Civil Celebrant Program under Threat

This article of mine was published in the Australian Humanist – Summer 2015. Since Phillip Ruddock made his statement on QandAClive Palmer has come up with a plan that sounds very much the same. Here is the full text of my article.

AH_HSV_CMC-Article-TopCIVIL CELEBRANT PROGRAM UNDER THREAT

The unique Australian Civil Celebrant Program was and is a great social and political initiative. For over forty years it has enabled secular humanists to free themselves from religious connections. Unfortunately, in the last ten years this program has been partially destroyed, and certainly greatly diminished by hostile (religious?) public servants and politicians.

The very existence of the civil celebrant is now is under serious threat. It is close to possible annihilation. If the enemies of secularism do succeed in finishing it off, it will go without bang or whimper – ceasing to exist while still under the radar.

This possible death sentence was casually dropped in the ABCs “Q and A” program some weeks ago. In answer to a question, the panellist, Phillip Ruddock QC, MP stated, as an aside, that if gay marriage was approved by the Australian parliament “perhaps we should adopt the French model for all marriages.” The remark went unnoticed.

The “French model” basically means that there is a central office, like the 1973 Sydney Registry Office, wherein a couple records their marriage in a computer or a book, and goes away with a receipt.(1)

Mr Ruddock did point out that if anyone, perchance, wished to have a ceremony thereafter, they could proceed with their receipt to “a church or similar venue” and have one.

Mr Ruddock seemed to have some authority from the federal Liberal cabinet (then under Tony Abbott) to advise on the Marriage Act. So I wrote to Mr Ruddock. I sought to dissuade him from this path.(2) Space does not allow me to repeat the full letter here but in summary I pointed out:-

  1. That secular people (Humanists) have emotional, psychological, social, and artistic needs and feelings just as everyone else does. Therefore, we need ceremony just as much as our religious forbears did or our religious contemporaries do.
  1. That the civil celebrant program had almost embedded itself in the Australian secular psyche but, just as it was having substantial success, in 2003 it was cut off at the knees.
  2. Since 2003 the civil celebrant program has been seriously weakened by:-
  • the appointment of 9000 unnecessary celebrants (3)
  • the encouragement of dodgy “trainers”, who knew nothing and taught even less (4)

(c) The legal transference of appointment and administrative power from the federal Attorney-General to a public servant. (5)

(d) the diversion of the program from ceremony quality to an intensive preoccupation with legal trivia – most of which was erroneous, unimportant, and dishonest.

(e) The loss of our honoured title as Civil Marriage Celebrant. In 2003 we became jumbled up with the clergy of small churches, given the same title as them (Commonwealth Authorised Marriage Celebrants), and, after protest, were given the sub title “those who choose to do civil ceremonies”.

In short I told Mr Ruddock that I was aware that many people would not look on a celebrant as a sufficiently desirable ceremony provider, once a couple were told they were legally married. Celebrants then need not be authorised. A few couples would probably do what some secular couples do now when they want formal dignity in their ceremony — go to the church!

Attorney-General and High Court Justice Lionel Murphy -(First Humanist of the Year), who founded the Civil Celebrant program believed that a secular person in our society was equal in dignity to a religious person. That equal dignity and substance in ceremonies was the yardstick which would clarify this in the mind of every citizen.

He believed that our culture was so rich in music, literature, stories, symbolism and all the components of ceremony that we could develop an idealistic value filled, identity confirming secular/humanist culture which would enrich the life of every Australian.

FOOTNOTES

  • Readers should note carefully that the French Model is not like the United States or New Zealand model. In those jurisdictions you are given a “licence” to have ceremony – but you are not married until you have that ceremony.
  • Anyone who wishes to read my full letter to Mr Ruddock can find it here – https://iccdiplomas.com/2015/07/12/the-french-model-mr-ruddock/
  • 11,000 altogether when 2000 celebrants would be more than enough for the country.
  • Now well documented by the Age and the ABC e.g. (Victorian Government Launches Crackdown on ‘dodgy’ Training Providers, ABC News Melbourne, 29-6-2015 and so many other reports) .
  • Section 39 of the Marriage Act 1961 used to be a simple provision, empowering the Attorney-General to appoint celebrants. Now this Section is overloaded with paragraph after paragraph regarding the “Powers of the Registrar”. These provisions should never have found their way into the Marriage Act. At most they should have been internal protocols of the Department.

Dally Messenger III was appointed a celebrant in 1974. He is the Principal of the International College of Celebrancy, and is the author of the book, Murphy’s Law and the Pursuit of Happiness: A History of the Civil Celebrant Movement

 

 

 

The French Model: Mr Ruddock

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Hon Philip Ruddock, Parliament House, CANBERRA. ACT 2600

Dear Mr Ruddock,

Re same-sex and heterosexual marriage
The French Model

Since the dawn of history, marriage has transformed strangers into relatives, binding families and societies together.

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.   In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.
Marriage is a keystone of our social order.

Justice Anthony Kennedy

Ruddock

Phillip Ruddock

I am writing to seek to persuade you to desist from considering the “French Model” as blueprint for the administration of civil marriage in Australia. I would seek to persuade you to go completely the other way. The “French Model” would be a terrible step backwards.

You may be astounded to know that I consider you to be the best Attorney-General we have had in recent years. I say this despite the fact that in “olden times” you attacked me in the Parliament (MP Lashes “Pagan Rites”, Tony O’Leary, Melbourne Sun, 18-8-1978). RuddockAttacksCMCs

But when  you became Attorney-General my colleagues and I observed how you carried out your desk work conscientiously – detailed attention to your responsibilities, from which we all benefitted. We also noted with appreciation how you attempted to give civil celebrants some support and encouragement. I recall your attempt to give us some recognition with a certificate signed by yourself as Attorney-General, a plan which was completely and utterly sabotaged by the then relevant officers of the public service.

What I most appreciated was when you supported me in teaching ceremony topics in the original years of Ongoing Professional Development (OPD). You read my letter, you agreed with the contents and you acted on it. We both did a good thing there. Those original OPD topics set a great tone and direction in the celebrant program before that same ignorant group of public servants (non-celebrants, of course) sabotaged that too. So in the slipstream of those events, the informed celebrants of that era have good feelings towards you.

It was you personally, who early in 2007, pointed out that it was OK for same sex couples to be recorded in a Register but “not to have a ceremony”. (Ceremony not for Gays, says Ruddock, Kenneth Nguyen, The Age, Feb 8-2007) You strongly implied that it is ceremony that confers dignity – and you did not think that same-sex couples were entitled to such dignity at that stage of history.8-AgeRuddockCer2

Mr Ruddock, you do see what the “French Model” does. Same sex or straight couples in marriage are all reduced to non-ceremony status. Instead of uplifting all persons to a level of dignity and status, such as is conferred by a ceremony, all parties are reduced to “just record it in a book” status.

It is all right to say, in an off-hand way such as you did on the ABC’s Q and A that “they can go to a church later and have a ceremony. if they want to” but how many will do that now that church allegiance has declined so dramatically?

And where do secular people go “if they want to”? To civil celebrants? When they are already legally married?

Let me tell you what has happened under your successors – the Attorney-Generals who have followed you.

Take numbers of celebrants. Whereas 1600 were enough for Australia up to 2003, and 2000 would have been more than enough, and 2500 would have been excessive, your successors appointed 11,000 !!! (They have got the numbers down a bit by charging money but the scene is still so very diluted it is harmful.)

The results of this monstrous maladministration were predictable: good celebrants resigned in disgust, the excessive competition led to price-cutting wars, standards were forced down, cheap and demeaning advertising abounded, gimmickry flourished, kitsch obliterated taste, doggerel drowned classic poetry — status and dignity were lost.

Many Registered Training Organisations are the disgrace of Australian Education (Victorian Government launches crackdown on ‘dodgy’ training providers, ABC News Melbourne, 29-6-2015 and so many other reports) , Those RTOs jumped on to the exploitation bandwagon by adding celebrancy to their list, and taking their lead from the same wretched public servants to whom I referred,  only taught “legal trivia” – much of it, not only unimportant, but erroneous. One non-celebrant taught hundreds of other non-celebrants how to be celebrants for over six years! Your successors, despite many warnings from concerned celebrants and citizens, ignored this exploitation for over a decade.

The celebrancy topics you and I agreed on – music, poetry, prose, symbolism, choreography, story telling, personal stories, and myth did not even get a look in. The personal, social and cultural value of ceremony did not get past their purposely glassed over eyes. Creative ceremonial writing, competent ceremonial public speaking, use of PA systems, mentoring of new celebrants by competent and successful celebrants in the field, became of no consequence. In short, your successors, by their ignorance and limited vision, have all but destroyed us.

And then we come to values. The cheap shot at civil celebrants is that we lack “Christian” values. Actually we don’t. Secular and religious persons in Australia share most good values. Be that as it may, ceremonies are one of the main ways which express, transmit and reinforce values. As an aware celebrant (I hope) I am very conscious of this great advantage to our society. Personally created ceremonies, such as civil celebrants were established to provide, do this very well.  But take us to the “French model” and the culture will lose one of the main ways values are preserved, strengthened and carried forward.

And now we come to the arts. And I notice that the current Attorney-General is a lover of poetry and is also Minister for the Arts. One would think …..

Be that as it may, ceremonies are the bridge between the arts and the people. For example, for many ordinary people ceremonies are the only occasion that they hear the poets. In the ceremonies at which I have officiated  I have either heard or read the poetry of William Shakespeare, Bryce Courtenay, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Kahlil Gibran, Rabindranath Tagore, Banjo Paterson, Pam Ayres, Christina Rossetti, Robert Burns, Christopher Brennan, Jean Bollen, Rupert Brooke, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christopher Marlowe, e.e. cummings. Michael Leunig, Thomas Davidson, John Donne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Kate Fisher, M.D.Hughes, D.H. Lawrence, Gloria Matthew, Rod McKuen, John Milton, J.H.Newman, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, Liana Preston, James Whitcomb Reilly, Jamie Samms, Canon Henry Scott-Holland , Sir Phillip Sidney, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dylan Thomas, Mark Twain and Leonard Cohen.

Most of these poems are “value packed” and are classic. They are understandable at the first reading, and when heard for the first time. I have had up to nine readers of poetry in a ceremony, trained and practised in a rehearsal, who, on the day of the wedding, held the guests spellbound.

In a civil ceremony we also often connect with with our society’s composers and musicians, and directly and indirectly with whole range of other artists – hairdressers, dressmakers, photographers and many more. Strip ceremony out of the culture in the “French model” and you lose all this.

The classic basic text used in many university settings which explores ceremony in depth is the famous research of the anthropologist, Arnold Van Gennep. He wrote the book translated as The Rites of Passage.  Inter alia, van Gennep observed that participants in prepared ceremonies of substance were changed in themselves. They thought about themselves differently, others thought about them differently (so evident in a marriage ceremony). There are similar wonderful insights into the worth of secular/civil ceremony in the works of Joseph Campbell, Ronald Grimes, David Oldfield (USA!), Margaret Mead, Alain de Botton, Robert Fulford, Mircia Eliade and Louise Mahdi. These inspiring writers could be part of every celebrant training program.

It gets worse – the lost possibilities! In the current mess, and given the rate of youth suicide, the adolescent ceremony which Australia most needs, and which I broached with you and your successors, receives no mention – not even on the radar.

Whereas competent celebrants could give much more dignity to individual citizenship ceremonies, as we then proposed, the issue is dead. You recall from your time as Minister for Immigration how citizenship is not attained until the person takes the pledge in a ceremony. Celebrants could make an enriching contribution here. A good cultural scene could be further improved with the stroke of an enlightened pen.

In the funeral field, most Funeral Directors, by effectively controlling the fees paid to celebrants, force down standards. The Funeral Directors keep the fees low, thus forcing many celebrants with high ideals out of the vocation. Celebrants are the most exploited people in the funeral industry. The ACCC is seen to support Funeral Directors in their collusion (legal or illegal) to control celebrant fees. They, being big business, have their lobbyists, employed to progress their money making ambitions. We have no champion.

Before the tsunami of numbers, and the exploitation by the so-called “educators” we were on the verge of substantial success with all this. Living as we do in a mainly a secular society, we had (and still have) the opportunity of enriching lives with an acceptable and elevated secular culture. We could have done so much more for this country with just a little leadership, support and encouragement. We have had the opposite.

And may I beg you finally – whatever you may think of my views and opinions – please may I not be characterised as writing to you out of self interest.. I am 77 years of age. I am 80% retired. I am not “after business”. I believe I am like you. I am out to better my world and my country.

For a long while Australia led the world in civil celebrancy. It still could – with your influential help.

With best personal wishes,

Dally Messenger III

Source of Information: The French Model and Ruddock
http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/senior-coalition-mps-suggest-the-government-divorces-marriage-20150609-ghjx7r.html