Many couples would love to be married by a friend or family member. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, it’s not easy to do in Ontario. 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.
In Ontario, only the following people can be officiants:
- 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 let’s say 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.
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, 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.
Would you officiate a wedding?
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 people one really cares about is a big responsibility. Your friend wants the best for you. If it means that they’ll say no, it’s in your best interest.
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.
How to help an inexperienced officiant.
If they agree, this is really awesome. Do your part to set them up for success.
- Make the time to write the ceremony script and discuss everybody’s thoughts on the matter. Your officiant friend does not have a set way of doing things, and 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. Remember that, for example, using the official languages of Canada is not required – you could have your ceremony in any language as long as both bride and groom understand it (or have an interpreter).
- Discuss what the officiant will wear. They need 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 you need them to have at the ready? For example, if the bride and groom are reading their vows, or if your ceremony will include inspirational readings, the officiant’s binder is the perfect place to keep the notes until they are needed.
- Figure out what sound equipment will be necessary. You want your guests to actually hear every word of your perfectly unique ceremony! Some people who have no practice speaking with a microphone feel that their voice sounds artificial or recorded. With a bit of practice, everybody will get comfortable with the sound amplification. A conversational tone, albeit amplified, is much more engaging and intimate than, you know, yelling.
- Spend extra time practicing at the location. Do at least one rehearsal, with some audience and your microphones. Ask someone to take pictures, so that the officiant can take a look at them and anticipate where to stand or move during picture-taking. Practice your entrances, because the wedding party will not have an experienced officiant to guide them on the logistics. Ask your wedding planner-coordinator, if you have one, or your photographer for pointers.
- The officiant has to be one of the first guests to arrive at the venue. Ensure you are accessible to them before the ceremony in case anything last-minute comes up.
- Ensure someone brings the marriage license to the venue for the wedding, and then make arrangements for its safekeeping during the wedding day. Bride and groom are NEVER to be entrusted with valuable documents on the day of their wedding. Finally, be sure to have it filed, correctly and on time. It is usually the officiant’s job to do so.