Marriage becomes a civil occasion

Grant Dale and Anna Smith at their wedding at Little Wategos last August, with celebrant Zenith Virago.
Grant Dale and Anna Smith at their wedding at Little Wategos last August, with celebrant Zenith Virago.

MARRIAGE in the 21st Century is turning out to be a boom and bust affair.

While fewer Australians are choosing to tie the knot, a growing number of those who say ‘I do’ are choosing a civil ceremony, not a religious one.

And the number of civil celebrants they can choose to launch them into marital bliss has soared recently, as a result of a lifting of restrictions by the Attorney-General’s Office.

There are now 8500 marriage celebrants in Australia and the number has spiked in the past two years, according to a survey by website Celebrante, which helps couples find the perfect celebrant for them.

More than 1500 celebrants responded to the survey, with 466 saying they had qualified in 2008; 338 got signed up last year. This compares with a mere four in 2000 and 89 in 2005.

Celebrante founder David Taylor said the upsurge was because more people were choosing a highly personalised service – and that couples were seeking someone to officiate who ‘looked and sounded like their kind of person’.

The website’s motto is ‘price is always negotiable – personality isn’t’.

This was certainly the case for Grant Dale and Anna Smith, who exchanged vows at Little Wategos beach inAugust – and who were helped by Byron Bay celebrant Zenith Virago.

Mr Dale’s family were in Canada and Ms Smith’s in New Zealand, so the pair were planning to keep things small, in a ‘city hall’ kind of way, according to the groom.

But Ms Virago persuaded them that they were entering a sacred union, and that it was in fact a ‘big deal’. The result ‘blew him away’, Mr Dale said.

“It was absolutely magical. Using a marriage celebrant took it to another level.”

Of celebrants who qualify and become registered, only a small proportion are able to make their living from it, though nearly 40 per cent would like it to be their main source of income, according to the survey.

One Northern Rivers celebrant complained that ‘every man and his dog are becoming registered … it’s become impossible to make a living’.

But Ms Virago, who has been performing wedding rites, as well as funeral, naming and other ceremonies in Byron Bay for 15 years, said there had been only a small impact on her business.

She still performed 100 weddings a year, she said.

Bureau of Statistics figures show a steady decline in the number of people getting married. In 2007 there were 5.4 marriages for every 1000 people in Australia – a drop-off since 1988 when there were 7.1 marriages per 1000.

But the figures for how people are choosing to wed have almost reversed in that time.

In 1988 68,553 couples plighted their troth before a minister of religion, and only 48,263 employed a civil celebrant. By 2007, the figures went from 43,047 in church and 73,187 in a civil event.

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