A Catholic friend contacted me a few weeks ago in some indignation. Her parish priest had included a picture of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in a message encouraging young people to think about getting married. But surely it was all wrong to be appearing to hail the forthcoming royal event in any way? Miss Markle, an American, is a divorcee; the union will be adulterous; there is nothing useful to be said.
Well, Miss Markle’s status is certainly problematic. The Anglican communion has no apparent system for discovering the nullity or otherwise of a marriage, and in any case keeps changing its mind about what really constitutes Christian marriage at all; the latest contribution to the debate has been a CofE Synod decision to allow the formal blessing of same-sex unions. Miss Markle’s three-day beach celebration marking her union with a long-term boyfriend culminated in divorce a couple of years later. Did they mean to marry for life? What vows did they make? If she was validly married to him she certainly cannot marry anyone else. But there has been, apparently, no formal assessment or verdict, so we really do not know.
But the wider question is whether or not it is possible to note the forthcoming Windsor jubilations and use them as a way of opening a discussion about matrimony. For an enormous number of young people in Britain, marriage is alien territory, something entirely outside their experience. Their parents are not married, and nor are the parents of most of their schoolmates. Single parenthood, serial cohabitation, messy divorces, intermittent relationships—these form the social background to life for vast numbers of the rising generation.
A televised royal wedding, with the exchange of solemn vows in formal language, against a background of much pageantry and splendid music, is at least something that will put male/female matrimony on to the public stage. Perhaps it will only be a stage, “and all the men and women merely players”—but it will nevertheless present the notion of marriage as the central act that establishes a new chapter in a family story, and in a nation’s story. Marriage is no mere private event: it writes history. A family’s name, culture, and traditions are shaped by its members—and that shaping also shapes our community.
Of course the superb setting, magnificent music, and glamorous clothes of this wedding will, alas, only add to the current notion that marriage is all about just such trimmings, and is consequently an enormously expensive undertaking with gigantic sums compulsorily spent on lavish costumes and entertainment. The wedding industry has in recent decades played no small part in making matrimony synonymous with money. Many priests will testify to the determination of cohabiting couples insisting that they are “waiting until we can afford a proper wedding” when the question of marriage is brought up.
It is good when priests are courageous enough to preach the truth: that the sacrament of matrimony is central and that sexual union outside this bond wounds us and, until repented, separates the soul from God. And we were not created for that. Marriage is God’s plan and fulfils our deepest needs and desires. The ceremony doesn’t have to be lavish—a simple, beautiful, and touching exchange of vows before the altar with a small gathering of friends and witnesses can be the unforgettable and powerful start to married life and can be followed by a big party on an anniversary later on. That might in fact be a pattern to offer as part of a new evangelization?
So where does that leave Windsor’s forthcoming jamboree? I use the word “Windsor” in terms of the town, from which I have just returned following a family gathering of my own clan, part of which happens to be based in a modest home in a part of the town not far from the Castle. It was rather fun to make my way from the station: the shops crowded with Harry-and-Meghan mugs and flags and hats and umbrellas, everything gearing up for what will certainly be a massive invasion of tourists and enthusiasts this May. During our family meal, there was a certain amount of joking about the possibilities of letting out spare rooms or offering town tours or cream teas at vast prices. And will the town, which is really quite small, be all that comfortable with the vast crowds? There are just two loos (restrooms? whatever Americans call them) at the railway station…
But there is something at the core of all this that gives pause for thought: we are overdue for a real discussion about marriage. Certainly, the royal event will be a grand spectacle—and there are worse things than people enjoying themselves around something which at least purports to be, or seeks to be, a couple exchanging wedding vows promising lifelong union and with the prospect of children. Our tired country is short of the latter—like all of Europe, we have the lowest birthrate ever recorded in our history, an aging population, and an apparent loss of a real sense of confidence in our future.
I am not deeply convinced that this royal event will do much to enhance the value or importance of matrimony in modern Britain. But if it gets the topic put on the agenda—replacing the endless promotion of same-sex unions, people being urged to “self-identify” as something they are not and can never be, the distribution of contraceptives to schoolchildren, and the use of the classroom for crude videos masquerading as “sex education”—then perhaps it may help to move things in the right direction.