Ceremonies and Celebrations Book and CD

Ceremonies and Celebrations
contains model ceremonies for Weddings, Funerals, Namings and a full range of other ceremonies. It contains editorial advice for celebrants and their clients and a wide selection of readings.

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Finding a Celebrant

The Power of an Idea: The History of Celebrancy
Australian Federation of Civil Celebrants Conference
Keynote Address; by Dally Messenger III
Monday July 13th, 2009

May I begin by giving formal thanks to President Lance Tapsell and the committee of the Federation for inviting me to give this very special address at this conference. I would also like to thank Mary Kelly and all those who have helped organise Remi and me. As the main founder of this organisation, its foundation president during its first six years, and a life Member, I consider it a very special acknowledgement, to be so invited.

Lionel Murphy
The real founder of our organisation was a visionary Australian statesman, Attorney-General Lionel Murphy. There are at least six books written about Lionel Murphy and his achievements. Not one of them chronicle what may turn out to be the achievement of his, which was most culturally reformist -- which most altered the nature of our society -- the establishment of the civil celebrant program.

Section 39 - Marriage Celebrants
One reason to this, I believe, is the fact that the establishment of civil celebrants only required the enactment of an existing provision in the Marriage Act of 1961 -- section 39 -- which empowered the Attorney-General of Australia to appoint non-clergy as ceremony providers of legal marriage. But I can assure everyone here that Murphy was passionately interested in this program. As the person he appointed first secretary of the Original Association of Marriage Celebrants, I was given the phone number which rang on his desk. I had a direct line to that Attorney-General who, arguably, was the busiest in Australia’s history, and who has a reformist record that no Attorney-General, before or since, could equal.

Murphy’s vision and resolution: Lois D’Arcy
 When I was lecturing at Victoria University there was a theory of history to the effect that historical changes always depend on social need — and have very little to do with the vision of one person. Let me disavow you of this straightaway - especially in this case.

The civil celebrant program is almost entirely the result of one man’s vision. Murphy himself told me the story of how he was opposed by his own staff, the public service, his fellow Members of Parliament s and officials of the Labour Party. He defied all, and, on July 19 1973, in the dead of night typed the first appointment himself, found the envelope and stamp, walked to a post box and posted it himself. Lois D’Arcy, carries the honour of being appointed the first genuinely independent civil celebrant in Australia, and actually in all the world. A woman of immense charm and intelligence, she received her appointment letter a few days later in the mail,. Lois has kept the letter which, of course, shel treasures.

The dominance of religion and the place of unbelievers
It is difficult, indeed embarrassing, to explain to younger people the world into which the Whitlam-Murphy government intruded. The majority of Australian citizens had a strong allegiance to one or the other of the main Christian churches. Religious sectarianism was a basic curse of society. The main churches combined on few issues -- but they did combine on one issue. Non-believers were to be humiliated and put in their place. Lionel Murphy was an anomaly. He was a Humanist and a Rationalist with a Catholic background. An admirer of the American Constitution, he simply believed that “all men are created equal”.

Churches and Registry office humiliated the unbeliever
Appalled at the indignity of civil marriage in the Sydney registry office -- a story often told -- he saw his chance to bring dignity in ceremonies to secular people. It was not only the government which heaped indignities on the non-believer, the churches did the same with their own members who did not toe the religious party line. Divorced Catholics and divorced Anglicans were not permitted to re-marry in their churches. They were the main denominations -- and if, for example, a Catholic dared to fall in love with a Protestant, the couple were significantly humiliated by a marriage “behind the altar”.

Civil Celebrants are for the secular
I’d like to make this perfectly clear. The main constituency of the civil celebrant, which you are, is secular people. The very secondary constituency are those people rejected and/or humiliated by the churches. You are not pseudo clergy, you are not interfaith officiants, you are civil celebrants essentially appointed to bring dignity in ceremonies to non-church people.

Lionel Murphy was a real radical. I am still amazed at his vision. He shocked the system.

  1. His first shock to the social system was the appointment of women  — at a moment in history when, for hundreds of years, the only ceremony providers were men. (Paradoxically this Murphy decision is commonly acknowledged as having substantially supported the women in the churches who wished to become priests and bishops.)


  1. His second shock to the social system was the appointment of aborigines as civil celebrants. Faith Bandler, I recall, was one. (They had only been counted as humans in the census some six years before.)
  2. His third shock was the appointment of young people to do ceremonies. Lois D’Arcy was a 26 year old mother of two babies. Carol Ditchburn, now Astbury. was 24.
  3. His next shock was that citizens could choose their own celebrant -- unheard of until then, both with church and with state.
  4. His next shock, a now obvious truth but still not fully absorbed, was his assertion that celebrating the milestones of life was just as important for secular people as it was for religious people.
  5. His overwhelming conviction was his belief that culture matters -- really matters.

Hypocrisy and dishonesty
Murphy took the view, and this principle was shared by most Australians, that hypocrisy and dishonesty are in themselves bad. That, widely practised, were endemically harmful to society. Non-church goers felt then that if, for a ceremony, they used a church, which they never attended, and whose words were not consonant with their beliefs, they were being hypocrites. And they were.

The Celebrant -a community person
Another stroke of genius with which other current countries such as United Kingdom and United States still have great difficulty is the branding of the celebrant. The civil celebrant was a community ceremony provider, (as distinct from a community service) -- he or she was not a humanist celebrant, a new new-age priest, not an interfaith guru, but simply a person appointed by the government. This person’s job was to empower and assist the citizens to mark and celebrate milestones in their lives, in a ceremonial way, according to their own values, beliefs and lifestyle.

Not a Civil Religion
We were in no way advocates or ministers of “civil religion”.  We do not hold ceremonies, nor is it part of our brief to venerate the “emperor”, honour past political leaders, or even ceremonies to honour the “unknown soldier”.

The ceremony from the grassroots up — not from the powers above down.
And here is the really big shock. The ceremony so created, was to come from the bottom up and not from the top down. Let me remind you again that Murphy entered a world where all ceremonies were decided and dictated downwards from church authorities or from civil authorities.

The beliefs of the celebrant, if any, are irrelevant to the ceremony
From all this follows that when a citizen is appointed a civil celebrant, while acting in this capacity, the beliefs of the celebrant, if any, are irrelevant to the ceremony they are creating. Using a range of professional skills, they are co-creating a ceremony, in much the same way that the architect co-creates a house for clients who have their own ideas, needs, and wants.

Debt to the Christian Church
In a certain sense we owe a great deal of gratitude to the Christian church for preserving and encouraging the arts in many ceremonies which have great beauty and dignity.

Religious ceremonies can be harmful to those who do not believe.
But to Murphy and to many other Australians, then and since, the values expressed in the words of a church ceremony - words to which they do not give assent, or which express propositions or stories in which they do not believe, are counter productive. If the couple do not give their inner assent to such words, they may thus, by association, discolour, and render inauthentic and dishonest, the very core of the marriage compact itself. The values which have troubled people in this context were then, and to some extent still are, the duty of obedience of the wife to the husband, the acceptance that the husband is spiritually superior to the wife, and the authority of the Church in the governance of their relationship. Furthermore, the context of the rituals usually expresses, in various ways, that particular church or religion’s close connection with God and that church’s special influence in the world of the supernatural.

The authenticity of the CMC wedding
In an Australian civil marriage celebrant ceremony the words of the songs, the truths expressed in the poetry, the expression of commitment, and the symbols of union can all be, and should all be, in full and total agreement with what the couple honestly believe.

The roles of the Civil Celebrant
To bring this about the civil celebrant has to be properly trained in an authentic course in celebrancy, and thus be professional, knowledgeable and skilled. Such a celebrant is then equipped to be -

  1. the facilitator,
  2. the advisor,
  3. the resource person,
  4. the producer-director,
  5. the creative assistant or co-creator,
  6. the orchestrator and deliverer,
  7. (but never the dominator)

Celebrant and Architect
Those of you who’ve been watching the television series “Grand Design” have observed the delicate tension between architect and client in the building of the dream home. Like the architect, the civil celebrant has to carefully read the client and co-create the ceremony, which will have the requisite power and depth.

Ideals of the best Attorney-Generals
There have only been three Attorneys-General who have taken an intelligent interest in the civil celebrant program. Lionel Murphy of course, Gareth Evans, and Daryl Williams. Each of them have been quite clear.

  1. Celebrants should be carefully chosen,
  2. the numbers should be properly controlled and balanced, and
  3. the celebrant should be properly prepared for her important role.
  4. the celebrant should be professional, and responsible.

To me it is is a great sadness that this sane and balanced ideal has been so badly sabotaged by ignorant public servants, lazy politicians, greedy funeral directors, and insensitive media.

The Celebrant program’s success
But despite this, and please note we are the only country in the world where this is so, the civil celebrant program has flourished beyond our wildest dreams. We now officiate at 70% or so of the nation’s marriage ceremonies. Not only that but the Registry Offices around Australia now oblige with ceremonies of relative beauty, and the churches, stimulated by our ideals, now offer their members personal content unheard-of in previous generations or in other countries.

The title of my talk today is quote “ The power of an idea: the history of celebrancy”. I am quoting some of our setbacks, challenges and obstacles to illustrate how powerful this idea is, how resilient it is. I also need to say this clearly, that while I relate some of the challenges, out there at the coalface, year after year, marvellous civil celebrants were developing and delivering ceremonies of beauty, meaning, and substance. And while I am about it I have to tell you that from time to time there have been wonderful public servants like Barbara Sullivan and Ross Birrell from the Attorney-General’s Department who really understood what we were about, as did the Ian Bowler from Births, Deaths, and Marriages in Victoria. So please keep that balance in mind.

Having said that, and despite our statistical success, and much more importantly our success with people, the forces of conservatism have at times hit back with great savagery.

Why so many celebrant organisations?
You may wonder why there are so many celebrant organisations. The primal split was over funerals. I do not have time in this one address to go into the detail, which you should know.  Those married celebrants who originally obliged secular people with secular funerals were ostracised by their marriage celebrant colleagues for “using their marriage celebrant office, to make money from other people’s grief”. To those people, there was no recognition that secular people were entitled to a secular funeral in the same way, as they were entitled to a secular marriage.

The subject of death and the taboo
This was an age where speaking about death or funerals was strictly taboo. It was before the time pioneer funeral celebrant Diane Storey brought the famed Doctor Elizabeth Kubler-Ross to Australia -- a woman who challenged society to speak openly about death, in order to assist the care of the dying.

Brief History of the AFCC
This organisation was originally the Association of Funeral Celebrants of Australia. I was its first president. It had few members and we were outcasts. For some 25 years anyone who was a funeral celebrant and known to be so, was never made a marriage celebrant by the Attorney General’s Department. The public servants sided with the conservative majority of celebrants. The Funeral Celebrants Association morphed into the Institute of Australian Celebrants run by Rick Barclay, and this in turn morphed, in 1994, into the Australian Federation of Civil Celebrants. At a meeting of associations with the Attorney-General’s department in 1994, there was an organised resolution to exclude me (as your Representative and President) and this Federation from the meeting, because we had funeral celebrant members.
On the positive side, we overcame that one, and soon we were positively engaged on the first competencies for celebrants - so very good compared to the low standard ones which emerged years later.

The Legal Mentality
A deeper more endemic problem has always been what I call the legal mentality. Public servants and many celebrants cannot think of a civil marriage in any other terms than the legal. The tragedy is,as I told you, in the beginning we were founded to give the people ceremonies of meaning, beauty, and substance. Civil celebrants were not established because the law wasn’t operating properly. Murphy appointed us because ceremonies were not operating  properly. The legal mentality person never stops talking about details of the law of which they usually have a very limited understanding anyway. When two people marry, for example, there is a social, cultural and personal dimension, regarding which these kind of celebrants have no awareness. The law is important in its context, but what they need to understand is that the law records marriage, it regulates it for property and childcare purposes, but it isn’t IT.

Graduation Ceremony illustration
Another sadness to me is the way, in recent times, these ignorant people have wielded such undue influence.
I will illustrate this in two ways I think everyone will understand.
(1) When I received one of my degrees at university, I received a letter in the mail telling me that I had passed and was now a university graduate. A little while later I was invited to a graduation ceremony. The legalist will never understand why I needed the graduation ceremony. (You’ve received your letter, what difference will a graduation make? Bah Humbug !)

Obama Inauguration ceremony illustration
(2) Barack Obama was recently elected President of the United States of America. The legalists will never understand why he had to have an inauguration ceremony. Hundreds of thousands attended and millions viewed the ceremony on television. The legalist doesn’t get it -- they do not, as I say, see the social, cultural, and personal dimensions of the ceremonies to which they are entrusted.

Attempts at destroying the program

In their inadequacy, the legalists are very threatened by the civil celebrant program. Over the years they have tried every trick of their inadequate minds to kill us off and destroy us. There was a fixed fee for weddings -- they froze this fee for over ten years —forcing many good celebrants out by financial pressure. A more destructive effect was to force those of us who stayed in to officiate at too many marriages, thus forcing down standards - we have never fully recovered from this lowering of standards.

They attempted to make this into a community service -- thus robbing us of our professionalism -- and professionalism so important to our founder, Lionel Murphy. They went through a long period of only appointing older men who were interested in topping up their superannuation.
Several times they have flooded the market with too many celebrants -thus - in fact we have gone from 1600 CMCs in 2003, when this figure was too many, to over 8000 now. We are not just flooded, we are deluged, and already some of the finest celebrants we have had in this country, have left the profession, in despair at what has occurred. The repercussions:- 

  1. diminishing skills,
  2. unsuitable people admitted
  3. intelligent and skilled are driven out of the profession,
  4. increased the number of hillbilly-amateur ceremonies, and
  5. a savage over-competition with predictable destructive results.

This is what is happening - as we speak - every car now can become a taxi.

As Gilbert and Sullivan would (actually did) say

In short, whoever you may be,
To this conclusion you'll agree,
When every one is somebodee,
Then no one's anybody!

The current destructive situation
Nationally Recognised Training

In more recent times they have inflicted us with Nationally Recognised Training, and although I have found some wonderful people under its umbrella, it has to be said that it is a leaderless, totally exploitable, insanely bureaucratic, greed-is-good capitalist system of so-called “education” which has resulted in a cash-for-certificates group of so-called trainers. The abuse of teaching the minimal content, with the least assessment, for the most money, is not confined to celebrancy. There are articles regarding exploitation by Registered Training Organisations in the Melbourne Age every second day lately - mostly regarding the exploitation of foreign students.

As I said, I want to make it clear that there are some excellent and conscientious educationists in this system  but my impression is that they are in the minority. The College of Celebrancy cannot compete, we are too dedicated to quality, and, in our own way, we fail people - yes, even if they have paid. Tragically, even in some Universities, the word is out that fee-paying students must pass - whether they deserve to or not. Those of you who hold  a certificate from such a “trainer” know that you have the educational equivalent of the sub-prime mortgage.

The current destructive situation
Destroying our identity: muddying the statistics
They have jumbled us up with clergy in an attempt to destroy our identity, and then muddied the statistics so that our achievements are no longer obvious.

The current destructive situation
Funeral Directors set our fees

The greed of the funeral directors, and their control of our professional fees, has made the funeral celebrant into a serf who must obey the Lord of the Manor or not get work. In all solemnity, I ask the younger members present today to fight this and beat it. I attempted to and paid dearly for my efforts. I simply assert we are professionals in our own right, we are entitled to set our own fees -including a reasonable hourly rate. We cannot perform the funerals, to which our society is entitled, unless the Funeral Celebrant can make ends meet and put food on the table. This is a tale full of horror stories and our country is entitled to better.

The current destructive situation
Secular people not represented in public ceremonies.

Finally I will simply mention that for 35 years we have attempted to represent secular people, the majority of our population, in public ceremonies of joy and grief and have been successfully blocked on every occasion. In a multicultural society which has evolved since Murphy’s time you can be a Buddhist, you can be a Muslim to, you can be a Jew, a religious person of any kind and you will be represented. If you are not a member of any one of these mutually exclusive religions it is almost as if you are not a person, a citizen, at all.

Job satisfaction
Yet despite all this, including our graph of success, to be a celebrant of good ceremonies is the most satisfying occupation one could imagine. The rewards at the coalface are immense. If you do a really good ceremony people take it within themselves for a lifetime and they never stop thanking you. People at whose ceremonies I officiated thirty years ago still bowl up to me and tell me it was one of the wonderful days of their lives.

Your sacred trust is to fill the deep human need created by the vacuum which is the result of declining church attendances since the 1960s. It is real need that, quite often, people do not recognise consciously

Rites of Passage: What they mean and what they communicate.
What you need as a civil celebrant is a profound intellectual grasp, and a deep emotional appreciation, of what Rites of passage, rituals and ceremonies mean to the individual person. Early in July my friend and guru Roger Pryke died at the age of 88. When he lectured us in the 1960s in psychology he explained, in the clearest terms, that sanity and mental balance depend on the esteem of significant others in our lives. How do we know that others esteem us?

Example: the hens’ night: the gain to the individual
One of the main ways is through ceremony. Let me give you one example. I met a bride of mine in the supermarket about a week after her marriage. We discussed the ceremony and its aftermath, in which context she told me of her hens’ night. A friend had organised the event. The organising friend placed the bride-to-be on a chair at the centre point the of the semi- circle of her attending. One by one each friend had to stand up and read a prepared speech on why they liked her, what her friendship had meant to them, and why they wished her luck in her marriage. Each one then walked from her chair, presented her with her hen’s night present, and embraced her with affection. Girlfriend after girlfriend went through the same ritual. My bride friend told me that she was amazed at what she heard. This simple ceremony had communicated something very constructive to her. Her self-esteem and self-confidence had increased by several decibels. She told me the ceremony had given her a new feeling about herself, one she would carry the rest of her life. Every ceremony you perform should do something like that.

Example: the wedding: the bonding of the couple, the families, the friends.(Social)
The boost that ceremony gives to the individual is not the only way to look at it. Ceremony is also the way we have created to psychologically bring human beings together into cohesive social groups. I am very conscious, as are some of you, that when I officiate at a wedding, I am not only bringing the bride and groom together, I am bringing together two families, two sets of friends, and strengthening relationships with everyone present at the ceremony.

Example: Graduation: we acquire a cultural status within the society
I am also conscious of what we do for the culture. Ceremony not only changes the way we think about ourselves, but also changes the way that others think about us. The emotional power of a graduation ceremony assists us to not only know that we have graduated, and to feel we are, but there is more - society, that great bunch of people out there, knows and feels we are as well. The wedding ceremony helps us to feel married.
I once got a very distressing call from a friend who had attended a marriage ceremony by one of the very worst kind of celebrants. He was a legalist and the wedding was over in a matter of minutes. My friend told me that the bride was sitting beside her in her whites weeping her heart out, because the celebrant was so bad that she didn’t feel married. I was asked could I come over, and redo the ceremony to alleviate her friend’s distress.

Ceremonies: Agents of change.
Those of you on the College of Celebrancy course will know the emphasis we put on the insights of Arnold van Gennep the famous social anthropologist, who wrote the classic work “The Rites of Passage”. His analysis of ceremony as separation, transition, and incorporation into a new state is only effectively achieved through the cultural construct or procedure we describe as ceremony. I have personally observed the profound psychological change, which takes place. Couples feel married, and the world views them as married, by our construct. Reality, to every human who lives, is in their mind, their psyche, their unaware sub-conscious convictions, and their own way of thinking about themselves. Ceremony is the means of penetrating the human psyche and changing it.

The Purpose of ceremony: to communicate love, appreciation, esteem, and/or admiration:
The purpose of ceremony is to communicate love, appreciation, esteem, and/or admiration. The purpose of ceremony is to assist in adjusting to change, to confer status, to change status and to emotionally achieve important psychological change. In the last few weeks my friend Ron Barassi was made Victorian of the Year in a ceremony at government house in. My friend Doctor Val Noone vice-chairman of the College of Celebrancy Advisory Council was given the Order of Australia, which he will receive in a ceremony later on in the year. They both say the same thing — how strengthened they are, how chuffed they are, about being so acknowledged.


The purpose of Ceremony: to express, transmit, and reinforce important values
The purpose of ceremony is to express, transmit, and reinforce important values held by the group and the society. One element of life which I believe many of us are not really well aware of is how sensitive we are to to the opinions of others. Even if people we don’t know think badly about us, it hurts us -- sometimes to the point of suicide.


Ceremony: raising awareness and appreciation of the arts in our culture
My final point in this section is how we must be very aware of how the visual and performing arts strengthen the transforming power of ceremony, and how ceremonies by civil celebrants, raise awareness of the visual and performing arts in our culture. If I may go back to Lionel Murphy, I witnessed a scene in the early days of Murphy’s understanding of the importance of the arts in our cultural ceremonies. Doctor Bill Cook was the president of the Rationalist Society of Australia. Lionel, as was his habit, turned up at one of Bill’s weddings. (he did this quite often to the early celebrants!).
Bill said to Lionel
“How did I go? Lionel?”
Replied Lionel, “for God’s sake Bill put some poetry into it”.
What?” said Bill, “poetry, Lionel, in a civil ceremony?”
 “Of course, Bill, why not, why not?”

Why the visual arts and the performing arts in ceremony.
So the question is why the visual arts and the performing arts in ceremony. In the inauguration of Barack Obama the ceremony was embedded in the framework of the singing of Aretha Franklin, of the cello of Yo-Yo Marr, of the chorus of the San Francisco Boys choir, of the poetry of Elizabeth Alexander, and of the music of the Navy band.

 In every ceremony the elements of integrated beauty, music, poetry, choreography and symbolism, purposely and skilfully integrated into the ceremony’s theme,  emotionally embed, imprint and sink the totality of the event into the brain, into the memory, into the psyche, and most importantly, into the subconscious.

The different expressions of beauty, visual and performance, have a varying emotional power with different persons -- but each element always has some power.

Behavioural effects last a lifetime.
That is why a really good ceremony, which touches the depth of the person can have behavioural effects, which last a lifetime.

If you are a student of the International College of Celebrancy and you cannot explain to Dr Chris Watson why it is better to perform a good well-rehearsed ceremony in contrast to a mediocre one, you fail, no matter how much money you have paid.

Pallotti Conferences and the whole range of Ceremonies
In the history of our program we have come a long way.  We started  not knowing what we had to do, clumsily finding our way developing the marriage ceremony. Then we branched out into Namings and Funerals in a sea of controversy. In the 90s, we held a series of six conferences, AFCC conferences, at Pallotti College outside of Warburton, Victoria, where we expanded our possibilities into the whole range of milestone ceremonies, from Housewarmings to Business openings, to Adolescence ceremonies, meaningful Birthdays, Menopause, Cronings, -- you name it.

Problems: Administrative-Educational
We still have problems. Control by public servants who are not celebrants, non-celebrants teaching other non-celebrants how to be celebrants, lack of public awareness,  de-sensitised politicians,the legalistic mentality, and many in the public wanting to take up the time of skilled people, without even paying them babysitters’ rates.

What I ask of you
As your founding President and as a Life member and as your invited speaker
I have some serious requests directed to you, the committee and the members of the AFCC.
Hold fast to the vision of the founder Lionel Murphy
Stand firm against those who would seek to destroy us, speak Truth to Power
Develop a clear agenda to preserve our identity as civil celebrants,
Enhance our professionalism,
Encourage genuine training, expose the fraudulent
Develop a policy which encourages fees sufficient to keep the truly skilled.
Be alert to avoid the power struggles which have destroyed our effectiveness in the past Elect only those with awareness, intelligence and sensitivity.

Here are the central propositions.
People need ceremony for psychological balance and mental health.
Society needs ceremony for connection, bonding and community.
Australian culture needs ceremony for rich quality of life and artistic expression.

The Australian civil celebrant program is unique in all the western world.
Value it! Treasure it !
In the United States they grasp the idea but not deeply enough.
In the United Kingdom they are just starting to understand our contribution

The new celebrants -- our special message to you.
New celebrants -- our special message to you.
Now you are celebrants, educate and train yourself properly.
Never do a ceremony to “gain experience”.
-- victim-based learning is not moral in this context.
In the first ceremonies you do, have an experienced member with you, both for the rehearsal and the ceremony, and make sure they are paid properly.
I urge you, work together, go to each other’s rehearsals and ceremonies, assist each other, critique each other.
I beg you, do not officiate at marriages “for fun” - it is a serious task - no matter what the client seems to be saying.

When you are ready to be entrusted with the ceremony,  know that it is a sacred trust,
know that you are dealing with people’s lives.
Success in a ceremony is in the hundreds of details -- get it as right as you can
-- the humans will flood you with appreciation
-- more importantly, the visionary ghost of Lionel Murphy will glow in your soul.