The royal wedding is behind us. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex doubtless are among the many relieved by that fact. Not among those who woke before dawn to bake scones and watch the event live, I saw it all mediated by day-after analysts. Breathlessly, consistently, commentators dubbed the event a success because of its forward-looking, flexible vibe.
Harry and Meghan broke with tradition, many writers gushed, shaking off fusty old aristocratic protocol and doing things in a modern, personal, progressive way. To be sure, the bride’s profile was unusual for a British princess-to-be, though perhaps her fiance’s high spirits already credentialed the couple as nontraditional: “Prince Harry’s popularity helped give him power to stretch the bounds of convention by marrying Ms. Markle, an American of mixed race,” a New York Times photo caption proclaimed.
Some commentary about the wedding got silly. That same New York Times report praising Harry’s boundary-stretching praised the couple for “nudging the British royal family into a new era.” The choices Harry and Meghan made in designing this wedding “sent a message to the world,” a “plan to project a more inclusive monarchy.”
That might be going too far.
The millions assembled to watch the spectacle, whether on the procession route or in front of screen at home, were not tuning in to see the shock of the new. Novelty is easy. I concur with my colleague Christopher Gehrz that this ceremony was more impressive for its traditional elements than its breaking of new ground. If the point were breaking with formality, the couple could have gotten married in Vegas. The whole appeal of this weekend spectacle was its presentation of the old, the venerable, to a young-ish couple situated to prize and share it. Viewers, like the bride and groom themselves, may have delighted in the personal touches of the day, the way the personality of this particular man and woman were displayed in the ceremony making one from two. But the attraction of the thing was not its novelty but its tradition.
Many American women on brink of marriage crave tradition, try to get some. For those outside of ethnicity or family requiring a certain way of doing things, it falls to the bride to make it all up. This phenomenon Rebecca Mead named “Inventing the Traditionalesque” in her fine book on weddings, One Perfect Day. Real traditions come to you from someone else. You take them whole because you have to, and what they mean has been decided before you arrived on the scene. In contrast, the “traditionalesque” consists in things a couple selects, a “pleasing mélange of apparently old-fashioned, certainly nostalgic, intermittently ethnically authentic practices that may have little relevance to the past or to the future and are really only illustrative of the present in which they emerge.”
This puzzle is illustrated perhaps best in debriefings over The Dress. Before its unveiling—literally, giving how much tulle trailed the bride—British fashion writer Colin McDowell told NPR’s David Greene how Ms. Markle’s dress might differ from the royal-bride standard. That traditional one: “It’s long. It’s white. It’s often quite fussy. And it’s got a train. Now all brides want the train. But that’s one of the problems to modernity. You can’t have a train and come out in—I don’t know—jeans or whatever. You know? I’d like to see her.” Ms. Markle did come out in something decidedly un-fussy. But hardly untraditional. Enthusiasm echoed among writers that this was a dress “made for a woman, not a princess” Vanessa Friedman described it this way in the New York Times.
But of course it speaks of fantasy and fairy tales. Fantasy and fairy tales, after all, are the reason free people ungoverned by any crowned head set alarms to wake predawn to watch nuptials. The clean-lined character of the dress doesn’t make it any less princess-y. The bridal look of America’s “Second Princess” was compared to Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. Double-bonded silk cady doesn’t come cheap.
It was not a Cinderella choice, not one that spoke of fantasy or old-fashioned fairy tales, but one that placed the woman proudly front and center. It underscored Ms. Markle’s own independence by divesting her of frippery, while also respecting tradition and keeping her covered up. It celebrated female strength in the rigorous nature of its line — six exactingly placed seams — the substance of its fabric (double-bonded silk cady), and the choice of designer: a British woman who, as a statement from Kensington Palace read, had “served as the creative head of three globally influential fashion houses — Pringle of Scotland, Chloé, and now Givenchy.”
We like this stuff. We don’t want to get rid of the traditional. We don’t have enough of it, and wish we could get a piece of somebody else’s. Reaching for the traditional, even our market-driven hybrid variety, represents a real longing. Many brides dearly want something bigger than their own particular tastes or whims, and certainly many wedding-goers or watchers want something more than the bride’s whims. For an occasion that we agree should mean something, our own improvisation, makeshift and quirky, isn’t sufficient.
Part of what is honored in a royal wedding is tradition, but it’s more than that. It is, further, a hope that the best things we can say about marriage is true: that love should be committed and permanent, supported by family, honoring the place the couple came from, imagining that to obey one’s vows is both right and joyful. Royal-wedding viewers recognize that this desire is general and not only aristocratic. Speaking metaphorically, we all want “the train.” We may not be able to get it. Our social arrangements make such love and marriage harder. Those are among the problems of modernity, as McDowell said so neatly.
But we don’t want to do away with it, we want in.
Every couple on their wedding day is a royal couple. And that is where the words spoken to Harry’s parents come in.The sermon preached by Bishop Michael Bruce Curry was rousing, moving on the power of love. In Curry’s words, “We were made by a power of love and our lives were meant–and are meant–to be lived in loved. That’s why we are here.” But in spite of the bad end of the marriage sealed by Rev. Robert Runcie in 1981, the charge spoken to Charles and Diana is worth hearing again, in part to explain what we came out to see this past Saturday, in part to describe what one hopes for any newlyweds in this season:
Here is the stuff of which fairy tales are made: the Prince and Princess on their wedding day. But fairy tales usually end at this point with the simple phrase, ”They lived happily ever after.” This may be because fairy stories regard marriage as an anticlimax after the romance of courtship.
This is not the Christian view. Our faith sees the wedding day not as the place of arrival but the place where the adventure really begins.
There is an ancient Christian tradition that every bride and groom on their wedding day are regarded as a royal couple. To this day in the marriage ceremonies of the Eastern Orthodox Church crowns are held over the man and the woman to express the conviction that as husband and wife they are kings and queens of creation. As it says of humankind in the Bible, ”Thou crownedst him with glory and honor, and didst set him over the work of Thy hands.”
On a wedding day it is made clear that God does not intend us to be puppets but chooses to work through us, and especially through our marriages, to create the future of His world. ‘The Real Adventure’