Marriage is no longer taken for granted as the normal way to start a family. Half of all children born in Britain are born to unmarried parents. When schools send letters home with the children, announcing a school event or inviting participation in a fund-raiser or a sports day, the letters are now addressed in a variety of ways that would have sounded very odd not so very long ago: “Dear parents and care-givers,” and “Dear Carer/Guardian/Parent.”
The wedding of Prince William of Wales and Catherine Middleton will have the traditional trimmings of Royal nuptials: the bells of Westminster Abbey will ring; there will be cheering crowds and a pretty bride; a public holiday and London basking in a sense of fun and friendliness. It will be a happy day. But it involves things that are, in many ways, almost alien to lots of British people today – church-going, girls in dresses, a sense of community. It will do us all good. But it may make us pause and think.
Many weddings in Britain now take place in hotels or stately homes rented for the purpose. A change in the law a few years back meant that all sorts of places can now be registered for marriage. The local church is only one option – and one that is increasingly rejected in favour of a castle, a house on a lake, a glorious Georgian mansion.
The Church of England has even taken to putting up posters urging people to consider the possibility of marrying in church. God isn’t part of life for many people, and the old idea that marriage also associated you with your family heritage, with faith and with a sense of passed-on wisdom, has given way to the notion that it is “your big day” with a focus on the bride and groom having a wonderful time at huge expense with some of their chosen friends.
At one time, a Royal Wedding at Westminster Abbey echoed that of an ordinary family wedding in a suburban or village church – a point that was made at the first-ever broadcast Royal Wedding, that of the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) back in the 1920s. It was not televised, or course, but parts of the procession were filmed and recorded, and the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury widely reported as he noted that, for all its grandeur, the wedding was just the same as for any young couple marrying “at some little church in the Dales.” He was right, and his sermon struck an authentic note. But the same could not be said today.
Perhaps a sense of nostalgia for this accounts in part for the huge success of the film “The King’s Speech,” starring Colin Firth. He is a popular actor – famous as Mr Darcy in that BBC production of Pride and Prejudice – but there is more to it than that. The film celebrates royalty at its best – duty, courage, service, self-sacrifice – and a marriage centred on great love and loyalty. These were all things that Britain needed in World War II.
What values do we need as we face the new challenges of the 21st Century? Where are we going to find them?