50 years of Civil Celebrants in Australia

Jul 19, 2023
Wed-Genevieve-Happy-Clap-Presenting.JPG. Image supplied by author

On July 19, 2023, Australia celebrated the 50th anniversary of civil celebrancy.

In her captivating book on Lionel Murphy’s life, Dr. Jennifer Hocking recounts how Murphy, almost single-handedly, persisted for several years to achieve the groundbreaking reform of no-fault divorce. It was an arduous and contentious struggle.

As a corollary to no-fault divorce Murphy was also very conscious of the indignity of secular marriage ceremonies. Persons who did not believe in religion, and divorced persons who had been rejected by the churches, only had one option -the notorious “registry office”.

Allow me to describe the scene. The space was only open from Monday to Friday, between 10 am and 4 pm. Within the room, the atmosphere was stark, austere, and disheartening. Couples who were ready to wed, along with their witnesses (only 2 allowed), were seated in an orderly manner on a long bench, waiting for their turn. A solemn official, with an expressionless face, called them up one by one from behind a desk. A dry and concise legal marriage ceremony followed. Once the ceremony was concluded, they would be dismissed, making way for the next set of couples.

Lionel Murphy, deeply dismayed by the humiliation experienced by couples on what should have been a joyful and celebratory day, took action. As Attorney-General, Murphy recognised an opportunity to restore dignity to secular individuals and divorced christians in their marriage ceremonies. He utilised a simple provision in Garfield Barwick’s 1961 Marriage Act (Section 39) to empower ordinary citizens, unaffiliated with any specific religious group, to officiate at weddings. These individuals quickly became known as civil marriage celebrants.

The tale surrounding the appointment of the first civil celebrant has become legendary. Despite facing staunch opposition from his staff, the public service, fellow parliament members, and Labor Party officials, Murphy unwaveringly clung to his belief that this act would “contribute to the overall happiness of humanity.” He defied them all.

On the fateful night of 19 July, 1973, when all his staff had gone home, Murphy personally typed out the appointment letter for the first celebrant, Lois D’Arcy, a vivacious young mother in her twenties hailing from Queensland. With determination, he then scoured his office until he located an envelope and stamp. After carefully addressing the envelope and moistening and affixing the stamp, he walked to a nearby post office box and firmly slid it into the slot. And thus, the civil celebrant program commenced.

The magnitude of the change brought about by Murphy’s actions was profound, far surpassing initial expectations. For the first time in history, couples were granted control over their own wedding ceremony i.e. complete authority over the words and actions within their ceremony. They could personalise the welcome, readings, and vows.

Murphy championed the cause of gender equality. His first appointment was a woman. 55 of his original 99 appointees were women. Murphy also broke new ground by appointing aboriginals as civil celebrants. I recall the renowned Aboriginal activist, Faith Bandler, being one such appointee. Additionally, Murphy appointed young people to create ceremonies. Lois D’Arcy, was 26-year-old. Carol Ditchburn was 24. Citizens also now had the unprecedented entitlement to choose their own celebrant.

Civil celebrants were intended to be skilled and adaptable facilitators of a diverse array of ceremonies. Their role was and continues to be rooted in embodying the highest values and ideals of society as a whole. It incorporates respecting and acknowledging the distinctive characteristics of various groups, be they religious, cultural, or indigenous communities with their own unique ceremonial practices. While their primary focus is on serving the broader community, civil celebrants can also offer their services to these specific groups on exceptional and needed occasions.

Murphy’s innovative vision has far exceeded expectations, resulting in exceptional success. The program has experienced remarkable growth. Initially, in 1973, only 3% of weddings were conducted by civil celebrants. However, as of 2023, celebrants now oversee more than 80% of all marriages, with a similar percentage for funerals.

The concept of the Australian civil celebrant has sparked a profound cultural transformation in other Western countries, including New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. In the state of New Jersey, USA, for instance, individuals can pursue the role of a Civil Celebrant by completing course of study centred on Celebrant Philosophy, History, Ceremonial Structure and Ceremonial creation, writing and presentation.

The 50th anniversary of civil celebrancy in Australia symbolises a remarkable journey of social transformation, inclusivity, and dignity. It illustrates how one individual’s vision can wield great influence on the very fabric of society.

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