On the Royal Wedding

I have before me the souvenir issue of the Daily Telegraph, awash with the colour and joy that was the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. For me, a favourite image is not the balcony kiss or that dress, iconic though they already are; rather, it is the image of the mass of people on the Mall. In all its massive yet polite reverie, this image offers a strong contrast with another scene from yesterday’s news, namely that of angry Syrians tearing down a poster of President Assad.

And so I am led to wonder: what is the secret of peaceful, consensual government? Part of it may be chronological. Where once English kings were reviled and even beheaded, the centuries have led us kindly to this happy place. The Syrian Arab Republic has existed for not much longer than Queen Elizabeth has been on the British throne. Still, the constitutional monarchy of the United Kingdom does seem to be a singular, remarkably robust thing. Let us explore what all this means.

The monarchy is rarely discussed intelligently in Britain, mostly because the loudest voices are either boorish, petty and ill-informed (most republicans) or uncritically adoring (the ‘Kate-and-Wills’ tea-towel monarchists). But amidst all the noise and spectacle something rather clever was going on yesterday. On 29th April 2011 there were two, not one, royal marriages. The first — watched by 2 billion people worldwide — was between an heir to the British throne and his beautiful sweetheart; the second, and much more important was between the British people and the monarchy.

Compared with the US, Britain is a much less overtly patriotic place. There is no national holiday and the Union flag flies only sporadically. For most Englishmen, patriotism waxes and wanes according to the fortunes of the national football team. Every now and again, however, Britons are reminded of how much they love their country and it is by brilliant design that the Crown is usually at the centre of these national rememberings. We are a cynical lot, so it is important that these celebrations occur only rarely. Forced to wave our flags every year we would soon join the ranks of those po-faced republican whiners who cannot stand pre-modern intrusions into their Guardian-reading, post-modern world. So it is right that these are generational Events. It may be that the design is unconscious, even Darwinian, but whatever its provenance, here we are again before the gates of Buckingham Palace, waving our flags and singing God Save the Queen. The Crown survives, rejuvenated.

The scene of the new Duke and Duchess riding in their carriage to the palace was like some Roman emperor parading his latest conquest through the streets of Rome. Even the Household Cavalry looked like the Praetorian Guard. But the genius in this spectacle is that in William we have a Caesar-apparent entirely devoid of actual power. This is as it should be — the last time a monarch aspired for more, we chopped off his head. One day William will be Commander in Chief of the armed forces but will have less actual power then than he does at present as a junior officer in the Royal Air Force flying search and rescue helicopters in unglamorous Wales.

Nations can reasonably focus their patriotism on other symbols, such as flags and constitutions, but the only way of endowing a symbol with the kind of pomp and ceremony we saw yesterday is if that symbol is of flesh and blood, human like us. And it is because said human is not a tyrant that we tolerate it and occasionally revel in it. This then allows us to pour out our hatred and scorn on those humans who do in fact rule over us (that would be you, Prime Minister). It’s a robust, adaptable, and effective settlement and Britain is and has been the better for it. It is telling that if Britain were ever to be ruled by a dictator, the first thing to go would be the royal family.

There is also a good Christian reason to admire the institution, for at the heart of yesterday’s celebration, 2 billion people were offered a remarkable view of Christian marriage. I realise that for most viewers the wedding in the Abbey was mostly enjoyed for the dress, the sweet stolen glimpses, and the sheer aesthetic pleasure of it all. However, for those with ears to hear there was something deeply holy on offer. A recent article in BYU Studies extols the mysteries of High Church ritual and the echoes of the temple preserved in the ancient ordinances, psalms, sights and smells. Similarly, the avenue of hornbeam and maple in the Abbey was Edenic, the music suitably Israelite, and the marriage itself, solemnised as it was beyond the quire, a journey into a holy of holies.

The words too were beautiful. The Bishop of London’s address is a great exposition of Christian marriage. How lovely this sentiment:

In a sense every wedding is a royal wedding with the bride and groom as king and queen of creation, making a new life together so that life can flow through them into the future.

Consider also the introduction to the service from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer:

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here in the sight of God and in the face of this congregation, to join together this man and this woman in holy matrimony; which is an honourable estate, instituted of God himself, signifying unto us the mystical union that is betwixt Christ and his Church; . . .  and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly; but reverently, discreetly, soberly, and in the fear of God, duly considering the causes for which matrimony was ordained.

In our secular, permissive age, how splendid that these sentiments are given voice, not in a pious or condemnatory way but as an aspiration for the married lives we all hope to live. As Supreme Governor of the Church of England, it is the monarch — again, that flesh and blood embodiment of the nation — who gives reason for these gloriously old-fashioned things to, for a moment at least, wrest the microphone away from the insipid, the cynical, and the flighty.

God Save the Queen.


  1. Beautiful and profound, Ronan – including the quotes from the service itself. Of your words, I especially like the following:

    “the only way of endowing a symbol with the kind of pomp and ceremony we saw yesterday is if that symbol is of flesh and blood, human like us.”

  2. Thank you for this Ronan. I agree that the Bishop’s remarks were beautiful and will certainly be (or at least I hope it will be) a touchstone for future marriage sermons.

    I suspect my overriding memory of the day will be quietly singing ‘Jerusalem’ with many of my compatriots from across the country. It was a deeply moving experience.

  3. I loved the music and the bishop’s remarks. I could listen to John Rutter all day long.

  4. Wonderful, Ronan. I find myself envious of deep celebrations of public sacraments. Thanks for this.

  5. Ray,

    Jerusalem subverts the thesis here somewhat, being a hymn to place, not person. Still, I cannot easily imagine an England without a king at its head.

    The music was stupendous, was it not?

    Public sacrament is right. I much admire your inaugurations too.

  6. Thanks for this, Ronan; too bad I lived around the Scots too long to fully sympathize. ;)

    In all seriousness, and despite my abiding skepticism, it is good to be reminded of the positive fruits of yesterday.

  7. Mommie Dearest says:

    The music was magnificent, my favorite part of a remarkably thorough spectacle. It beat the hats, the trees along the aisle, the horse-drawn carriages, the royals arriving in precise order in cars that you don’t see at your local dealer, the clothes, the guests, the cinematography (!), the well-behaved hordes of people singing along with the hymns, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s eyebrows, etc, etc.
    I am hoping that someone (Kristine?) can tell me what was sung/performed, and who the choir was, because the media, with their talent for missing the obvious, has not offered a single peep about the service itself, or the music.

  8. Ben,
    “boorish, petty and ill-informed” characterises much of the popular Scottish bleatings about the monarchy. The Scots nationalists agree with me, wanting only to dissolve the union of Parliaments not the union of crowns. The British monarchy is as much Scottish as it is English, but what can you do about idiots who don’t know of what they speak?

  9. Natalie B. says:

    I really liked the bishop’s address.

    I’m curious to know what Brits feel about the monarchy. In general, I’m too entrenched in American values to find the idea of hereditary class status palatable. But, as I watched the events I felt myself wishing America similarly had an apolitical head of state that we could all feel love towards. There is something to be said for the continuity it would bring.

  10. “[today] there were two, not one, royal weddings. The first…. the second…was between the British people and the monarchy.”

    Simon Schama said the same on BBC yesterday.

  11. Kevin Barney says:

    I knew you were a royalist; thanks for this beautiful articulation as to why.

    I woke up Friday morning and turned on the news to see the open carriage ride back to Buckingham Palace, with the horses prancing and the soldiers in their finest. No one does spectacle like England!

  12. Rusty,
    Simon steals all my good ideas.

  13. KerBearRN says:

    Ronan– splendid! Brilliant!! As an American with my heart firmly rooted in my Mother England (tho many generations removed), I quite literally just said the same things to my husband, though not nearly as beautifully stated as you. To those who say the monarchy has no purpose or power, I say WRONG. It is through the spectacle of ceremony that I most see anything like a “patriotic fervor” amongst the Brits. I believe in many ways they are GBs national identity and pride. Yes, the dress was beautiful, and Abbey looked spectacular (and almost intimate) and hat-wearing was brought to a new, and sometime ludicrous, art form — but hearing those sacred words of marriage brought a chill up my spine. And watching nearly everyone in the Abbey, and the million in the London streets, break in the full-throated “Jerusalem” absolutely brought me to blubbering tears. Thank you fir the lovely and wonderful spectacle and the reminder of this on-going rich heritage. And God save the Queen.

  14. The choir was the choir of Westminster Abbey. The first and last anthems were by Parry (as is the hymn Jerusalem), and the middle two were a new commission by Rutter, and a setting of Ubi caritas by someone I’m not familiar with.

    The hymns were Cwm Rhondda (Guide me O thou great Jehovah), “Love divine all loves excelling” (but set to a tune I was not as familiar with), and “Jerusalem.”

    The processional, “I was glad,” is one of the traditional coronation anthems, and this setting (Parry) has been used at coronations since George V I think. It was performed without the intermediate “Vivat” section as this was not a coronation. The recessional was Walton’s “Crown Imperial.”

    I see Ronan has linked the order of service, you can get all the details there. All very traditional, and I was happy that the announcers stayed quiet through everything except “Blest pair of sirens.”

  15. RJH,

    That ain´t bad company.

  16. Natalie,

    If the hereditary principle were indeed to endow a person with executive power over others (as it once did) it would be a problem, but only the hardcore Marxist would enforce a view that birth should be entirely irrelevant to one’s prospects in life. The truth is, whether I am born a prince or to wealthy middle-class parents who secure the best for me, life is already unfair.

    An ancient, hereditary monarchy is the only way to have a stable, apolitical head of state. It works for us but I understand why it is anathema for Americans, born as you were in the rejection of the king. Each to his own.

  17. Kristine says:

    Thanks, woodboy. You might be the only person besides me who didn’t care at all about any of the rest of the wedding, but considered getting up at 4:30 for “I Was Glad.”

  18. Well I didn’t want to get up at 4:30, but I recorded it and watched it later. That way I could skip the homily and carriages and such and just annoy kelly by singing along to the music. Brought back lots of good memories from my own wedding.

  19. I too enjoyed the beautiful service which presented the nation with a glimpse into the ideals of Christian marriage and life. If there was ever a family who have the opportunity to live as christians should, and set us an example it is our royals…we have been longing as a nation for this for the last 30 years – make good your vows Wills and Kate!

    I would love to see our Royals in the public light much more than they are – showing us (as Diana did) that despite the privilege they are just people like us!

    Taking there privilege seriously. Grateful! I want a monarch who is more involved in the politics, morality, spirituality and happiness of the citizens of country they lead. I want to be able to say, I want to be like him/her.

    It is a great shame that as Ronan Points out they (intentional or not) are so often eclipsed by the “person who really leads the country”.

    I dont want to have to wait for 30 years, or indeed once a year at christmas for my leader to speak to me or show me beauty or an example.

    I dont want the royals to gather back into their palaces only to come out for us to revel at their clothes or indeed existence, occasionally. I want to feel Prince William standing shoulder to shoulder with me, Ronan and my other friends as we try and live the words we sang at mine, Ronans and also Prince Williams wedding…

    “I will not cease from Mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand till we have built jerusalem in Englands green and pleasant land”.

    Possibly the most christian sentiment I feel unites Ronan and I – the green and pleasant land of an english heart converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    I want my monarch to help me see Jesus Christ in others.

    I have hope in William. I see the humanity in him and Harry that their mother embodied (which got her into trouble with the royal establishment of its day) and I pray that they will set me the example my heart yearns for, so that one day I can feel as Ronan does, and then sing with Ronan “God save the Queen”

  20. “If there was ever a family to live as christians should, and set us an example it is our royals….”

    How many years, more or less, have Wills and Kate been living together?

  21. Natalie B. says:

    17: The newspapers here have reported polls saying that the British like the monarchy, but many want to skip Charles. So is there a sense that people do want something like an elected monarchy–they at least want veto power over the choice of monarch? I’m genuinely curious to know what those across the pond think.

    20: You’ve nailed what really appeals to me about William–he seems so normal and engaged in do-gooding. He’s the kind of person I’d be proud to have as head of state.

  22. I wish the happy couple all the best. These events tend to make me think of the Sex Pistols and The Clash. While I am an anti-royal, I am more repulsed by American expressions of nationalism.

    I am half-Dutch and my Dutch grandmother had a deep respect for the Dutch queen. I still have a touch of that…though I mostly have my Dutch grandfather’s anti-establishment sentiment.

    I wish my parents had settled in Europe…

  23. We owe much of our government and constitution’s stability to Britain. The monarchy was able to change and slowly give away power (thank you King John and “no taxation without representation”).
    I watched Charles and Diana’s wedding live while I lived in England. It was a very huge deal. I didn’t watch this one though. Now, I kind of wish I had.

  24. Good write-up, Ronan.

  25. Mommie Dearest says:

    Thanks for the links/info in #9 and #15.

    I watched it on a whim–I paid very little attention to all the pre-wedding hoopla, I happened to be awake (haha) when the coverage started on the US west coast time zone, and found it kind of interesting, and it got more interesting, rather mesmerizing actually. There was something about the anticipation of the guests, and the camera shots from within the abbey were very well done, and there was plenty of visual candy to feed it all, with a live soundtrack from the orchestra. Then it became a serious worship service, that gave us all a lot of food for thought on marriage and family building, and national pride and social class structure and tradition, all amidst the most glorious music (for a wedding, at least!) I didn’t get sleepy until the big lull while everyone waited for the balcony wave.

    I’m afraid I may have become what you call a “tea-towel monarchist.”

  26. Ben Pratt says:

    I have a huge soft spot for the British monarchy. Now you have given voice as to why, Ronan. This morning my daughters, my mother and I skipped through the 3-hour pre-show show on DVR and watched the actual ceremony through Love Divine All Love Excelling before we had to leave. It was captivating, but not for the fashionable details (the hats!).

  27. Bradly Baird says:

    Peace Be Within Thy Walls: An American Reponse to the Day

    First, a bit of thanks to RJH. . .

    That was one of the most beautiful and thoughtful pieces about England and the monarchy that I have read in quite sometime. Gratias.

    A Word About The Music
    As a dedicated listener to the works of 19th-20th-21st Century British composers, I must say that I was impressed with the representation of works: Britten, Walton, Parry, Vaughn-Williams, Rutter, Elgar, Maxwell Davies, Stanford, Delius, and Finzi. In my mind, this is the bulk of the pantheon of greats. The only other composer whose name I wish had been on the list is the great church composer, Herbert Howells. But I wholeheartedly applaud the choices of music for this occasion. It was so perfectly chosen and perfectly suited the occasion.

    It was no surprise the Parry’s “Jerusalem” made it onto the program. This hymn is so perfectly aligned with the mystique that can surround England and its history. I am moved to tears everytime I hear the first few chords, capped by those stirring words from Blake; so terrific are those words that I feel compelled to quote the whole poem:

    And did those feet in ancient time.
    Walk upon England’s mountains green:
    And was the holy Lamb of God,
    On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

    And did the Countenance Divine,
    Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
    And was Jerusalem builded here,
    Among these dark Satanic Mills?

    Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
    Bring me my Arrows of desire:
    Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
    Bring me my Chariot of fire!

    I will not cease from Mental Fight,
    Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
    Till we have built Jerusalem,
    In England’s green & pleasant Land

    Personal Icons
    Three things stood out to me from the whole event: 1) the photograph of the crowd walking up the Mall proceeded by the line of policemen. To me, this signified, as has been so eloquently spoken of before, the future of the monarchy in England for the next half century or more. By marrying a commoner, Prince William sent a signal to his country that the working monarchy’s future will be one in touch with reality; 2) The blue Aston Martin that carried the couple from Buckingham Palace to St. James’ Palace. This was a surprise to everyone, but certainly signified many things about a future king who is blazing his own way in the world. The image was striking and brought a real sense of fun to the day; 3) the trees in the aisles of Westminster Abbey. This was a particularly meaningful symbol for me, regardless of what it meant to the couple themselves. I saw this as a mark of real individuality and personality on the part of the couple. I thought that it brought a real sense of the “country girl” in Kate Middleton into the scene. I found that I was paying much more attention to the trees themselves than to the opulence and grandeur of the Abbey Architecture.

    A Word About The Monarchy
    As an American who has lived his entire life shielded by the ostenible calm and order of American Suburbia and the highly polished sensibilities of a Democratic Republic, I really have no true understanding of the monarchy. However, my own lineage is incredibly Briton in its origins, being descended from both Scottish and English agrarian families (one relative claiming that she had traced one of our family lines back to Henry VIII) so I have a great pride in being descended from this region of the world. And I am impressed with the public work that they do.

    The Queen (and many of her family) have dedicated the whole of their lives in service to the country. They meet thousands of people a year from every walk of life (the lowest to the highest born) and treat them with courtesy and respect. They go out on diplomatic missions for the country around the world and the family firm donates millions to charity every year. While the British press often characterizes the royal family as spoiled and lazy and out of touch, I see some of them give away much in privacy and often their own personal desires in favor of what may be best for the firm and the country.

    A Word About National Ritual
    But at the end of the day, what I saw was a national ceremony that will hopefully become one of those benchmark days that will bind the country closer together in its continued journey for a strong civil society, characterized by education, caring, and a stronger public ethic. We don’t really have occasions of such visual power or endowed with great spiritual and patriotic ritual as this was. We don’t have much in the way of rites that can bind us together as Americans. I suppose that the inauguration of a president, or the State of the Union address might qualify as somewhat equivalent to this wedding, but I doubt it.

    Americans have such a puritanical approach to public ceremony and ritual that prevents us from generating too much spectacle. In fact, we often deride anything that is as over the top and as hyper-celebratory as this wedding. Perhaps this is why so many of us watched the wedding with such fascination and pay such close attention to the details and meaning of the event; because we will never see anything that provides a connection between the individual and the state in quite such a way.

    We do have opportunities in this country and we often miss our chance to strengthen the connection as a country. On the whole, I would say that we would be better served to direct our resources to more national ritual, or to go over the top in the national ritual that we have, bringing it into the lives of many more Americans.

    A Final Thought
    All in all, it was fascinating, and I thoroughly enjoyed the commentary and discussion of what the day meant to people in every corner of the earth. I am just going to finish out this unbelievably lengthy comment by quoting the words from the music used during the processional of the bride:

    I was glad when they said unto me : We will go into the house of the Lord.
    Our feet shall stand in thy gates : O Jerusalem.
    Jerusalem is built as a city : that is at unity in itself.
    For thither the tribes go up, even the tribes of the Lord : to testify unto Israel, to give thanks unto the Name of the Lord.
    For there is the seat of judgement : even the seat of the house of David.
    O pray for the peace of Jerusalem : they shall prosper that love thee.
    Peace be within thy walls : and plenteousness within thy palaces.
    For my brethren and companions’ sakes : I will wish thee prosperity.
    Yea, because of the house of the Lord our God : I will seek to do thee good.

  28. Really lovely ideas, Ronan! I’m inspired by your observations. I hope so much that the future generations of the British monarchy can be people to look up to. I feel a lot of sadness about Charles and Diana and what happened between them. In some ways it seemed then that almost any random British person would be a better role model than Charles. Hopefully that era is gone now, and William and Catherine will act in a way that’s worthy of the admiration and adulation we pour out upon them.

  29. Brilliantly worded, the OP works equally well when read as satire.

  30. Too bad they didn’t choose any music from England’s greatest composer, Henry Purcell <a href"http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GKyz8DOnkQ"(his setting of I was glad).

    But with the big choir and orchestra and huge space, it was probably better to stick with the 19th and 20th centuries.

  31. Really enjoyed reading this. Well done, and thank you, Ronan.

  32. annegb says:

    I love this, Ronan. As I watched the coverage on the wedding, I was struck by the joy on the faces of the people thronged outside. Putting on the hats; sleeping overnight to be part of a crowd so large that it seems impossible to really see anything. It had such a family feel and I admired the British for being able to keep this going. The monarchy and national pride, I mean.

    I called a friend yesterday and she said, “what did you think about the royal wedding, wasn’t it beautiful?” I agreed and said that with all that’s going on in the world, any good news lifts us, the people of the world.

    I kind of feel sorry for William and Kate with those kind of expectations–mine alone are high!–on them. But I also appreciate and respect their dignity and generosity in sharing this with the whole flippin’ world.

  33. Glenn Smith says:

    It’s going to be interesting to watch William & Kate grow into their roles, especially as the world hurls itself into an uncertain future.

  34. Just for those who might be interested – the ceremony will be available in full on CD:

    The Royal Wedding-the Official Album

    Set to be released this week.

  35. woodboy says:

    Also, if you like this type of music, this disc is fantastic, and contains some of the same pieces heard in the wedding:


  36. Mommie Dearest says:

    I’ve been YouTubing all weekend.

    The Bride’s Processional (I Was Glad)

    The Anthem composed for this event by Rutter

    this has become a favorite, Ubi Caritas by Paul Mealor:

  37. Ronan, as one who is not particularly Royalist I wonder why I blush with patriotism on these rare state occasions. Your excellent post is persuasive and begins to provide an explanation. As others have mentioned I was particularly moved by the singing of Jerusalem, but perhaps strangely found the most moving element the singing of God Save the Queen by the entire congregation save the Queen herself, who looked on impassively. A monarch to rank amongst the very greatest.

  38. Glad you liked it, gomez. I think the problem for many people ambivalent about the monarchy is that they have fallen for the media-led soap opera of the Windsor family. What I would like people to understand is that we should honour and celebrate the Crown for it has served us well.

  39. rusty #21,

    I think you have just demonstrated that unfortunate Mormon disposition to find some mote in someone else’s eye about which to complain.

  40. Yes, I think I have been guilty of seeing them as little more than tabloid fodder, though I have always had a great deal of respect for the Queen, who always rises above it. That’s why I think your post resonated so much with me – because I want to see them as more than just a very special dysfunctional family. On reflection, I think Charles’ generation struggled to know how to act in an era in which the distance between the Royals and the rest of us was broken down by an increasingly intrusive and aggressive media. I think there is reason to be hopeful that at least William and Kate are negotiating the new Royal dynamic better than the previous generation.

  41. A wonderful event and a great write-up. Thanks RJH.

    The wedding itself was a true Event for all the reasons you mentioned and I too was profoundly impressed by the scenes of the crowds slowly advancing down the Mall behind a line of police, all progressing in purposeful good order to stop in front of Buckingham Palace to watch the balcony appearance.

    Everything was picture perfect.

  42. Ronan,

    I found the marriage ceremony to be amazing and the actual language and prayers to be inspiring. I find myself wishing that more Englishmen (if they won’t be LDS) were believing and practicing COE. I do believe that the UK would be much better off if this was the case.

    With the decline in the sheer numbers of Anglican priests in England and the 5% activity rate amongst congregants I honestly wondered during the ceremony if the ArchBishop and other Bishops actually believed what they were preaching and praying about Jesus and marriage. I hope that they do.

  43. The Archbishop is most certainly a bona fide believer.

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