There is something slightly sad about this
Royal Wedding, something a bit wistful, that gives the thing a complicated
feel. The trimmings are all there: the commemorative mugs and plates, the
bunting, the red-white-and-blue hats, the feature articles about what the
wedding dress will be like. And there is genuine affection for the young couple
– Prince William is a fine young man, who is serving in the Royal Air Force
with dedication and skill, and Catherine Middleton is a charming young woman
from a cheerful upper-middle-class family who seems capable of taking a royal
future in her stride.
So, why the sadness? Well, there are the
obvious things: the marriage of Prince William’s parents ended in divorce, as
have a number of other royal marriages of recent decades (Prince Andrew,
Princess Anne, Princess Margaret). And then there was the death of Princess
Diana in a Paris car crash. But these things do not necessarily make this April
wedding sad: on the contrary, it is lovely to see young love blossoming in the
next generation, and this could bring a message of healing, unity and hope.
No, it all goes deeper. The reason why
things aren’t quite as joyful as they ought to be has much more to do with
Britain, with marriage, and with families in the country as its stands today,
Everyone knows that a royal marriage ought
to be a grand celebration of something which is also a great and normal reality
in the lives of non-royals. As was famously said in a sermon at the wedding of
Prince William’s grandparents, the vows exchanged in Westminster Abbey are
exactly the same as between any bridegroom and bride who stand together before
the altar at “any little church in the dales”. Which is exactly the point.
There aren’t many couples standing at the altars of churches in the dales, and
everyone knows it. The number of marriages in Britain is at an all-time
low. And of those that do take place, only a minority take place in church.
Recent legislation allows weddings to take place in hotels, stately homes, and
all manner of attractive venues that can be hired for the purpose. Weddings are
large, lavish events. They involve huge numbers of young guests, loud music for
several hours, masses of alcohol, masses of food, massive expense.
And there’s more. Large numbers of weddings
are the second or third marriages of one or other of the partners, with
children of former spouses, and various ex-relations or ex-in-laws, among the
guests. And then there’s the question of civil unions – two people of the same
sex who get all dressed up and go through a ceremony with flowers and confetti
and all the trimmings.
So watching a bride in a white gown go to
church on her father’s arm, and make solemn promises to a young man who stands
waiting at the altar to pledge his life to hers – well, it’s all very
delightful, but it doesn’t resonate as the great, noble, hugely important
life-changing reality that marriage truly is. Instead, a wedding is seen as a
fun-event, “your big day”, a great excuse for a party. It is disconnected, at a
deep level, in most people’s minds, from babies, heritage, the continuation of
a family from one generation to the next.
Sexual activity is seen in modern Britain
as essentially something enjoyable to which young people should be introduced
as a matter of course but which is only marginally connected with marriage and
with the arrival of children and the start of a new family. This means that
there is a muddle, a disconnect, about biological truth – because actually,
factually, sexual union is absolutely connected with babies, just as food is
connected with nourishment. Of course it’s connected with much more – with
bonding, the meeting of emotional needs, tenderness, warmth, joy, and much
more. But to split it from its essential unity is to get into a muddle.
Given this unreality, weddings have a
rather odd feeling around them, somehow. The emphasis has to be on the fun, the
party, the celebration – and, increasingly, with a sort of frenetic banality –
None of this means I won’t be celebrating
the royal wedding. I most certainly will. We will be at a family gathering at
my in-laws and we’ll gather round the TV and watch every moment. I’ll probably
buy a commemorative mug or two. There will be celebrations in the village and
it will be fun to be there.
For the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, back in
1977, I was a borough councillor and had to judge the children’s fancy-dress
competition (first prize went to a child dressed as a teapot) and give out the
prizes, and then distribute commemorative crown coins and slices of a
magnificent jubilee cake…
In 1981, for the wedding of the Prince and
Princess of Wales, I was in London waving a flag and cheering. My husband was
then a cadet at the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, and they were all given
a day’s leave. We made up a party and went to London, and had a glorious day.
But three decades on, things have changed.
It is a different Britain. No point in pretending otherwise. Our social fabric
is fragmenting. It can be mended, and I hope that a beautiful royal wedding can
be part of that. Nothing in human life is beyond repair, or beyond hope. And
marriage is the stuff of life itself – it speaks about the future, about new
beginnings. All the evidence points to the fact that most people, in Britain as
elsewhere, want to have a lifelong love and a strong family. A great public
celebration of marriage is actually just what this country needs. But,
precisely because of that, there’s a sort of brittleness when feature-writers
try to talk up the drama of What
the Dress Will be Like (white, long, swishy and elegant presumably – but we
all know that it isn’t actually the core issue), or when there’s gossip about
who will be invited or backbiting about costs.
The Royal Family is a core part of our
tradition, our constitutional arrangements, our identity in Britain and the
Commonwealth. In a world where constitutional government is by no means the
norm, we value that. We can also see the huge and splendid significance that
the monarchy brings – speaking of continuity, heritage, traditions, service,
and a sense of common identity.
I will be praying – not just wishing and
hoping, but praying – that our young Prince and his bride will be truly blessed
on their wedding-day, that it is the start of a lifelong and beautiful marriage
and a happy family, and that together they will serve our country and
Commonwealth in a spirit of self-sacrifice and joy. In saying that, I am saying
something rather serious. Perhaps, in the end, that is really quite all right.
Part of the tradition about weddings is that people get a bit tearful.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.