Whether you’re looking for an alternative to church weddings and civil ceremonies or want to have a blessing in a venue that isn’t licensed, services conducted by celebrants offer couples increasing flexibility to create a completely bespoke day.
In this expert interview, Stroud-based community celebrant, Christina Snell, sheds light on the role of celebrants and shares advice on how couples can tie the knot in truly unique fashion.
A community celebrant, sometimes called a civil celebrant, is essentially someone who conducts ceremonies, such as weddings and handfastings which are not linked to any particular denomination.
A community celebrant doesn’t come with a ‘you can have this, but you can’t have that’ set of rules; it’s all about what the couple wants which is in contrast to a registrar who is tied by the laws of the state and a minister who will follow religious traditions.
I trained last September, but I’ve only really been doing it full time since April 2015.
For the previous 10 years I was chief executive of Age UK Gloucestershire and prior to that most of my career was spent in the probation service.
I think there was a whole range of things; I was at that stage of my life that I wanted to move on and do something different but I wanted to work for myself. I spent some time thinking about what I wanted to do and identified that I wanted to work with people make some kind of contribution to communities. I woke up one morning and thought that was what I was going to do, literally, it was a bit of a light bulb moment!
A lot of the skills you need – being able to talk to people, making sense of what they’re telling you and putting that in words – is the stuff you pick up in life.
For the specific training, I went away on a five-day course where they covered all sorts of things, such as how you structure a ceremony from beginning to end and how to manage the money side of things.
It just depends really; the summer tends to be busier for wedding celebrants, so the sooner the better for getting the date you want.
Most celebrants will meet the couple or have a phone conversation to find out if there’s a bit of rapport because with something so personal, it’s important to have a bit of chemistry.
I’m very clear with couples that there’s absolutely no obligation after the initial meeting, which isn’t about selling, it’s about talking about what they want and how that might be created.
We usually start building the ceremony with what might be included and then I leave couples to mull it over. Once they’ve decided they want to book me, I hold the date for a week or two after the meeting, and they then pay a deposit and that day is reserved. From then I start working with them to create a ceremony that is just right for them.
Usually we will have done a site visit together before and that’s an opportunity to talk through where they’ll stand, walk and those sorts of things, and then I arrive about an hour-and-a-half to two hours before and get my area set up. Then I just enjoy the building sense of excitement as guests arrive which is just really lovely.
It’s a really good question because actually I get asked it all the time. A humanist is something very specific, although people use it to mean non-religious ceremonies but humanists do things in a very specific way.
A humanist celebrant would not allow you to have any religious content or anything that alluded to religion, whereas with a community or civil celebrant like me, it’s about what the couple wants and not what my own personal beliefs are.
There are two main types, traditional weddings and handfastings. Weddings are what most of us recognise, usually the bride will have a white or cream dress, while handfasting ceremonies are when hands are bound together by a ribbon to symbolise the intertwining of two lives, and have strong pagan elements.
But often, you get a mixture of the two and I’ve certainly done traditional weddings where the couple wants to be close to nature and have had a tying the knot ritual.
Within ceremonies, particularly weddings, there’s a whole range of what I call mini rituals that you can have. For example, there’s one called the loving cup, which has a lot of Celtic traditions, and the idea is the couple share their first drink from it together as husband and wife.
There’s jumping the broomstick, which is a lovely fun tradition that’s often at the end of a ceremony, and the sand ceremony is a popular choice, with the whole idea that once those grains of sand are mixed they can never be separated.
Some couples want it to be short, succinct and meaningful, whereas other people, there’s lots of content they want to include. When a ceremony is going to be a bit longer, I take care to make sure that there’s enough going on to keep people interested.
Definitely. I really encourage friends and relatives to do readings as that kind of helps create a sense that everyone’s involved, which I think is really important. For me, a ceremony isn’t just a spectator sport; it’s something that everyone should feel part of even if it’s only creating the right atmosphere.
At the moment, my ceremonies, unless there’s a registrar there, are not legally binding and most couples will do it in the morning or sometimes on separate days.
Sometimes and actually there is no reason why I can’t conduct a ceremony with a registrar there, and for the ceremony to be legal. But most of my couples do it separately.
That’s the hope and there are a lot of countries that are further ahead in terms of civil celebrancy, with Australia being a really good example. The vision would be that, rather than having places that are registered, that we’d move to a position where people are registered.
Then, as long as one of those registered people takes your wedding, you could get legally married on the beach, on a cliff top, in a cave, in the woods or in your garden. But when that will be I don’t know.
I think the very first answer is because increasingly people are finding out that they now have a choice. It’s interesting because I think marriage has had something of resurgence in recent years; there is a sense that people want it to be something really special and they recognise that they are taking sacred vows and want a ceremony that’s really meaningful.
They are all genuinely unique; there are never two the same because you get lots of personal tweaks and touches. I do know someone who did a nude one but that wasn’t me so I can’t claim that story!
The quick answer is all of it. I like meeting the couples for the first time and hearing their stories, I love creating the ceremony that’s right for them and delivering it on the day. But, I suppose if you said, what’s the absolute moment that sends a shiver down my spine, it’s always the entrance of the bride. I still haven’t lost that lump in the throat moment, it’s just magical.
I would say, treat the ceremony as important a part of your wedding as any other element and believe you’ve got choice, because you have. I’d say get out there and look around at your options before jumping in and don’t feel you have to be tied to the old traditions. Think about what would make it special, different and personal for you as a couple.
By Anna McKittrick
Friday 20 November 2015
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