This weekend’s royal wedding shored up the British monarchy for a generation or three. Its impact on Christian theology was equally stabilizing for the status quo. More’s the pity. I will leave the political questions for another day, but I cannot let one third of the world watch a Christian marriage ceremony without mentioning several troubling matters.
Three stand out: First, while much was made of the fact that Kate would not vow to “obey” William, she was still escorted by her father (the mother looked on), “given” in marriage to her husband by her father via the priest. The father literally handed (by the hand) her over to the priest who then handed (gave her hand) her to her husband. After decades of feminist theology this is as far as we are? I thought Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was a theologian first. Surely he knows something about how offensive it is to think of any woman being “given” to any man or vice versa. That they embrace one another mutually in a covenant makes more sacramental and social sense even if one is royalty and the other not.
Second, at the ceremony’s end the presider pronounced the couple “man and wife.” Every commentator I heard repeated it piously as if it were true. What happened to the husband? Some will argue that it is a matter of translation, but so are a lot of sexist images from the Bible and church history. Now we try to call things by their names. “Husband and wife” is a more accurate description of the reality and something that signifies the equality of the two. Small matter? Yes, only if you are not the wife.
Third, and this also passed most watchers by, the persistent use of exclusive language for the divine—I know the Book of Common Prayer is not gender neutral—made a traditional ceremony even more dated than it needed to be. So many references to Father, Son, Ruler, King for the divine made it a feminist theologian’s nightmare. Or, to be creative about it, here is a wonderful object lesson for our students about how God-language works to reify power structures. Now the world has concrete evidence that the problem feminists have been referring to is not simply about gender but about power. Here is a beautiful example of how baptizing the status quo takes place. Look at how effective such language is to reinforce and reinscribe monarchical rule. Add a frilly hat or an airy fascinator, darling, and God’s in “His” heaven and all’s right with the world.
Lest any reader think I am still grousing about not being invited, let it be known I arose at 4AM to watch from the splendor of my own pillows. The pageantry was second to none, making even the weekend’s beatification of John Paul II look a little pale. No one, simply no one does hats and fascinators like the Brits. Even the horses are a little more gussied up in England. The Queen herself set the pace with a yellow outfit from head to toe. One commenter suggested that she looked like a Peep, those pastel marshmallow treats, but I thought it became her and fit the occasion. So there.
Let me stipulate further that I was not expecting a barefoot in the park kind of wedding. I know the Church of England has its standards. Still, it was sad to see that despite all the talk about young royals and their more populist ways that religion would once again be the still point in the universe, that which hasn’t changed for centuries.
This happens a lot. Young people who live together for years before they marry, women who hold responsible positions in the world, even some same-sex couples fall into the traps set by patriarchal religions. Somehow, despite any other modern or postmodern ways of behaving, when it comes to a wedding they want the old model. And they get it when uncritical clergy repeat the ancient formulas without any connection to the way women with men, women with women, and men with men conduct their lives before and after the ceremony.
This makes clear just how irrelevant religion is to most people. Yet they instrumentalize it for marriages (not to mention funerals and burials) without apology. I don’t blame them. If religious leaders don’t do our part to show new ways of celebrating that are more congruent with reality—new language, symbols, and gestures—what options do they have?
Here’s to you, Kate and Will. I wish you a more inclusive world, a more expansive God, and my wedding gift is trying to create it.