Australian weddings have changed — a lot, and that means marriage has changed as well. Recently, thinking about the ins and outs of the marriage debate, I’ve become interested in the history of weddings in Australia. One of remarkable trends is the rise of civil celebrant weddings. These tell us a lot about how Aussie’s think about weddings, marriage and life. Between 1990 and 2010 the marriage rate in Australia dropped by about 20% but the number of couples having a religious wedding dropped by almost 60%!

Australia was the first Western nation to appoint “independent civil celebrants” who were not public servants providing a minimal wedding ceremony, but who offered a personalised, culturally enriching ceremony which was a real alternative to a church wedding.

The other day I came across an intriguing book that gives an insiders view of the development of celebrants weddings. Dally Messenger III (grandson of the famous rugby league player), one of the first celebrants in Australia and still a leader in the moment wrote Murphy’s Law and the Pursuit of Happiness: A History of the Civil Celebrant Movement (Spectrum Publications, Melbourne, 2012). All in all, if you are interested in marriage in Australia, Messenger offers a fascinating point of view.

Murphy’s Law and the Pursuit of Happiness is more a memoir than an history. At points it is ill-disciplined, rambling and even a touch self-indulgent. Still, it is the unique record of someone who was in the middle of remarkable and profound change in Australian society. It is has all the fun of an insiders account, with records of personal conversations and notes that Messenger checked his own records on this or that matter. Among other things it shows that the civil celebrant sector has been as fissiparous as any Christian denomination. The book finishes around 2002, and so misses some interesting developments in the last 15 years.

Throughout the book, Messenger highlights how culturally important ceremonies are. They reflect, sustain and inform a culture, and mark major events in life. This premise explains why he considers the introduction of civil celebrants and civil weddings a significant change in Australian culture. Weddings shape our view of marriage, relationships and life.
Think for a moment of the enormity … of this seemingly small social change, to use the explosive power hidden in the seemingly innocuous words of an Act of Parliament. If this book is the story of anything, it is the story of how this freedom evolved, unfolded and changed our society. … The marriage ceremony is the flagship ceremony in any culture [1549].[1]All numbers in square brackets are locations from the Kindle version of Murphy’s Law

Messenger’s basic point is that “the celebrant movement is really about the history of ceremonies of dignity for secular people” [228], because ceremonies give meaning and help to convey the significance of people, relationships and events. “Secular or non-church people need ceremony and spirituality as much as religious people do, and ever did. So we civil celebrants started to become aware of the nature and importance of ceremony, ritual and rites of passage in the life of the individual and society” [3750].

The background
Section 51 of the Australian Constitution grants the federal parliament power to make laws “for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth” on a whole host of matters from “trade and commerce with other countries, and among the States” and defence matters, through “lighthouses, lightships, beacons and buoys” to social security (“invalid and old-age pensions”). Tucked into the list, at items xx and xxi, are “marriage” and “divorce and matrimonial causes”. The parliament left this area under the control of the various states until 1959 when it regulated divorce in Australia under the The Australian Matrimonial Causes Act. The more significant change came with the 1961 Marriage Act. Sir Garfield Barwick, the Attorney-General [AG] who introduced the legislation saw it as an attempt to “to produce a marriage code suitable to present-day Australian needs … which… paid proper regard to the antiquity and foundations of marriage as an institution, but which … resolved modern problems in a modern way”. [2]See G. Barwick, “Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961” MelbULawRw 3/3 (1962): 277

One of the provisions in Section 39 of the Act allowed for a new group of marriage celebrants. The Act continued to recognise minister of religion and the Registrars of Marriages in the States and Territories. It also allowed the AG to “authorize other officers of a State or Territory or other suitable persons to solemnize marriages”. Barwick writes that he envisages this allows ministers of religion from small denominations to be registered individually. [3]Barwick, 293. I presume that the AG began to authorise a small number of religious celebrants under the provisions of Section 39, but I have not yet been able to find records of this. The current arrangement is that if a celebrant from a small religious denomination nominates, they record what religion they are associated with (and, I think, usually provide a letter of authorisation from the body). You can find the list of all the celebrants so registered on the website of the Attorney General’s Department (AGD) .

Seeking civil celebrants
The provision Section 39 caught the eye of Messenger who, having left the Catholic priesthood, thought that he could provide marriage services for those who could not or did not want to be married in a church. He wrote to the AGD asking to be authorised but was denied. He records being told by a public servant that he was the first to request this [n. 8  4110.] He also recounts a testy interview with Barwick about the denial. When he asked why Section 39 had been included Barwick replied “Not to make ‘civil celebrants’ that is certain. I put it there to oblige the Jewish Board of deputies who wished to have laymen, that is non-rabbis, officiate at marriages” [448].

Messenger reflects on the reasons that he and others felt some other form of marriage service should be provided. Couples who could not or did not wish to be married at a church had only one other option — the rather uninspiring Registry Office. “The Registry Office, the only alternative marriage ceremony for non-churchgoers, non-believers and divorced Anglicans and Catholics, was universally described as “dry and legal” and offensive” [491] He felt that the government was saying “if you don’t go to church like the rest of society does, we will not confer dignity and society’s approval upon you.” [2755]

This reflected the growing secularism in Australia, where people had lost connection with churches  especially over their views of sex, marriage and divorce. “The words of the church marriage ceremony were unacceptable to many. The words mainly centred on the purpose of marriage being the procreation of children and the duties of each party. Some religions still retained the concept of the wife being subject to the husband “as the Church is to Christ”. In the marriage ceremony the wife had to vow that she would “love, honour and obey” the husband.” [526]. Messenger also sets the reaction to the churches and their approach in the context of the sexual revolution and the rise of individualism and feminism through the 60s and early 70s [687-814].

The Civil Celebrant Program
The Whitlam government was elected in December 1972 and Lionel Murphy became the (reformist) Attorney-General. In the next year he introduced radical changes in relationships and divorce in Australia with the Family Law Act, replacing and expanding Barwick’s Matrimonial Causes Act. There was, however, something he could do more immediately — use the powers of Section 39 of the Marriage Act to appoint civil marriage celebrants. He began work on this almost immediately. By March 1973 he approached Lois D’Arcy, who would eventually become the first Civil Celebrant. She says that “he argued that those couples whose marriages the clergy would not perform e.g. where one or both parties were divorced, as well as those who did not wish the traditional Christian wedding, deserved an alternative” [927]. Appointing D’Arcy was not as straight-forward as Murphy may at first have expected. HIs advisors (including his Press Secretary George Negus) thought that it would simply create another controversy for him and put in him direct conflict with the churches [943], and so stymied his attempts to authorise D’Arcy. In the end, on July 19, 1973 Murphy typed an authorisation letter himself and posted it in the middle of the night. So D’Arcy, a 25 year old teacher and mother of two from Queensland, became the first “civil marriage celebrant” appointed in the Western world.

Murphy took a great deal of personal interest in the Civil Celebrants Program. The desire for dignity for those not having church weddings was one of his major motivations — Messenger says that in a 1977 interview he recorded with Murphy about the program, the then High Court Justice “used the word “dignity” 26 times” to describe civil ceremonies [235]. He wanted couples to have freedom to shape their ceremonies in line with their beliefs. “He saw ceremony as developing the culture of the country, strengthening the relationship between the persons and assisting the commitment to marriage” [1005]. He was involved in selecting appropriate people and ultimately appointed 99 celebrants, including Messenger. Most were young, the majority were women and two were Indigenous and they were from a range of political views. He sought people who were professional, well-presented and would provide dignified ceremonies. He was in regular contact with them and even attended some of the weddings (unannounced) [1530]. He arranged for the formation of a Celebrants association, partly to help protect the program when he saw that the ALP was likely to lose the next federal election. [1074]. Messenger was the first president.

Messenger says that he and most of the first group of celebrants expected that that would not be asked to perform many ceremonies. In fact “we were surprised how much people were overjoyed to have the new freedoms. The program, in terms of public following, became an “overnight” and overwhelming success” [1113]. Murphy had read the mood of the times brilliantly.

Messenger observes that young women in the 1970s and 80s were often suspicious of the oppression of marriage and that civil ceremonies meant “marriage became much more acceptable to the modern, young feminist of that time if the terms, values and basis of the relationship could be clearly stated. An equality based wedding compact, clearly articulated in a ceremony, was evolving as acceptable to them” [1295]. He also has several stories of the emotional impact a wedding service had for couples who thought that they would never be able to be married.

Couples appreciated the ability to develop their own ceremonies and vows.

If a couple find a good celebrant, they may have a ceremony which involves everything they can dream of… I mean deep meaning, wonderful values and recognition of the closest relationships. These values and sentiments can be expressed, as they frequently are, by the best poetry, prose, music lyrics, story, symbolism, choreography and music. The ceremony can be done with participation, intimacy and cultural strength. This opportunity and capacity, despite all, still stands. [2011]

This reflects one of the great changes in thinking about marriage in Australia (and western culture, generally). It is no longer an institution with a a presumed nature and settled expectations. Marriage is a chosen relationship, a partnership unique to each couple, a shared adventure with an unknown destination. Its meaning is far less something received from family, society or religion and far more something that a couple develop together.

Messenger writes that Civil Celebrants create ceremonies “from the bottom up, not from the above down, from the needs of the client, not from the requirements of the “Deity”. The reflected the couple and their beliefs not the demands of God and church. [3527]

Not only did Civil Celebrants spring from a secular vision, their work reinforced it. Messenger claims that  “the Civil Celebrant Program has had an unintended, but radically important effect…It has enabled secular people to separate themselves completely from the church”. [1972] In a corresponding way he talks about himself and others who have long term connections with families and act like pastors of ‘parish’. [1721, 1936].

Messenger discusses how he and other celebrants changed things about the ceremonies (where couples stood, where the register was signed, including poetry, individualised vows) which are now common in Church ceremonies as well. [1559-1641; 1790-1876] I’m not sure that these all originated with him, or other celebrants, but I do suspect they at least helped to popularise them. The trends of church weddings and civil ceremonies have blurred into each other over the decades.

Not surprisingly, some of the early celebrants were also early proponents of same sex marriage. Brian McInerney, who was a funeral celebrant at the time conducted a notorious ‘wedding’ for a lesbian couple in Melbourne in the 1970s [2248]. As a result the AGD repeatedly denied McInerney’s applications to be registered as a Marriage Celebrant. It also unsuccessfully tried to find who had produced the certificate (it was Messenger) [2264].

The book gives some insights into the problems of the program — celebrants who wanted to be ‘counsellors’ and gave very inappropriate counsel, others who used the role to sell wedding rings or insurance! As the program grew, some celebrants were happy to provide and very basic ceremony with little preparation — and run multiple ceremonies each weekend. Messenger has been a constant campaigner to raise the standard of ceremonies and to allow celebrants to be paid well enough for them to invest in training and thorough preparation.

Messenger records obstructions faced the program faced from some AGs and their public servants. Messenger writes of these as if they were opposition to the whole program. I suspect it was more that they did not share the Lionel Murphy vision the way Messenger did, and weren’t all that committed to make it good as possible. There were some open critics. Philip Ruddock described the celebrants as “new priests of pagan cults” [1199]

Other ceremonies
According to Messenger, secular naming ceremonies were developed in Australia by civil celebrants. He records “vicious and contemptuous rejection” of the idea from other celebrants when they were first suggested in the mid-seventies [2171]. Initially he and some others conducted generic Christians baptisms, which then developed into ceremonies which welcomed children in the community. At one point they drew from the ceremonies of the Unitarian Church [loc. 2108]. He does record one direct public attack by a Catholic spokesman, but also that clergy began to refer secular couples to celebrants [2122].

Messenger claims that he was the first Marriage Celebrant to conduct a funeral service. Messenger (and Murphy) thought that it was natural for Marriage Celebrants also to conduct funerals. He was surprised that most of the celebrants were opposed to the idea [loc. 2489] and the Attorney-General’s Department opposed the development and banned celebrants from advertising both services together and refused to authorise anyone whom they knew had conducted funerals. It was attacked as commercialising death and grief.

Like church weddings, church funerals were unattractive to many people. They seemed impersonal, formulaic and even inaccurate details, often no eulogy allowed. [2321, 2397] He connects the rise of focus on good funeral ceremonies with the visit of Kubler-Ross in 1978 and the recognition of the need for talking about death and marking grief. [2370] He helped form an association in Melbourne in 1978 and it became the first city in Western world to have “professional funeral celebrants truly became a significant part of the funeral industry”. [2457] Melbourne remains the city where celebrant funerals are most common. People wanted personalised ceremonies.

However civil funerals have not reached the same level as marriages. Recent McCrindle research found that 58% of Australians would prefer to a civil celebrant conduct their funeral and a 2014 survey of funeral directors reported that about 50% of Australian funerals were non-religious.

One reason for this may be that Civil celebrants have not been able to offer high quality ceremonies in the way they did for marriages. In part this is financial. Messenger claims that “genuine funeral celebrant is being forced out of this wonderful and much needed work by the financial immorality of the majority of funeral directors.” He claims that funeral directors prefer cheap, untrained ‘funeral celebrants’ and will not use celebrants who charge reasonable rates for the hours they spend preparing a meaningful service. [2878]

Messenger’s book is a reflection of Australian rejection of church and traditional religion and our ongoing need to find meaning and purpose. He writes of ”the hurts and harms religion causes, the hatred it inspires, the self-righteousness and superiority which create the wars”. But observes that many people are attached to its “habits, trappings, value systems, psychological support, and sense of identity and stability which organised denominations bring”. [3790]. He sees his role as a celebrant to be very important in developing a ‘secular spirituality’. [3830].

Post-script — since 2003
Messenger’s narrative ends in the in early 2000s. Under the 2003 changes, all Civil Celebrant appointments were cancelled they and the ministers of small churches and independent religious bodies were included together as  “Commonwealth Authorised Celebrants”. The Civil Celebrants saw this as abandoning the distinctive “secular” vision of the original program. The appointments were now done by a Registrar rather than an AG and in the 2000s a huge number were appointed with little quality control. The oversupply of celebrants and lack of training drove down the amount celebrants could charge in a now deregulated system, which removed the incentive for them to prepare personalised ceremonies.The system was fraying badly. In 2010 The Age reported that “the number of nuptial nightmares is soaring”.

In 2014 the regulations were revised to require greater training and to impose an initial registration fee and an annual renewal fee. The charge is a cost recovery measure, but may also reduce the number of celebrants.

References   [ + ]

1. All numbers in square brackets are locations from the Kindle version of Murphy’s Law
2. See G. Barwick, “Commonwealth Marriage Act 1961” MelbULawRw 3/3 (1962): 277
3. Barwick, 293