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Ceremonial at court during Prinsjesdag Koninklijk Koetsier 2013 74.JPG
Ceremonial at court during Prinsjesdag

A ceremony ( UK: /ˈsɛrɪməni/ , US: /ˈsɛrəˌmni/ ) is a unified ritualistic event with a purpose, usually consisting of a number of artistic components, performed on a special occasion.


The word may be of Etruscan origin, via the Latin caerimonia . [1]

Church and civil (secular) ceremonies

According to Dally Messenger and Alain de Botton, in most Western countries the values and ideals articulated in both church and civil ceremonies are generally similar. The difference is in what Messenger calls the "supernatural infrastructure" or de Botton the "implausible supernatural element". [2] [3]

Most churches and religions claim some extra advantage conferred by the deity e.g. Roman Catholics believe that through the words of consecration in the mass ceremony, God himself becomes actually present on the altar.

Both church and civil ceremonies share the powerful psychological, social and cultural influences which all ceremony seeks to attain. Obviously, the style of music played, words used, other components and the structure vary.

Shared traditions

Leaders welcome a boy into Scouting, March 2010, Mexico City, Mexico. Leaders welcoming boy into Mexico Scouting.jpg
Leaders welcome a boy into Scouting, March 2010, Mexico City, Mexico.

As Edward Schillebeeckx writes about the marriage ceremony, there are a surprising number of ancient traditional elements in both church and civil ceremonies in the western world. Key ceremonies date from the pre-Christian Roman and Greek times and their practices have continued through the centuries. For example, from pre-Christian Roman times in the marriage ceremony, we inherit best men and bridesmaids, processions, signing of the contract, exchange of rings and even the wedding cake. [4]

Sharing non-supernatural content

Writer and philosopher Alain De Botton maintains atheists should appropriate many of the useful insights, artistic treasures and symbolism inspired by religion. He argues that the secular world can also learn from the religions the importance of community and continuity. [5] Messenger agrees, and points out that the success of civil celebrants in Australia has been partly due to their espousing of these principles, both in theory and practice, since 1973. [6] [7]

History of secular ceremony

Senator and Mr Justice Lionel Murphy, founder of the civil celebrant movement in Australia, which has now spread to the rest of the Western World Lionel Murphy 1970.jpg
Senator and Mr Justice Lionel Murphy, founder of the civil celebrant movement in Australia, which has now spread to the rest of the Western World

The main impetus to the development of quality civil ceremonies in the Western world was the foresight of the Australian statesman, Senator and High Court Judge, Lionel Murphy. In 1973 in Australia the civil celebrant program entrusted appropriately selected individuals to provide non-church people with ceremonies of substance and dignity. This initiative to a great extent has now been followed by New Zealand, Canada, the United Kingdom and some states of the US. [2] [8]

Purpose of secular ceremony

According to Dally Messenger III secular ceremonies are “roadmap” influences which lead to an acceptable, ethical and dignified life. Ceremonies contribute to the unseen ingredients of psychological stability, a sense of identity, reassurances of life's purposes, and the personal sense of self worth. The mysterious cultural power of quality ceremonies lead our society along an honourable and ethical path. Lionel Murphy considered that personal genuine ceremonies were central to a civilised, stable and happy society. Here he echoed the conviction of the renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell who had maintained the strongly asserted generality that the level of civilised behaviour in a society is directly linked to the practice of ceremonies and rites of passage. [9]

Serious communication

Ceremonies are the time and place setting wherein people communicate seriously. For example, in front of witnesses the groom tells the bride that he loves her and wants to be with her for the rest of his life. Such a statement has much more force than if said privately.

It is in the ceremony that groups of people come together. It is in the ceremony that they make compacts, recognise achievement, assert identity, establish connections, declare love, pay tribute, express grief.

In addition Messenger makes the following observations:

The components of ceremony

To be powerful and effective, such ceremonies, in the view of all the scholars in the field, [2] :3 had to have impact. This occurred when the ceremony was framed by the visual and performing arts. Great care had to be taken in creating and choosing the poetry, prose, stories, personal journeys, myths, silences, dance, music and song, shared meditations, choreography and symbolism which comprised a ceremony. To reinforce the psychological and cultural power of ceremony it should be enacted, as far as possible, in a beautiful interior and exterior place. Beauty is the essential core of ceremony, having always been part of “raising the spirit” and embedding the good in the memory. [2] :3–8

Ceremonies, as they always had been, are historically the bridge between the visual and performing arts and the people. Murphy and his followers, and international practitioners such as David Oldfield of Washington DC understand that ceremonies are core expressions of the culture. Done well, they can assist in major decision-making, bring emotional security, strengthen bonds between people, and communicate a sense of contentment. To quote David Oldfield [10]

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz salutes Yom Kippur War casualties at an official annual memorial service. Memorial of Fallen Soldiers from the Yom Kippur War - Flickr - Israel Defense Forces.jpg
Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz salutes Yom Kippur War casualties at an official annual memorial service.

Rituals and ceremonies are an essential and basic means

for human beings to give themselves and others

the necessary messages

which enable the individual to stay human.

They communicate acceptance,

love, a sense of identity, esteem,

shared values and beliefs

and shared memorable events.

Every ritual contains tender and sacred moments.

And in those moments of sensitivity

We are taken out of the normal flow of life,

And out of our routines.

We are then in an event

that is irreplaceable and sacred.

In ritual we participate in

something deep and significant.

They are moments which move our heart

And touch our spirit.

[11] [12] [13]

Qualities of a celebrant

Lionel Murphy also knew that the superficial, the unaware, were not the right persons to bring this about. The civil celebrant needs to have a rich skill-set and knowledge base. Murphy is on the record as asserting that the civil celebrant needed to have a “feel” for ceremony and be professional, knowledgeable, educated, creative, imaginative, inspired, well presented, idealistic, and well practised.

The civil celebrant should be a person inspired to improve lives at a deep and lasting level. For this reason they must be carefully chosen. The ideal is that they be educated in the humanities and trained to expertly co-create, creatively write and perform ceremonies. [7] :16ff

Ceremonial occasions

Gogo tribe ladies from Manyoni Tanzania waiting to perform traditional dance during the ceremony of priest Joseph Makasi ordination Gogo tribe at ceremonial of.jpg
Gogo tribe ladies from Manyoni Tanzania waiting to perform traditional dance during the ceremony of priest Joseph Makasi ordination

The funeral ritual, too, is a public, traditional and symbolic means of expressing our beliefs, thoughts and feelings about the death of someone loved. Rich in history and rife with symbolism, the funeral ceremony helps us acknowledge the reality of the death, gives testimony to the life of the deceased, encourages the expression of grief in a way consistent with the culture’s values, provides support to mourners, allows for the embracing of faith and beliefs about life and death, and offers continuity and hope for the living. [15]

Naming Ceremonies existed in human culture long before Christianity or any of the major religions came on the scene. Every community has a ceremony to welcome a new child into the world, to give that child recognition, and to celebrate the birth of new life. [16]

Celebration of events

Other, society-wide ceremonies may mark annual or seasonal or recurrent events such as:

Other ceremonies underscore the importance of non-regular special occasions, such as:

In some Asian cultures, ceremonies also play an important social role, for example the tea ceremony.


A state arrival ceremony in the United States. Arrival Ceremony - The Official State Visit of France (26832274057).jpg
A state arrival ceremony in the United States.

Ceremonies may have a physical display or theatrical component: dance, a procession, the laying on of hands. A declaratory verbal pronouncement may explain or cap the occasion, for instance:

Both physical and verbal components of a ceremony may become part of a liturgy.

See also


  1. Grimes, Ronald L. (2000). "Ritual". In Willi Braun, Russell T. McCutcheon (ed.). Guide to the study of religion. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 260. ISBN   0304701769.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Messenger, Dally; Murphy's Law and the Pursuit of Happiness: a History of the Civil Celebrant Movement, Spectrum Publications, Melbourne (Australia), 2012 ISBN   978-0-86786-169-3
  3. Kelly, Fran; Radio Interview with Alain de Botton, RN Breakfast, Australian Broadcasting Commission, Podcast 2012.
  4. Schillebeeckx, Edward; translated by N.D. Smith:; Secular Reality and Saving Mystery. Volumes 1 & 2, Sheed and Ward, London, 1963. Note: later versions have these ISBNs: ISBN   978-0722076644 ISBN   0722076649
  5. De Botton, Alain: Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion, 2013, Vintage Books, 2013, ISBN   978-0307476821
  6. Messenger, Dally; Alain de Botton and Humanists, Australian Humanist Magazine, no. 106, Winter 2012, p10
  7. 1 2 Messenger III, Dally (1999), Ceremonies and Celebrations, Hachette -Livre Australia (Sydney), ISBN   978-0-7336-2317-2
  8. Messenger III, Dally. "The power an idea:the History of Celebrancy". International College of Celebrancy. Retrieved 12 January 2020.
  9. Messenger III, Dally, We Had a Dream, in the Australian Humanist, no 121, Autumn 2016, published by the Australian Humanist Society, Canberra ACT
  10. Oldfield, David. "Director". Midway Centre. Midway Centre for Creative Imagination. Retrieved 13 January 2020.
  11. Oldfield, David, The Journey: An experiential Rite of Passage for Modern Adolescents, as a contributor in Mahdi, Louise Carus (Editor), Crossroads: The Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage, Open Court Publishing, 1996, Chicago p145ff ISBN   0 8126 9190 3
  12. Mahdi, Louise Carus; Christopher, Nancy Geyer; Meade, Michael (1996). Crossroads: The Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage. ISBN   9780812691900.
  13. Fierst, Gerald, The Heart of the Wedding, Parkhurst Brothers, Chicago, 2011, ISBN   978-1-935166-22-1 p.76ff
  14. Messenger, Dally. "Weddings". www.marriagecelebrant.com. International College of Celebrancy. Retrieved 22 January 2020.
  15. Wolfelt, Alan. "Why is the funeral ritual important?". centerforloss.com. Center for Loss and Life Transition. Retrieved 31 January 2020.
  16. Hurley, Kathleen. "Giving Your child a Name". Marriage Celebrant. International College of Celebrancy. Retrieved 31 January 2020.

Related Research Articles

Funeral Ceremony for a person who has died

A funeral is a ceremony connected with the final disposition of a corpse, such as a burial or cremation, with the attendant observances. Funerary customs comprise the complex of beliefs and practices used by a culture to remember and respect the dead, from interment, to various monuments, prayers, and rituals undertaken in their honor. Customs vary between cultures and religious groups. Funerals have both normative and legal components. Common secular motivations for funerals include mourning the deceased, celebrating their life, and offering support and sympathy to the bereaved; additionally, funerals may have religious aspects that are intended to help the soul of the deceased reach the afterlife, resurrection or reincarnation.

Secular humanism Life stance that embraces human reason, secular ethics, and philosophical naturalism

Secular humanism, often simply called humanism, is a philosophy, belief system or life stance that embraces human reason, secular ethics, and philosophical naturalism while specifically rejecting religious dogma, supernaturalism, and superstition as the basis of morality and decision making.

Religious humanism Integration of humanist ethical philosophy

Religious humanism is an integration of humanist ethical philosophy with congregational rites and community activity which center on human needs, interests, and abilities. Self-described religious humanists differ from secular humanists mainly in that they regard the humanist life stance as their religion and organise using a congregational model. Religious humanism is sometimes referred to as nontheistic religion or christian humanism.

Rite of passage Ritual reflecting change of social status

A rite of passage is a ceremony or ritual of the passage which occurs when an individual leaves one group to enter another. It involves a significant change of status in society. In cultural anthropology the term is the Anglicisation of rite de passage, a French term innovated by the ethnographer Arnold van Gennep in his work Les rites de passage, The Rites of Passage. The term is now fully adopted into anthropology as well as into the literature and popular cultures of many modern languages.

Humanistic Judaism Nontheistic alternative to religious Judaism

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Humanist Society Scotland

Humanist Society Scotland is a Scottish registered charity that promotes humanist views and offers Humanist ceremonies. It is a member of the European Humanist Federation and Humanists International.

Officiant Leader of a service or ceremony

An officiant is someone who officiates at a service or ceremony, such as marriage, burial, or namegiving/baptism.

Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association

The Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association is a humanist lifestance organization in Iceland, that promotes secularism, offers celebrancy services and contributes to the spreading of humanism in Iceland and abroad. It is a member of the European Humanist Federation and Humanists International.

Outline of humanism Overview of and topical guide to humanism

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to humanism:

Celebrant (Australia) People who conduct formal ceremonies such as weddings, funerals, etc.

In Australia, celebrants are people who conduct formal ceremonies in the community, particularly weddings, which are the main ceremony of legal import conducted by celebrants and for this reason often referred to as marriage celebrants. They may also conduct extra-legal ceremonies such as naming of babies, renewal of wedding vows, funerals, divorce, becoming a teenager, changing name, significant birthday, retirement, and other life milestones. Officiating at a marriage requires that the celebrant be an authorised marriage celebrant under Australian law, or the law where the marriage takes place, but officiating at non-legal ceremonies does not.

Marriage officiant

A marriage officiant is a person who officiates at a wedding ceremony.

Humanist celebrant

A humanist celebrant or humanist officiant is a person who performs humanist celebrancy services, such as non-religious weddings, funerals, child namings, coming of age ceremonies and other rituals. Some humanist celebrants are accredited by humanist organisations, such as Humanists UK, Humanist Society Scotland (HSS), The Humanist Society (US), and the Humanist Association of Canada (HAC).


Celebrancy is a profession founded in Australia in 1973 by the then Australian attorney-general Lionel Murphy. The aim of the celebrancy program was to authorise persons to officiate at secular ceremonies of substance, meaning and dignity mainly for non-church people. Up until this point legal marriages were reserved only to clergy or officers of the Births, Deaths & Marriages registry office. These appointed persons, referred to in the Marriage Act of Australia as "authorised celebrants", create & conduct weddings, funerals, namings, house dedications, coming of age and other life ceremonies for those who do not wish to be married or have other ceremonies in a church or registry office.

Secular coming-of-age ceremonies, sometimes called civil confirmations, are ceremonies arranged by organizations that are secular, i.e., not aligned to any religion. Their purpose is to prepare adolescents for their life as adults. Secular coming of age ceremonies originated in the 19th century, when non-religious people wanted a rite of passage comparable to the Christian Confirmation. Nowadays, non-religious coming-of-age ceremonies are organized in several European countries.

Organized secularism Belgian irreligious union

In Belgium, organized secularism is the local associations and organizations which provide moral support for naturalist, atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, freethinking, Bright, or irreligious and non-confessional citizens. A person who subscribes to such entities or ideologies, or at least espouses an interest in "free inquiry" apart from religious traditions is described as a "secular" or "free-thinker".

Birmingham Humanists

The Birmingham Humanist Group was formed on 23 May 1962 at the Arden Hotel, New Street, Birmingham, England, at a meeting convened by Dr Anthony Brierley. It changed its name to Birmingham Humanists in 2000 and voted to become a Partner Group of the BHA, which changed its name to Humanists UK in 2017. It holds most of its meetings at the rooms of the Community Development trust in Moseley, Birmingham.

Dally Messenger III

Dally Messenger III is a civil celebrant, author, publisher, commentator, and a founder and chronicler of the civil celebrant movement which originated in Australia. He is the grandson of the rugby union and rugby league footballer Dally Messenger, aka Herbert Henry "Dally" Messenger, whose nickname "Dally" has become his grandson's given name.

Civil funeral celebrant

A civil funeral celebrant is a person who officiates at funerals which are not closely connected with religious beliefs and practises. They are analogous to civil celebrants for marriage ceremonies. Civil celebrant funerals began in Australia in 1975. As secular (civil) wedding ceremonies became accepted, first in Australia and then in other Western countries, a similar process for funerals has since been established in New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States. Civil funeral celebrants are often also civil marriage ceremony celebrants.

Remi Barclay Messenger American actress

Remi Barclay Messenger, aka Remi Barclay & Remi Barclay Bosseau (b.1946) was a founding member of three prominent professional theatre companies in the New York City area – The Performance Group (l967–70), with Richard Schechner, Whole Theatre (1971–1990) and Voices of Earth (1988–2000), the latter two with Olympia Dukakis as a co-director. Her theatre work included years of acting, directing and teaching as well as creating workshops for a wide spectrum of institutions, schools and universities.