The real relevance of the Royal Wedding
The Royal wedding has dominated our TV screens and ignited discussions on a range of Royalty related topics, from the frivolous, “her dress was faaa-bu-lous”, to the political “where was Tony Blair”, to the symbolic “she won’t ‘obey’?” through to the critical “the wedding will cost the tax-payer how much??” and even the revolutionary, as closet Republicans used the opportunity to decry Kate and Wills, the “benefit scroungers”! Others have used the opportunity to resurrect a common reproach concerning the relevance of the Royal institution in the modern era. As a friend of mine acerbically put it, “how can anyone possibly be even vaguely excited about the union of two such posh parasitic relics of a bygone exploitative colonial age” – (her words not mine!)
And yet it occurred to me, as the unassuming James Middleton read out the passage Romans 12: 1-2, 9-18, following his sister’s exchange of vows with Prince William, that contained within that solemn reading, is perhaps the very reason the monarchy has continued relevance for the modern world. I think it is worth reproducing the entire passage here as it is not only profoundly moving but thoroughly pertinent:
I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
(Romans 12: 1, 2, 9-18)
It appears to me that in this short but incisive passage, James Middleton has assiduously summed up the core themes which point to the continued need for spirituality in modern Britain and therefore to the potential continued relevance of the monarch, as the head of the Church of England and, as Prince Charles controversially proposed in a 1994 interview, as “Defender of Faith” (as opposed to “the” Faith, inferring the exclusively Christian faith…)
The Queen, by title, is not only Supreme Governor of the Church of England, but also Defender of ‘the’ Faith. Semantics aside, in a world in which the sacred has largely been banished, the challenge of defending faith is a very real one and many have denounced the fact that in society in which fewer and fewer people identify as Christian, the institution of the monarchy itself has become largely irrelevant, if not cumbersome and outmoded. The question of the place of religion in the modern world effectively has very real ramifications for the monarchy and the challenge of maintaining the relevance of religion is tied in to maintaining their own.
And yet, somehow I feel this Royal wedding managed to successfully combine a celebration of its time and the enduring values which characterise the institution they are duty-bound to uphold. It had its celebrity guests, designer gowns and dancing into the night, but it also carried real weight with carefully selected readings, thoughtful psalms and a reworking of tradition (Prince William decided Harry would be his best-man, rather than his “supporter” and Kate Middleton chose to “keep” not “obey” her husband), choices which seemed too carefully selected, too personal, to merely reflect a standard Royal protocol.
Until now, the Royal family has been marred by scandal, divorce, drugs, infidelity and corruption, and the young couple have not been spared their share of controversy. And yet in their careful choice of this Biblical passage, the only reading of the ceremony, the couple offered us a window into their conception of faith, one which seems to point to a far more active role for religion in the 21st century. Beyond symbolism and titles, Prince William has inherited his mother’s commitment to charitable works and his choice of profession – let alone his choice to work – hint at a weighty conception of his responsibilities as heir to the throne. His choice of profession alone, as a search and rescue pilot, already indicates thorough consideration, and a living embodiment of the very values his role as future head “defender of the faith” call on him to maintain –committing one’s life to helping others, in other words, “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” A lived spirituality in which Divine values carry transformative power.
Without glossing over many of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s actions which might well be viewed as contravening “God’s law” (as the Archbishop of Canterbury described it on Friday!), I see great hope in the spiritual message which the couple chose to convey through their ceremony. The replanting of the trees used during the ceremony in Highgrove Gardens, the making of all gifts a charitable donation, their establishment of the Royal wedding charitable fund, not to mention their prior volunteering and environmental work. One of the problems Christianity has faced in modern Britain has been the fact it has retained only a broadly symbolic value, a cultural relic, a hollow shell, devoid of the guiding values which once gave it vigour. In the message presented at the Royal wedding, I saw hope for a future in which the symbolism will take a back seat to the substantive Divine values which really have transformative potential. As a Muslim, I was reminded through the choice of passage of the common values found across different faiths, as the core themes of love, forgiveness, charity and God consciousness echoed with my own spirituality. One such example is the core value in Islam “to enjoin good and forbid evil”; a principle expressed so poignantly in the line “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good,” a concept seemingly at odds with the cultural relativism of our time and yet at the heart of the message the new it-couple, have chosen to define themselves through.
Beyond the hedonism and consumerism which have come to mark our public sphere, the message contained within this reading hinted at the possibility of exaltation, of sublimeness, of striving in the path of God to exemplify the divine values which have the transformative potential to “renew the mind”. I just hope the new couple take the opportunity to use the enthusiasm concerning their union, to further the very values upon which their exceptional standing in society is ultimately premised. My hope would be that just as their reading suggested, they might not be “conformed to this world”, but “discern what is the will of God… what is good and acceptable and perfect” and use the world’s obsession with the minutia of their lives, to propagate the Divine values they are called, through their position, to embody and disseminate.