Karen asks:

What are the differences/similarities, restrictions and allowances between a celebrant-led wedding and a church wedding, that is, by an ordained minister. I have noticed a lot of confusion and even ignorance about what can and can’t be done when the question of faith is raised. Can a celebrant read a biblical text, what constitutes a church and why can’t all ministers perform weddings? I am a civil celebrant who came from a faith background and I know, there are many others as well.

In Australia, civil celebrants and religious ministers are authorised to marry people according to the law in different manners.

A good starting point is that the Marriage Act of 1961 calls all the people who marry people, celebrants. Part five of the act is about the solemnisation of marriages in Australia, solemnise pretty meaning “perform” or “do” a formal ceremony. People who have been authorised by the law to marry people according to the law are called authorised celebrants in division one of part five.

The law then separates us all into four categories, enumerated in the letters A, B, C, and D.

Subdivision A celebrants: Ministers of religion

Basically, each state or territory maintains a list of recognised religions, and each of those religions appoints ministers according to their own way of doing things, the law just asks that the minister is 21 or over, and is ordinarily a resident of Australia. So you can’t just decide to be a minister of religion, it happens within the confines of recognised religions and they have a way of deciding who is a minister according to their own doctrine and policies.

There had been rumours that ministers of religion could not perform marriages outside of the state they are registered in, for example, a Surfers Paradise-based minister could not perform marriage ceremonies in Byron Bay, but section 32 of the Marriage Act clears this up, saying “a minister of religion who is registered under this Subdivision in any register may solemnise marriages at any place in Australia.”

There are many fine and dandy churches in Australia that are not recognised religions, I guess, and those ministers are not afforded the right to perform marriages, so they have to become subdivision C or D celebrants.

What ministers of religion can or can’t do is mostly regulated by their denomination or religion, not by the government.

Subdivision A celebrants also do not have to say the monitum (the “Marriage, according to law in Australia, is the union of 2 people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life” bit) nor do they have to hear the couple say their vows as a Subdivision C celebrant would [I call upon the persons here present to witness that I, A.B. (or C.D.), take thee, C.D. (or A.B.), to be my lawful wedded wife (or husband, or spouse)].

They can pretty much do whatever they like in their ceremony as long as their denomination or church approves of it, and the law does as well. They need to complete the same marriage paperwork other celebrants do and still require the notice to be given like everyone else.

Subdivision B celebrants: State and Territory officers

These celebrants are appointed by the state or territory’s Births, Deaths, and Marriages department usually. They are employees of the government and don’t have the authority to perform marriages outside of that employment.

Think of a regular celebrant but they work for the government so they have to leave their personality and sense of humour in their carpark.

Subdivision C celebrants: Marriage celebrants

This is the type of celebrant most of Australia thinks of when they think of the word celebrant. They are held to a higher standard than the Subdivision A and B celebrants, having to gain a Certificate IV in Celebrancy qualification and then also complete ongoing professional development every year. They also need to pay an application fee and an annual registration fee, along with being a fit and proper person to be a celebrant.

Subdivision C celebrants are also mostly free to run the type of wedding business they would like to run, charge what they can and would like to charge, and say what they want in the ceremony, as long as the monitum and legal vows occur.

Subdivision D celebrants: Religious marriage celebrants

Subdivision D was newly formed when marriage equality became law in December 2017 and has two parts to it:

  • ministers of religion of non-recognised denominations (who were previously lumped in with Subdivision C celebrants), and
  • already registered Subdivision C civil celebrants who, for three months after marriage equality becoming law, put up their hand and said they had a religious objection to marriage equality and would like to have the legal right to discriminate against not marry such couples.

You can still join Subdivision D if you’re a minister of religion of a non-recognised denomination, but just like Subdivision C celebrants (and as has always been the case with ministers of religion of non-recognised denominations), you’ll need to complete a Cert IV in Celebrancy and pay a registration fee. You’ll also need to say the Monitum in your ceremonies, but your couples can say whatever form of ceremony (vows) your religion has approved.

If you want to be a civil celebrant who does not perform marriage equality weddings today, you can’t. Your only option is to become a Subdivision C celebrant and hope no marriage equality couples ask you to marry them.

Who can read scripture at a wedding?

If the wedding ceremony is being led by a marriage celebrant, then anyone can read whatever they like, pray how they like, and perform rituals that they like, as long as we’re all fine and dandy in the realm of the law, decency, and ethics. Reading from the bible is much like reading from any book or literature at a wedding, and the permissions allowed there. For example, if you wanted to read from the NIV, NiRV or AMP Bibles, the copyright owner, Zondervan, says it’s all good as long as you don’t read the whole thing from start to finish which would be a really long ceremony.

At a ceremony being held in a church, or being led by a minister of religion, you’re subject to their rules and ways, and each one is different so you’d need to ask them.