What does “in the presence of” mean?

Towards the end of each year registered marriage celebrants get a letter from the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, inviting them to apply to continue in the role.

Appointments are made the following March and in recent years the letters informing us we’ve been reappointed have included warnings about sharing duties with non-registered celebrants.

Anyone can officiate at a funeral, but if a couple wish to be legally married (or civilly unioned) they need a registered celebrant to officiate. The letter from the Registrar says that means more than just being there and signing the paper work while someone else does takes the service.

Now a court case in Christchurch has raised a question over exactly what the Marriage Act requires:

The wording of the Marriage Act will be put to the test in an unusual trial that started today in Christchurch District Court, where a marriage celebrant and his trainee deny performing an unlawful wedding.

Defence counsel James Rapley told the court legal discussion would be needed later about the Act’s requirement for a marriage to be “solemnised in the presence” of a marriage celebrant.

Being a celebrant used to be regarded as a community service but many now treat it as a career and that’s mostly why the problem over non-registered celebrants has arisen.

I do only a handful of services a year and don’t charge but have no problem with others who do. Agreeing to officiate usually requires making a commitment to a date months in advance and good celebrants put a lot of time and effort into their preparation. Although a civil service doesn’t take long, a celebrant has to arrive well before it starts and can easily tie up a couple of hours or more on the day. There’s nothing wrong with asking to be paid for all that.

However, not everyone who wants to be a celebrant is able to. The number of celebrants is restricted and not everyone who applies to be registered is accepted. Some people have set up business anyway, done the preparation, taken the service and had a registered celebrant on hand to do the paper work.

The registrar has been telling us that’s not acceptable. I’ve never been asked to share officiating duties with anyone else but it was discussed at a celebrants’ conference and wasn’t unusual in cities.

 If the case before the court confirms that “in the presence of” means more than just being there and signing the register a whole lot of people who thought they were married may find they’re not.

Whatever the outcome of the case it’s also an opportunity to discuss whether there should be a change so that anyone who meets the requirements to be a celebrant ought to be able to be one.

There are good reasons for needing to safeguard the quality of celebrants but I’m not convinced there’s any need to restrict the quantity.

8 Responses to What does “in the presence of” mean?

  1. Andrei says:

    If the case before the court confirms that “in the presence of” means more than just being there and signing the register a whole lot of people who thought they were married may find they’re not.

    What difference would that make in these enlightened times of no fault divorce and there mere act of co-habitating for a couple of years incurring all the rights, responsibilities and liabilities that go with marriage.

    Indeed marriage, which was once a Holy Mystery or Sacrament is now a hollow thing that lasts just as long as both “partners” agree it should.

    Your linked story just highlights the farce and raises questions like – Why would you ask a Funeral director to conduct your marriage? And if upon finding he wasn’t entitled to do so by law why wouldn’t you find someone else rather than going through with it with him and a stand-in to sign the papers?

    Whatever happened to that old “till death do us part thing?

  2. G says:

    I dont know the circumstances but I am aware that he is ill, has an ill child and is still a dedicated community volunteer, always being pressed to assist people (in his capacity as a minister and also as one of the few maori speakers in chch, he is constantly required at ceremonies around the lower south island). perhaps he is stretched his time too much in this situation.

    in terms of the question asked, there is no good policy reason to cap the number of celebrants.

  3. Adolf Fiinkensein says:

    “(or civilly unioned)”

    Dear oh dear, HP. Surely you mean ‘civilly united?”

    To be civilly unioned would require there to be a shop steward on hand.

  4. Gravedodger says:

    My ol granpappy said to me over 60 years ago that most start each day with a 4 to 1 chance to gain knowledge, two eyes two ears vs one tongue. I didn’t know you had to be “approved” to conduct a “marriage” but not for a funeral. I presume that is because there is little dissatisfaction from the central figure in the latter.
    Ol Geoffry is a good bugger IMO, did the honors for Mum’s and Dad’s last rites and was an above average after dinner speaker at a Lions Club I visited. He demystified and humanised the hidden moments of his primarary job of last hurrahs, with a dash of appropriate humor and a short plug for a prepaid to close. Don’t think any takers though.
    I tend to support Andrei’s comment on the so much less formal state of “holy matrimony” in present times.
    I never questioned the padre on his creds on that day in October 1963, maybe we have been living in sin (always makes me smile that), for all those years. Gee the thought moves the blood a little, naughty boy. Get a grip.

    The current case highlights a modern cradle, or should that be bridle(al), to grave phenomena.

  5. Andrew says:

    I fail to see why a couple (of adults) need anyone’s permission to be married. The only criteria for a celerant should be that the couple trust him to run a ceremony to their standard.
    I see no reason for a government to be involved in either approving celebrants or registering those who “jump the broom.”

  6. homepaddock says:

    Adolf – very droll.

    Andrei, GD & Andrew – marriage laws were originally designed to protect women from being taken advantage of (that’s why there had to be at least three days notice and the ceremony had to be held in a public place).

    Then other laws were introduced which related to marriage eg division of property after death or divorce. The Relationships Property Act largely makes them redundant now.

    The Marraige Act has few requirements – you need two witnesses, the ceremony has to be held in the place nominated on the licence, at some stage the bride and groom have to say “I X take you Y to be my husband/wife”or words to similar effect and it has to be done in the presence of a licensed celebrant.

    Funeral celebrants don’t have to be licensed because there’s no legal requirement to have a funeral and therefore no legal requirement for how and by whom one is conducted.

  7. Andrei says:

    Ele – and God’s Laws were made to prevent people
    i.e Both men and women from being taken advantage of.

    And unsurprisingly it is in countries with a Christian heritage that women are looked after – you doubt me, think of the way women are treated in Saudi Arabia or Somalia say.

    And all the requirements for marriage you state existed in Canon ie Church law long long before the State got its ugly claws into the marriage business. In fact long long before our modern conception of the State even existed.

    The reason why women in the west get a far better deal than their counterparts in other parts of the world (Saudi Arabia anyone) is because of this Christian legacy.

    Now the State that has turned a sacred institution “Holy Matrimony” into something quite profane “Civil Unions”.

    Something that should be sanctified by God has morphed into something granted by the State and hence something about as meaningful as a politicians promise.

    Ie Not worth much and it shows if you think about it.

  8. G says:

    Democracy has far more to do with womens’ rights than Christianity does.

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