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.