When friends marry friends: Why one-time officiants are becoming a thing

Meet a couple who had two wedding proposals. One for themselves, the second to the friend who agreed to officiate.

Zaren Healey White and Dean Doyle chose close friend Erin Eaton to officiate their ceremony

Erin Eaton, left, stands with friends Zaren Healey White and Dean Doyle. (Maddie Mills Photo)

Ruffled gowns, doughnut cakes, and velvet tablecloths — these are just a few of the wedding trends you'll see splashed across the covers of bridal magazines this year.

But there's another practice taking off in this province that's changing the face of the traditional wedding ceremony. Instead of having a priest or a judge officiate their wedding, more and more couples are choosing to be married by a friend.

Newfoundland and Labrador's Marriage Act allows residents of the province to apply to become what's called a temporary marriage commissioner: someone who has the authority to conduct one specific wedding ceremony.

Last year, temporary marriage commissioners performed 6.6 per cent of all weddings in the province. That's 145 out of 2,173 marriages.

Since January, 212 people have already been granted temporary marriage commissions, so the percentage is expected to be even higher this year.

Sharing the experience 

Zaren Healey White and Dean Doyle of St. John's had seen friends perform other weddings they'd attended, and having a friend officiate seemed like the perfect fit for the intimate, backyard ceremony they envisioned for themselves.

"We always wanted our wedding ceremony to be as personal as it could be," said Doyle, "and I think having someone who knew us since very close to the beginning of our relationship [act as our officiant] was that kind of personal touch we wanted."

I know that a wedding is so important to not just them but most couples, so to be asked to be a part of it means a lot.- Erin Eaton

"It was just so important that it wasn't a script that had been used for other people," said White.

"If you get someone who does this regularly, whether it's through a religious institution or whether it's through a person that is a regular marriage officiant or commissioner, you're going to get some repetition. This was a way to make it truly personalized and truly unique."

Eaton says it was 'a huge honour' to officiate at the White-Doyle wedding. (Maddie Mills Photo)

They gave a great deal of thought to which friend they should ask to play this vital part in their wedding. They wanted to choose someone who would be comfortable speaking in front of a crowd, someone they could trust not to ham it up or say something inappropriate, someone who, ideally, would enjoy sharing the experience with them.

They settled on the perfect person: Erin Eaton, a former colleague of White's who has been friends with the couple since 2013.

"We sort of proposed!" recalled White.

"Yeah, that's what we called it," said Doyle. "We Skyped in with Erin, and the two of us were standing there with our guinea pigs. And we proposed that she marry us."

For Eaton, the request came as a total surprise.

Eaton conducts the ceremony for Doyle and White. (Maddie Mills Photo)

"I have a music background, so I was sort of expecting something on that front," she said. "But it's a huge honour. I know that a wedding is so important to not just them but most couples, so to be asked to be a part of it means a lot."

Still, Eaton at first felt a bit unprepared to take on such a pivotal role in her friends' wedding day.

It took a lot of stress off of Zaren and I when we decided that we had trusted Erin to do this.- Dean Doyle

"It was a little intimidating. I'm not married myself. I've been to a few weddings, but, if I'm being honest, I hadn't really paid too close attention to what goes on in the ceremony logistically."

What she lacked in experience, though, she made up for in research.

"I definitely spent a few days going through YouTube videos and blogs trying to figure out the bits and pieces."

The trend of having a friend or family member perform the ceremony has gone hand in hand with another sea change in Newfoundland and Labrador weddings: a monumental shift from religious to secular celebrations.

Rise in religiously unaffiliated

Fifiteen years ago, nearly 82 per cent of weddings performed in this province were religious.

By 2018, the proportion had fallen to only 46 per cent.

Contributing factors to this dropoff in religious ceremonies probably include the rise in the number of religiously unaffiliated people in the province, along with the legalization of same-sex marriage in Newfoundland and Labrador in 2004. Since few religious organizations recognize same-sex weddings, most same-sex couples are married in civil ceremonies.

I definitely recommend that people think about who they would like to marry them the same way they would think about who they would like to stand with them.- Zaren Healey White

Civil marriage commissioners, including temporary officiants like Eaton, have more leeway in how they conduct the wedding ceremony than you might imagine. "It's a lot looser than people think," said Eaton.

"There is a sequence of typical events, but there's no legal obligation to stick to those. There's actually only a couple of lines that need to be said."

The couple needs to declare that they know of no reason they can't be lawfully wed and ask everyone present to witness that they take each other as spouse. Anything beyond those two statements is optional.

Doyle and White leave their backyard wedding ceremony. (Maddie Mills Photo)

On White and Doyle's wedding day, Eaton told anecdotes about the couple's relationship, another friend recited a poem she had written for the occasion, and the couple read their own vows.

In the end, White and Doyle couldn't be happier with the choice they made to have a friend perform their wedding ceremony.

"It took a lot of stress off of Zaren and I when we decided that we had trusted Erin to do this," said Doyle. "We had someone who we could constantly be in contact with, who we felt comfortable being very honest with about our opinions."

"It occurs to me," said White, "that we don't really get people we don't know to be our attendants. We don't get a person we don't know to emcee our reception. We don't get people we don't know to stand up and give speeches.

"I definitely recommend that people think about who they would like to marry them the same way they would think about who they would like to stand with them. It's very similar, and it can really impact the way you feel about getting ready for the day."

As for Eaton, if she were to get married, she now has no doubt who she would want to perform her ceremony: a close friend.

"I think that's the only way I would consider it, actually."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador 


Ainsley Hawthorn

Freelance contributor

Ainsley Hawthorn, PhD, is a cultural historian and author who lives in St. John’s.

With files from The St. John's Morning Show