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.