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Royal weddings can be solemn or superficial, yet remain in either case of utmost importance. They are the most watched weddings in the world. They both reveal and shape popular wedding culture.

That’s why ten years ago the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Will and Kate, was so encouraging. The wedding dress was a fine example of elegant modesty fitting for the Lord’s house, and the homily of Richard Chartres, Anglican bishop of London, was elegant, erudite, and evangelical.

“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire,” Bishop Chartres began. “So said St. Catherine of Siena, whose festival day it is today. Marriage is intended to be a way in which man and woman help each other to become what God meant each one to be: their deepest and truest selves.”

The wedding(s) of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex was (were) another story. In their recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, Harry and Meghan disclosed that “three days before our wedding, we got married; no one knows that.”

“We called the archbishop and we just said, ‘Look, this thing, this spectacle is for the world but we want our union between us,’” Meghan explained. “So, the vows that we have framed in our room are just the two of us in our back yard with the archbishop of Canterbury.”

“It was just the three of us,” added Harry.

That must have been acutely embarrassing for Archbishop Justin Welby. The interview revealed that he had indulged the entitlement complex of Harry and Meghan, popping around for a private wedding in violation of Church of England rules. And then presided over a pretend “second” wedding for the whole world to watch.

Lambeth Palace clammed up, saying that the archbishop would not comment upon the back garden goings-on as it was a “private matter.” 

Of course a wedding is emphatically not a private matter, neither for church nor state. The “union” is never just “between us.” That’s why witnesses are required, and at least some rudiments of proper form are mandated. 

Just a few months before Archbishop Justin’s double duty, Pope Francis married a couple on the papal plane in Chile. It likewise caused perplexity as to why the Holy Father would grant an impromptu marriage to a couple civilly married for eight years. Many parish priests were upset, fearing that the papal example would undermine their own adherence to canonical norms.

The story turned out to be a bit more complex than that—it wasn’t impromptu but planned in advance—and Pope Francis himself explained to journalists later that the ceremony conformed to proper procedure

Anglican priests have had no such consideration shown to them. The most they received is reports in the British tabloids a week later about what an official at Lambeth Palace told a vicar who rang up to inquire.

“Justin had a private conversation with the couple in the garden about the wedding, but I can assure you, no wedding took place until the televised national event,” the anonymous official is quoted as saying to Reverend Mark Edwards.

The upshot is widespread confusion on three key points, for both the Anglican faithful and those throughout the church of Oprah, which has a rather staggering number of adherents.

The first and most serious is confusion about the wedding itself. If Harry and Meghan, or even just one of the two, think that their real wedding was in the garden and the church wedding was for show, but it was actually the other way round, then there is serious doubt about whether they are validly married. If the couple thought—as evidently Meghan did—that they were really making their vows in the garden when they weren’t, then it is possible that they were confused as to what was going on at the real wedding. 

The second confusion is about what exactly the archbishop was doing in the garden. It is highly unlikely that the Duke and Duchess would confuse a “private conversation” with wedding vows, however formulated. It would be curious in the extreme for a cleric, let alone the archbishop of Canterbury, to allow a couple to think that a formal and solemn liturgical act was taking place when it wasn’t.

It’s not as though the Church of England has no experience in such matters. In 2005, when Prince Charles desired to marry his longtime mistress Camilla Parker-Bowles, the church declined. Charles by that time was a widower in the eyes of the church, but Camilla was a divorcée. So Charles and Camilla went down to the registry office in Windsor for a civil wedding. Afterward in St. George’s chapel there was a “Service of Prayer and Dedication,” which was the creatively ambiguous solution decided upon by Dr. Rowan Williams, then archbishop of Canterbury. (The Duchess of Sussex is also a divorcée, but since 2005, the Church of England has changed its practice on such marriages.)

The third confusion regards the cultural impact of the backyard real wedding preceding the church fake wedding, at least in the telling of the tale to Oprah. There are a great many couples who request a church wedding not for God’s blessing, much less for sacramental grace, but because the “spectacle” is for the parents or grandparents, for family tradition, or because it is photogenically pleasing. It is a pastoral challenge to clarify for such couples what a Christian wedding is in reality. In some tough cases, it may be that the priest has to inform the couple that if they do not understand, or even reject, what takes place in the church, then it would be better to go to city hall, as Harry’s father did, or get it done in the backyard, as it used to be said, without benefit of clergy. Those conversations will be rather more difficult now.

Cantuar’s apparent connivance in providing an august clerical presence at something that ought not have had the benefit of clergy is a serious matter, apart from all the other noise the Oprah interview caused. It deserves a serious explanation.

Raymond J. de Souza is a priest in the archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.

Photo by Sue via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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