The Royal Wedding: More Than an Unrehearsed Sing-along

What is it that attracted so many to the royal wedding Friday morning? An estimated three billion people tuned in to it. It averaged 67 tweets and 74 facebook mentions per second. Within an hour, the Washington Post’s Royal Wedding Blog listed “25,820 articles” on it! What was that all about?

The Los Angeles Times lamented “the hoopla” as “a lesson in just how many hours some of the highest-paid television journalists in the world can spend discussing a bridal dress they have not seen while watching people they do not know mill about in Westminster Abbey wearing large hats.” But the wedding was more than that. It was a reminder of nobility, not just the nobility of the British monarchy, but the nobility of human aspiration that most of us have forgotten we have.

I surveyed my own register of liturgical experts on both sides of the Atlantic. Rabbi Charles Middleburgh, an editor for the Liberal Jewish liturgies of Great Britain, spoke for many when he said, “The ceremony was a deeply traditional one, with some of the greatest hymns being sung and stirring music being played.” Dr. Paul Bradshaw, a British liturgist and priest in the Anglican Church himself, explained that “Prince Charles, the bridegroom’s father, is a lover of traditional language rites.” The couple therefore chose “our traditional language marriage rite, not the one authorized in 1662 which describes marriage as a remedy against fornication so that we should not be like the brute beasts of the field, but a slightly cleaned up version of that.”

Good thing they cleaned up the “remedy against fornication” bit, but, mellifluous language aside, the rite had other problems that left some carping. Haven’t we given up the antiquated notion of giving the bride away? Lutheran liturgist, Dr. Gail Ramshaw of Philadelphia, thinks they “missed an opportunity for Christians to witness meaningful contemporary liturgy. When I hear ‘wilt,’” she says, “I wilt! And, really, ‘man and wife?’”  Indeed, try saying “woman and husband” and you get the idea.

Still, Middleburgh is spot on (as they say across the pond) when he applauds the old language as “being so much finer than its deeply prosaic modern versions.” The soaring lines of Westminster Abbey reverberated with it — and with the sung words of William Blake’s Jerusalem.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.

This is a far cry from what we usually get in worship: folksy settings, dress-down gatherings, a guitar or two, and language by lesser lights than Blake. For one brief hour, the British Empire was resurrected from the dead, but without its imperial exclusivity. The Anglican liturgy once sought God’s mercy on “Jews, Turks, infidels, and heretics.” At Westminster, on Friday, Jews and Muslims joined Christians as equals, marveling together at religious ritual’s reach into the heavens. The wedding “expressed respect for monarchy, the Church [and] marriage,” comments Dr. Brigitte Sion, a liturgist in New York, “transcending race, class, religion and geography.”

“Monarchy, church and marriage,” mind you, none of which is doing very well right now. Bradshaw notes that it is “commonplace for couples in the UK to live together without marrying at all, or to marry only after their children are old enough to be bridesmaids at their own parents’ weddings.” Religions in the west have spent half a century downsizing rituals to the point where people may not think they are worth doing any more.

I understand that downsizing. It is part of the baby-boomer revolt against the sterile liturgies that relegated congregations to passivity and erected social distance between people at a time when they sought just the opposite: community, connection, and a God who meets and knows us intimately. But intimacy is one thing; sloppiness, even slovenliness, is another. People in charge of contemporary liturgies tend to forget the artistic care that even informal liturgies require.

In any event, our problem today is that public life in general has become slovenly — and not just aesthetically, but morally. Public debate has cheapened into mean spiritedness. Politicians become little thinkers who shrink our purview of the possible until whatever seems worth doing cannot be done. We are bereft of heroes to call us to our higher selves.

But on occasion, the human spirit whispers within us that it wants to soar again. And the wedding let us soar. Vicariously, at least, we all dressed up for a fairy-tale ending, prince and all; and celebrated it in something other than an unrehearsed sing-along. There is more to a calendar than holiday sales, more to the world than box stores and malls, and more to life than choosing between burgers and burritos. As the midrash puts it, we are all princes and princesses, all children of a divine ruler. On Friday we got a glimpse of royalty – not just the royal family’s but our own.

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6 responses to “The Royal Wedding: More Than an Unrehearsed Sing-along

  1. Larry, we are so on the same page. I had to write a blog for the Jewish Journal about the royal wedding and I had to look up the names of the wedding couple! oy, so out of touch but not sure that’s a bad thing. I love your writing, as always, and hope life is finding you smiling and at peace.
    with love,
    lauren (for a laugh if you feel like it, read ‘royal sheva brachot’ on the jewish journal website…)

  2. I was pleasantly aware, also, of the mingling of several religions under one sacred roof and this made me hope that one day it will be an ongoing reality.
    By the way, I was very impressed by the “sermon” or “lesson” given by one of the Anglican bishops. It was forceful, almost powerful, very clear, and definitely riveting.
    I agree that our world seems to be bereft of heroes. There’s no better example of that than many of the men in political office. In Canada’s election last Monday I believe there was only one man who could possibly be seen as a hero and he got a clear majority.
    Last Friday at the “wedding” we indeed got a glimpse of royalty and, as a result, felt our spirits elevated. On this point, I most certainly agree.

    • The mingling of several religions was especially important. This was a public ritual that stated the official nature of British identity. Its public proclamation through ritual of religious inclusivity was very important! I agree also about the sermon, which was lovely. A model for many.

  3. Hi Larry
    I am the mom of Hannah and Lillian from Temple Israel in London. I am enjoying your blog – my dose of spirituality and intellectuality wrapped into one, and about all this gal has time for in those two domains. I got up at 4:30 on the morning of the wedding, picked up my mom at 5:00 and took her to the old Palace Theatre on Dundas which was hosting a screening of the wedding. Mom had asked if I would be interested, and I was ambivalent but sensed it was something she really wanted to do. We had an absolutely wonderful morning of mother daughter bonding. We oohed and aahed and whispered and gossiped about everyone up there in front of us as if they were family. We ate scones with cream, and sipped tea and admired everyone in the theatre who came decked out in hats and stoles. I hung on until 7:30 when I had to leave to go to work, although my mom wanted me to wait for “the kiss.” All day, I felt that something special had happened to me . You put it in such a lovely way when you wrote about the majesty of the royal wedding resonating with the royalty in each of us as children of the divine. I will carry that thought with me – and tell my mom about it too. Take care, Larry.

    • What a lovely comment! Thank you. Actually, scholars who study ritual have a name for this sort of thing. They call the actual ritual event that people go to or observe in some other way “the gfame.” The stuff the people do alongside of or in addition to “the game” is called the spectacle. You, for example, “oohed and aahed and whispered and gossiped about everyone up there in front of us as if they were family. We ate scones with cream, and sipped tea and admired everyone in the theatre who came decked out in hats and stoles.” That’s the spectacle. It amounts to a sort of “shadow ritual:” that you (as it were) invented for yourselves. Very touching.

      If you go to synagogue, you will find all sorts of shadow rituals there as well: the way people come early to meet and greet each other; the oneg shabbat after services; and (at a bar or bat mitzvah) what the family does in addition to just watching or participating in what the official “game” is all about — that is, they do watch the bar/bat mitzvah and may even pray, but they also take part in their own family rituals — greeting great-aunt Mavis, or gossiping about how old great Uncle Howard is — that sort of thing. Then after the official game (the service), they have their own family ritual — what actually may mean more to them than the service (!) — the candle – lighting ceremony at lunch.

      Thanks for commenting. Good to hear from you.

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