When your family church is Westminster Abbey, chances are you won’t be allowed to make up your own wedding vows. Your vows will likely come from the Church of England’s 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Its eloquence is so memorable that its phrases have become part of our language (“to have and to hold from this day forward”), as have phrases from the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare. All these works were written at a time when eloquence was highly valued, and they were conceived with highly-memorable auditory beauty as a goal.
And although (Sir) Elton John has been invited to the upcoming royal wedding, the music for the ceremony will not be pop songs, but sacred music written for the church over the centuries by some of the greatest composers who ever lived. These include Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Henry Purcell, George Frideric Handel, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, and many more.
The extraordinary nature of the building, the language, the music, the boy’s choir, the costumes, and all the rest will combine to proclaim to the world that this is no commonplace occasion, but the addition of someone to the status of royalty.
Americans often take a certain pride in having cast off a system that includes inherited positions of royalty and nobility, yet we also remain fascinated and slightly envious of it. Being “royal” is perhaps the world’s most exclusive group. Unless you are born a member, your only chance of getting in is to marry into it.
A royal wedding needs to be a highly visible, tradition-filled public event because it is a rite that makes the pair not only a couple, but a royal couple. The ceremony establishes a legitimate place for that couple’s children in the lineage of the royal family. The question of lineage is not a division of wealth or child custody that can be sorted out by divorce lawyers or pre-nuptial agreements. When inherited title is involved, you are either born with it or not, and the traditions for determining that are centuries old.
Ideally a royal marriage will prove enduring and loving. But this is not always the case, as Britain’s current royal family has demonstrated. Even the highly troubled and ultimately contentious marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, however, dutifully provided the royal family with two legitimate heirs before a fed-up Queen Elizabeth suggested they negotiate a divorce.
[Photo of Westminster Abbey by Wolfiewolf. Used under the Flickr Creative Commons License.]