Civil celebrants ‘doing it for love, not money’ amid calls for sector review

Posted April 07, 2019 06:15:00

Wayne Rees will wear just about anything to a wedding, although he draws the line at going nude.

Key points:

  • Civil marriage ceremonies make up 78 per cent of Australian weddings
  • The peak industry group says there are so many celebrants, it’s hard for them to make a living
  • It wants a moratorium on new celebrants

In his 25 years as a marriage celebrant in far north Queensland, he has wed couples while dressed in budgie smugglers, as Santa Claus and even as a Jedi knight.

“This couple were Star Wars fanatics and they said they always wanted to be married by a Jedi knight,” he said.

“I’ve been a warlord, I married Dr Who once … I just do whatever they want. As long as I’m wearing something, I’m happy.”

Mr Rees has been involved in Cairns’ theatre scene for five decades and has a vast costume collection.

“These two rock and rollers came to me one time and I always ask my couples, ‘What do you want me to wear?’ and they said as a joke, ‘an Elvis Presley suit’.

“So I just wrote down on my form, Elvis Presley suit, and they said, ‘No, no, no, we’re joking. Where would you find an Elvis Presley suit?’

“And I said, ‘Oh, I’ve got one downstairs’.”

Mr Rees’s mother was the first civil celebrant in Cairns and since taking over the mantle, he has wed 3,648 couples at last count.

While he is yet to strip off completely for a wedding, he said at least one celebrant had done so at a nudist resort at Mossman, two hours north of Cairns.

“There was a couple getting married in the nude,” he said.

“Luckily they didn’t ask me but they asked a few celebrants — I think they asked 12 celebrants and four of them said they’d do it.

“That’s the beauty of celebrants. We cater for everybody.

“We’re very lucky up here in north Queensland, we’ve got some great celebrants and they’ll always go the extra mile to do what the customer wants.”

Peak body calls for a moratorium on new celebrants

Before civil marriage celebrants were introduced in Australia in 1973, couples who did not want a religious ceremony had to tie the knot in a registry office.

Civil marriage ceremonies overtook religious ones for the first time in 1999 and now account for the vast majority of Australian weddings — 78 per cent of the 112,954 registered in 2017.

But with nearly 9,000 civil celebrants solemnising an average of about 10 marriages per year, it remains difficult for them to earn a proper living.

A 2016 survey by the Coalition of Celebrant Associations (CoCA) found less than 2 per cent of celebrants who responded earned more than $50,000 from weddings, before tax and expenses.

It estimated more than three-quarters made less than $9,500 per year.

CoCA secretary Sonia Collins said it was a problem.

“A lot of people are not doing many weddings,” she said.

“It is really quite a small number who do over 100 weddings, which we estimate is about the equivalent of average earnings.

“Originally the aim was that civil celebrancy would become recognised as a full profession … whereas at the moment it’s probably much more of an add-on or a sort-of hobby for many.”

She said while some celebrants were happy just doing weddings for family and friends, nearly half of the CoCA survey respondents said they wanted more work.

“The public needs to have choice and needs to be able to easily access a person on the day they want to get married and so on, but on the other hand we do feel that there are too many celebrants,” Ms Collins said.

“We feel perhaps a moratorium on new celebrants would be helpful so that the [marriage celebrants] program could be reviewed.

“It’s been going for 40-odd years since 1973, it’s changed a lot since those original days and it would really be a good idea to review the whole program to see where we’re at and where we should be going.”

Doing it ‘for the love’

Celebrants must complete a Certificate IV in Celebrancy, pay a $600 application fee, an annual $240 registration fee and undertake five hours of compulsory professional development each year.

Ms Collins said most celebrants were in it for love, not money, but they should be given more consideration.

“There’s no wedding without us so we do have a very important role,” she said.

“Most of us go into it because we really like people and like ceremony … it is a vocation. You wouldn’t do it if you didn’t like it.”

Thousands of weddings later, Mr Rees is as enthusiastic about his job as ever.

“I enjoy it too much,” he said.

“Every wedding is different. Every wedding is exciting and something always happens.”

Mr Rees has sat with a couple sobbing on the phone to their parents after eloping, had guests perform a dramatic beach rescue during a ceremony, and seen his fair share of fainting grooms.

“I’m good at catching people now. Over the years I’ve caught a few who’ve fainted and I’m getting better at it,” he said.

While he loved weddings, he worried the occasion sometimes generated too much pressure, with some couples left paying it off several years later.

“It gets so expensive, weddings, and it’s not necessary. It can just get out of hand,” he said.

“Sometimes the loveliest weddings are just the bride and groom.

“It’s very privileged to be part of someone’s special day and they remember you for years and years.”

Topics: marriage, religion-and-beliefs, cairns-4870, mossman-4873

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