It was a slightly surreal experience: standing in the echoing entrance chamber of a fine 19th-century Town Hall, all marbled staircase and municipal splendor, talking about the latest addition to the Royal Family.
Ave Maria radio from the USA – hosted by Al Kresta – had telephoned me to discuss the recent Royal nuptials.
I had happily agreed to do the interview, but then forgotten about it and so when the call came I was deep in some 19th-century archives as part of a major history project, settled comfortably at a desk in Richmond’s old Town Hall on the bank of the Thames. The loud ringing of my mobile phone was the last thing that I – or anyone else – wanted in the silence of that library. I hurried out conscious of quietly indignant looks from librarians and fellow-researchers.
Al Kresta began by asking for a general opinion on the Royal wedding, a sort of overview. Millions had watched on TV worldwide, including vast numbers of Americans who rose at 4 a.m. to do so. It was a superb spectacle. Was it, in a general sense, something of value, something that could do some good?
The answer to that, surely is an affirmative, and that’s an important point. Whatever the complications – the validity of Miss Markle’s earlier marriage, etc. – what we all saw was the grandeur of a Christian marriage ceremony. Leave aside the complications for a moment and think visually. Here was beauty and dignity, solemnity and a sense of history. There was fine preaching – really powerful stuff! – in a voice of conviction. There was glorious music – Rutter’s “The Lord bless you and keep you” rising to those ancient arches with clarity and sweetness in the best of an English choral tradition. There was a hearty Gospel choir adding a different note. There was a bride in a long white veil, plus enchanting small children carrying flowers. All of this is good.
In Britain, marriage has for the past few decades been regarded as, at best, an optional “extra” in community and family life. To have it placed center-stage, and in such a superb way, was, of itself, a good thing.
Of course there is a down side to all of that. The weddings that do take place in Britain (the number of marriages is at an all-time low) are getting grander and grander, and more and more expensive. This great Royal wedding offers every prospect of ensuring that the wedding-dress industry, and industries promoting other “must-haves” for a grand event, will do extremely well over the next months and years.
But splendid images and lovely scenes can do good. The Catholic revival in England in the 19th century was assisted by Romantic poets who wrote about ruined abbeys (think Wordsworth and Tintern Abbey) even though they had little sympathy for the Catholic Church. God can use beauty – even where it simply involves an actress from a TV soap-opera, and the slightly absurd sight of the British relishing a nationwide party in the sunshine – to remind people of good and important things.
So: if we take up that thought and try to see how we can use all this as an evangelical opportunity – well, that could be part of what the Lord would have us do. What else might be of importance about the royal marriage?
The general media line is that the new Royal bride brings much-needed change into the Royal family and will ensure that royalty becomes identified with the causes she espouses. To the extent that this may be fulfilled, it could be a very bad thing. The new Duchess is very charming. But in announcing that she is a “feminist” she may be walking a little too enthusiastically into territory where she really has no particular right to go. She has a right to her personal opinions, but not to use her acquired status to impose them on the rest of us.
What is a feminist? In the form that it has taken in recent decades, feminism has been passionate in promoting sexual activity among young people – in the name of sexual freedom – the widespread use of contraception, and of course abortion. We may charitably suppose that perhaps the new Duchess supports none of these things – but that puts her at odds with what most self-proclaimed feminists have been saying for the past half-century.
Sprinting upstairs to finish my work with just 10 minutes to spare before the library closed, I returned briefly to the 19th century and the vanished Britain of the Victorian era.
In fact, I remained in that era for a while longer. Further along the Thames is Grey Court House where John Henry Newman lived as a small child, and my route home went that way.
Grey Court House is now part of a school. The grounds are rather neglected, but the house is in good order and filled each day with pupils and activity. Just up the road there is now a thriving Catholic church, something unimaginable in the 1800s when small John Henry played around here, in an era when “Papist” was a term of abuse.
As a little boy, John Henry Newman lay in bed and watched candles being set in the windows to mark the victory in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. British people were proud of their country, but the Britain of the early 19th century was in many ways a cruel place, with much injustice, poverty and misery. The Catholic revival – both the Tractarian movement in the Church of England and the “Second Spring” of Catholicism following the Emancipation Act of 1829 – brought massive changes. By the end of the century, widespread education, the banning of vicious punishments such as flogging and transportation, and reform in hospitals, prisons and asylums, had created a different Britain.
What is noteworthy is that this Catholic revival tapped into what might be called a sort of folk memory of Catholicism – so that gothic architecture, care for the poor, the clergy taking a fatherly concern for people’s general welfare, a calendar of feast-days, and a sense that Christianity should be connected with beauty and with joy, began once again to seem natural.
A Royal wedding can be an opportunity to open up channels into folk memories too. Let us hope – and pray and work – that something good may result.