I don’t plan to get up at 4 am on Friday but I do hope to catch a good bit of the wedding of William Windsor and Kate Middleton. I doubt I’ll have much trouble finding it replayed (and replayed and replayed) across the spectrum of cable and broadcast networks in the days and weeks to come.
Amid all the hype about the ceremony is a deep undercurrent of cynicism about these kinds of affairs, some of it rooted in the love/hate relationship Americans have always had with the British monarchy. We’re both drawn to and baffled by it–envious, perhaps, of its rich, centuries-long tradition, yet bewildered by the rigid and often humorless deference to protocol borne of that same tradition. (And then there are those who are downright hostile to the institution, extolling the American colonists who “fought a bloody war for the privilege to ignore the king of England”).
Many Americans will view the ceremony in Westminster Abbey with sensibilities shaped by a decade of reality TV’s take on matrimony: the bride as cutthroat competitor in a harem of beauties (The Bachelor); obscenely conspicuous consumption (Say Yes to the Dress); and “Wow, honey,”–as the veil is lifted–“nice nose job!” (Bridalplasty).
Undergirding each of these “realities” is the notion of marriage as the culmination of a fairytale relationship–not the beginning, mind you, of a journey of discovery and friendship with its inevitable bumps in the road (more like sinkholes and craters)–but a consummate, bank-breaking spectacle staged primarily for the benefit of envious onlookers. No wonder we’re cynical.
But one thing that makes me more hopeful than cynical about this royal wedding is that the third person on the altar along with William and Kate, the one who will marry the nervous couple in view of the whole world, is the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.
I have admired Williams since I first encountered his writings in seminary in the late 1980s when he was the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford University. The depth and breadth of his scholarship has always been staggeringly impressive. Whether writing on the Resurrection or Arianism or 9/11 or Dostoevsky, Williams (whose work is always rooted in his vocation as priest) is an erudite, eloquent, humble, hopeful, generous communicator of the Christian gospel.
That he became the head of the worldwide Anglican communion in this age of the soundbyte and short attention span is lamentable–for him, perhaps, but especially for the rest of us. His careful, thoughtful way with words, the patience with which he engages his many and varied interlocutors, the long view he takes of the Church’s work in the world–none of this has endeared him to a skeptical, secular Britain nor to an Anglican Church ever on the edge of schism.
But Williams presses on with characteristic humility to illumine the issues that confront global Christianity. And with quiet authority he takes on matters of the human heart, human sexuality, and human community: fidelity in relationships and the risks of manipulation that attend all our relationships; the grace necessary to sustain relationships (like marriage) for the long haul. His writing is often at once mystical and deeply pragmatic, simultaneously acknowledging the mystery at the center of human sexuality and the mundane attentiveness required to persevere–and flourish–with another. In a sermon entitled “Is There a Christian Sexual Ethic?” Williams writes:
The grace that is to be discovered in nakedness, in yielding, is released to be itself when we give up the self-protecting strategies of non-commitment, experiment, and gratification, and decide instead for the danger of promising to be there for another without a saving clause that would license us to abandon the enterprise as soon as the other declines to be possessed unilaterally by us, as soon as the other’s otherness gives us difficulty. In such a perspective, we have time for each other. A commitment without limits being set in advance says that we have (potentially) a lifteime to “create” each other together. By giving ourselves over to each other, we make something of each other.
In a video prepared by Lambuth Palace in anticipation of the royal wedding, Williams talks about the “mystery” and “delight” at the heart of marriage, and that “to be a witness [to a wedding] is to be more than a spectator.” For cynics, this might seem like a slick media strategy designed to bring more attention to an event already wildly overhyped. But Williams locates this event (and every wedding) theologically–as a “moment of hope and affirmation about people’s present and future” and he counts it a privilege to “wish [William and Kate] the courage and clarity to live out this big commitment.”
So, yes, there will be plenty of commercial excesses in Friday’s televised nuptials–lots of gossip about guests and gowns, lots of sarcasm and cynicism about the futures of the future king and queen. But maybe there will also be room for a moment of quiet gratitude for the gift of witnessing–with a few other billion people–the “commitments that are possible” (Williams) when two people take each other for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until they are parted by death.