past - the act of marriage was done almost exclusively by a religious authority. These individuals had titles such as pastor, priest, rabbi, imam, etc. The religious leaders really had a monopoly on who can and cannot get married - and on how the whole thing will go down. Depending on your religious preference of choice, you may have even had to undergo weeks of couples counseling to ensure that you have the same outlooks on money, parenting, and cohabiting - or possibly having to sit through a ceremony performed in Latin with lots of kneeling. There are pros of a religious ceremony - but for our modern society there are many cons: many people don’t have or know their religious authority personally, interfaith relationships can leave one half of the party feeling left out or awkward, your venue choices are fairly limited to church of some kind - to name just a few.

For those who decided to break with tradition you could choose a legal non-religious judge, mayor, or justice of the peace. And in the not so distant past - this would have been the more scandalous thing to do. My mother-in-law recently found a handwritten note in her father’s things that had been heavily passed around to disclose the steps to an elopement (because you couldn’t just Google the steps and most of the time it needed to be secret for several reasons - usually oopsy pregnancy reasons). If you have seen the glamor of the San Francisco City Hall, you may think that yours down on mainstreet will have the same effect. While their efforts are noble, the marriage arches that decorate the fluorescent halls of the civil offices of most towns and cities aren’t really a dream come true - nor the cut-and-paste script followed by most judges.

courthouse columns
Going to court isn't most peoples idea of a romantic time.

We have now entered the modern era where getting married on your own terms, in your own way, in your own space, is now the norm (sighs of relief). It isn’t that couples aren’t religious or want to do away with the traditions - quite the contrary - they are celebrating and elevating them! Today you can choose an individual whose sole purpose is to perform marriages: an officiant or celebrant. These are civilians who go through the hoops (and they vary state by state) to be able to perform legally binding unions with a lot of freedom on the how, when, where, and what of the ordeal.

We can thank the Australian attorney general Lionel Murphy for introducing celebrancy - or for us in the US: an Officiant. In 1973 his aim was “to authorize persons to officiate at secular ceremonies of substance, meaning and dignity.” Moreso, he added the following reforms to go along with the idea:

black and white photo of lionel murphey 1970
Thanks Lionel!

  • The client is in control! The celebrant/officiant is there to advise, but the final say of the wording, content, and style was up to the couple.

  • Women could preside over the marriage. Nearly all religions are predominantly male in their hallowed halls - completely barring the female perspective and tone that is very well suited for a wedding ceremony.

  • Racial equality. Anyone can become a celebrant and for Mr. Murphy, this meant opening the profession to the aborigines of his home country of Australia (they had only 6 years previously been granted the right to be considered humans…)

  • Young people welcomed! You didn’t have to undergo decades of schooling to preside over marriages. The first celebrant he appointed was a 26-year old mother of two.

  • The milestone of life that is marriage is to be celebrated by all - not just those of religious tradition.

America was pretty far behind these revolutionary ideals - instituting civilian led marriage in 2002. Eventually this push for celebrants in the US came to be colloquially known as officiant (because we officiate over the marriage).

Whatever you want to call us - officiant or celebrant. I am happy to be part of this collective striving to make this beautiful life event meaningful, unique, and carefully curated to reflect the individuality of the couple involved. I aim to honor the founding traditions of celebrancy/officiating in every ceremony I do. I love a challenge (I once did a ceremony entirely in Spanish), I love melding tradition (blending Greek Orthodox Stefana ceremony with Hawaiian themes), and I also love meeting you where you are (whether that is at a Sign & Go at the park or a 500+ person venue). I would love to be included in your life milestone as an active member ready to meld any traditions or beliefs you may both have.

Officiant presides over german couple for a beach wedding in Oahu Hawaii
I'm always grateful for getting to do what I do - I have gotten to meet the most amazing couples from around the world and I am happy to call myself an Officiant (or Celebrant)

*Note: I should be a good student and cite my sources here - but after a Master’s in Church History I’d rather not bother with citation styling any longer! And yes, I consider Wikipedia to be a fine choice for my humble blog posts.

* A Second Note: I write from an American perspective so my thoughts and opinions come from that perspective.

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