A wedding ceremony of your dreams? Regardless of the number of guests, you probably yearn for a personal and intimate affair. How about being married by someone who knows you and can say just the right things as you embark on your great beginning? Being married by an officiant who is a friend or family member seems to be such a sweet idea.
Unfortunately – and surprisingly – for a regular person, officiating a wedding in Ontario is not simple. One needs an officiant license – a license to perform marriages – and it is almost impossible to get it on a whim. Rather, it is a special power that comes with a particular job or a life’s calling. And you certainly need to respect those rules to ensure that your marriage will be legal in Ontario. However, you could have the special person of your choice pair up with the ordained officiant to bring you the best of both worlds.
How? And should you?
This is a long-overdue post to demystify ‘non-official’ officiants in Ontario.
Here’s the source of the confusion. Trusty Google will tell you that in Quebec, anyone can be an officiant. In some parts of the US, just like here, one has to be a priest to be an officiant – but it’s super easy to get ordained just for the purpose of becoming an officiant. But Google never went to law school, and at the end of the day you want to be legally married. You know how everyone elopes to Vegas because it’s easy to get married there? Regardless of where you are from, it’s the laws at the place where you get married that matter (and if you’re not getting married at the place where you live, you’d also need to make sure that your home province or country recognizes marriages from over there). If you are getting married in Toronto, GTA or anywhere else in Ontario, you have to make sure you follow the rules that apply in Ontario.
As much as we try to give you accurate information, just like with anything on the Internet, don’t blindly trust what you read here. Maybe we didn’t go to law school either. We give you a starting point, based on our research in 2018, and then it’s your turn to ask questions and make phone calls.
Qualified Wedding Officiants in Ontario
In Ontario, only the following people can officiate a wedding:
- Judges and Justices of Peace. If you want to know the difference, judges in Ontario wear a scarlet / burgundy sash, whereas justices of peace wear a green sash.
- Employees in city clerk offices in various municipalities (ie, each municipality of the GTA would have one). That’s the people you would see conduct city hall weddings.
- Priests, ministers, rabbis, etc – ie, clergy – who are registered with the province and keep their license in good standing. Some people don’t know that members of the clergy do not automatically qualify as wedding officiants. For that reason, it is always a good idea to check the regularly updated list of registered religious officiants in Ontario. Alternatively, you may call the Ontario Office of the Registrar General (toll free at 1-800-461-2156 or in Toronto at 416-326-1234) and request verbal confirmation that their officiant’s license is in good standing.
None of the above?
Great, but you want to have someone very important to you marry you, and they are neither a judge, nor a city clerk, nor clergy. It’s not impossible, but you will have to compromise. Here are some things that people have done:
- Have a quick legal ceremony in a city hall just before the wedding, with only the minimum guests (you will need witnesses), so that you’d be legally married as far as Ontario is concerned. Then you can do whatever you want on the actual wedding day.
- Find and book an officiant who will attend your ceremony and ensure all the legalities are done, while letting someone else officiate the ceremony.
- It is tricky, costly, and time-consuming, but is possible for a layperson to become an officiant, and that is to become ordained as ‘clergy’. More on this follows.
Becoming ordained as a wedding officiant in Ontario.
Some religious and even non-religious institutions, which are officially recognized in Canada as churches, allow laypersons to follow a certain path to getting ordained and become wedding officiants. However, this route is fairly expensive and time-consuming, and not something to be taken lightly.
Non-religious option is offered by the Humanist Association. One has to understand and subscribe to the Humanist principles and be a member of the Humanist Society for a year or more, and one has to pass an interview and specialized training. The training will cost around $500 (as of 2018), and will be in addition to membership fees and additional dues.
Another fairly popular option is to go through a Christian church called Celebrating Life Ministries. A candidate officiant is not required to conduct a religious ceremony, but has to agree with Christian values. The church offers full ordainment and limited one-off licenses to those who complete its mandatory training ($425 for the temporary license and $625 for the full ordainment, in addition to other dues).
These are, of course, not the only options – there are many official churches in Canada. However, watch out for institutions that present themselves as churches on their website – some may be registered churches in the US but not in Canada, and others are, plain and simple, a scam. As a side note, you’d never go wrong with verifying the credentials of your officiant. Just scroll up for a helpful link.
No? Take ‘no’ for an answer.
Let’s look at it from the perspective of the friend you asked to officiate your wedding. The costs and the time required to become an officiant, as well as the requirement to formally associate yourself with a strongly opinionated institution – there are many reasons why your friend may be reluctant to become ordained only for the purpose of officiating your wedding. But these are not the only concerns that may arise in their mind.
A wedding ceremony requires someone who can speak with authority, grapple with serious issues, and tactfully deal with others’ emotions. Professional officiants have the distance and the experience; they can give advice without sounding preachy; they can be serious but not somber, they can find the right words to support the overwhelmed bride and the speechless groom.
Even if your friend has no problem speaking in front of a crowd, most people are uncomfortable talking about serious emotional matters, and devolve either into tears or into levity. Doing an amazing wedding ceremony for two special people is a big responsibility. Your friend wants the best for you. If it means them saying no, they are doing what’s best for you.
Don’t take it personally, and make sure that you plan for this contingency. Begin talking to them early enough, give them an opportunity to think it through, and manage your timeline carefully so you are not left without an officiant.
Helping an inexperienced officiant.
Of course, if they agree, this is really awesome. You guys will have the most special and unique ceremony!
What can you do to set them up for success?
- Write the ceremony script and discuss everybody’s thoughts on the matter. Together you could devise a completely custom ceremony you will love – but only if you put in the time. Don’t forget to check any legal requirements for the ceremony script. For example, using the official languages of Canada is not required – any language works, as long as both bride and groom understand it (or have an interpreter).
- Discuss attire. The officiant needs to look formal yet different from the wedding party, and they need to look good for the photos. Discuss their props – for example, how will they hold the script? A black binder works well. What else do you need them to have at the ready? For example, their binder can hold your vows, inspirational readings, or kleenex.
- Think about sound equipment. You want your guests to hear every word of your unique ceremony! A conversational tone, albeit amplified, is much more engaging and intimate than, you know, yelling. Although to most people, speaking with a microphone for the first time feels odd, with a bit of practice, everybody will get comfortable.
- Practice. An experienced officiant naturally guides everyone on the logistics, and you don’t want to learn the hard way how valuable that is. Smooth entrances, camera-friendly positioning, voice command, familiarity with the script. Good news is, with some effort, you can compensate. Do at least one rehearsal, with microphones, in front of audience. Have pictures taken, so that everyone can anticipate where to stand or move during picture-taking. Ask your wedding professionals for advice.
- The officiant has to be one of the first guests to arrive at the venue. Be accessible before the ceremony in case anything last-minute comes up.
- Ensure someone brings the marriage license to the venue, and safeguards it throughout the wedding day. Marriage license and cards, two most materially valuable things at a wedding, are something bride and groom are NEVER to be entrusted with on the day of their wedding! Finally, be sure to have your marriage license filed, correctly and on time.