Are you clear on the difference between celebrants and registrars?

This is often the first question I ask the couples I meet at wedding fairs and anyone else who asks me about my job.  Some people are very clear on the distinction; some have never heard of a celebrant at all, but – despite the fact that we’ve been on the scene for quite a while now – the most common answer is still: ‘Well, not really, to be honest.’.  This piece aims to explain three key differences and how a celebrant-led ceremony can offer you something truly unique!

No. 1 – Legalities

The first and most fundamental difference is that only a registrar can legally register your marriage, as is required by law; an independent celebrant can’t do this (yet; proposals for marriage reform are being considered which may change this).  

What a lot of people don’t realise, however, is how small the legal part of a ‘standard’ marriage ceremony actually is.  To be legally married (having given the required notice in advance), all you need to do is a) declare that you are free to marry and b) confirm that you ‘take x’ to be your lawful, wedded other half.  There are two or three different wordings that cover this, but even the longest option means saying just 41 words each and they’re all about the ‘contract’ you are entering into and not about the way you feel about each other.

These legal statements can be made in a simple, no-frills, 15-20 minute appointment at a registry office (RO) and – in my part of the country – will cost you around £65.*  You do have to say the few words in front of two witnesses (in addition to the registrar), so you can ask a couple of parents, siblings or friends along for that purpose or – if you want to save family and friends for the fun part later – you can simply ask people who happen to be passing (or even another couple in the waiting room!) if they can spare the time to help out.

Once the legalities are done and dusted (or beforehand if it suits you better; either way round is fine) – you then have complete freedom to enjoy a unique and joyous celebrant-led wedding ceremony, incorporating all the beautiful vows, music, readings, themes, rituals, symbols, and romantic little touches your imagination can come up with! 

Some people may think separating the legal part from the rest of the ceremony is a bit odd, but I like to draw the comparison with the other life events we have to register legally.  When we register a child’s birth and name, we don’t take everyone to the RO to have a celebration around that legal process; we go and sign on the dotted line and then have a naming ceremony or baptism separately at some later date.  And we don’t have a registrar come out to register a death while we’re having a funeral, so why are we so stuck on the idea that couples have to make their personal vows of love and commitment to each other at the same time and place as they recite the few (distinctly emotion-free) words necessary to record their marriage as a legal fact?  The simple answer is, of course: ‘because that’s the way it’s always been done’; a reason we British are far too inclined to accept as an excuse for resisting change!

No. 2 – Flexibility

Once you accept the principle of separating the legal and the celebratory aspects of marriage, we come to the second important difference between a celebrant and a registrar: there are no limits (apart from public decency and criminal law!) on when, where or how a celebrant can conduct your ceremony.  A registrar, however, is constrained by a) time, b) place and c) rules.


  • Celebrant-led ceremonies can be as long and elaborate as you like and most celebrants will never accept more than one booking on the same day, so any little hitches or delays are no problem.  Most will also be quite happy to lead a ceremony in the evening or on a Sunday and will charge no additional fee for evenings or weekends.
  • Registrar ceremony slots are a fixed length and they will almost certainly be conducting more than one ceremony on the same day, even if your wedding is taking place at a licensed venue, rather than at the RO itself.  Consequently, there is a limit to what can be included in the ceremony in the time available and over-running is not an option.  In addition, they are unlikely to offer their services outside ‘normal working hours’ and – if they do – will almost certainly charge you more for the privilege.


  • A celebrant can conduct their type of ceremony anywhere: licensed or not; indoors or outdoors; public or private.  You can still have it at a posh venue if you want to, but if you’d rather make your vows to each other at the beach/park/pub/festival where you met or in your own/someone else’s back garden, you can do that instead!
  • A registrar can only carry out the legal part of your marriage at a registry office or at a venue licensed for that purpose.


  • A registrar has to follow the rules about what can be said or played at a legal wedding ceremony; most importantly by the requirement that there can be nothing religious included, which extends to any music played; readings given and to your vows.  Exactly how ‘religious’ is interpreted is left to the discretion of each Chief Registrar, so there can be different attitudes in different areas, but – for example – you are unlikely to be allowed to walk in to ‘Ave Maria’; to have Christmas carols at a winter wedding or – in some places – even tracks like Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’, Alexandra Burke’s ‘Hallelujah’ or others with titles or lyrics that could be interpreted as religious in nature.
  • There are no rules or restrictions around celebrant-led ceremonies (except that we cannot make our ceremony appear to be a legal marriage, so can’t incorporate the legal wording or anything too similar).  You may not have wanted (or been allowed to have) a church wedding, but if one of you has a faith or you come from different faith/cultural backgrounds that you would like to honour, an independent celebrant will be more than happy to reflect that in the way they design your ceremony.

No. 3 – The Personal Touch

Last, but most definitely not least: you will develop a relationship with your celebrant during the preparations for your wedding, whereas you may not even meet your registrar before the big day.

In order to create a ceremony that is unique to you, a celebrant needs to get to know you and to understand your personalities and what makes you tick.  You will have at least one quite lengthy, face-to-face (if possible) meeting with them several months before the wedding, before they start work on the ceremony and you will stay in regular touch with them after that, as they draft, amend and refine your ceremony script until you are completely happy with it.  By the time the day arrives, you will be working with someone you know and trust to deliver what you want.

Registrars are unable to operate in the same way and their process does not require it.  You will see someone in person when you give notice of your intention to marry, but the format of that meeting is very formal and they have no need to engage with you directly after that, other than by email, to approve your choice of music and readings and your vows (if they let you write your own).  The scripts offered for their ceremonies are not written individually (you may get a choice of two or three, but they don’t differ greatly) and you are unlikely even to know who will turn up to lead the wedding on the day, so you will have no idea of their personality or style in advance.

I hope all of the above helps clarify some of the things to consider when deciding on how to put your wedding together, but please get in touch via my website if you have any questions – I’d love to hear from you!

*(My research suggests that you will not find the 15-minute, legalities-only marriage option too prominently advertised on local council websites and some now offer the service only at one or two of the registry offices under their jurisdiction, thus making it more difficult to access.  I shall leave you to draw your own conclusions as to why this might be, but the important thing to remember is that it is possible and you are entitled to ask for this service.)

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