Robin Baird-Smith Charterhouse
In 1965, when I went up to Cambridge University, there arrived at my college on the same day the Prince of Wales and a young man named Richard Chartres, subsequently to become Anglican Bishop of London. The nearest I got to the Prince was in the college orchestra where he was a talented cellist, while I never graduated beyond the back desk of the second violins. The Prince and the bishop-to-be became firm friends and thus it was that Bishop Chartres was invited to preach at the royal wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton.
What a pleasant surprise it was when the bishop opened his sermon with a quotation from St Catherine of Siena, that great Dominican mystic and scourge of popes.
Christian marriage is certainly having a rocky time in this country at present. I learned from a pulpit recently that three in five marriages break down. We must for this reason not least attach exceptional importance to the happy and fulfilling marriage of William and Catherine. There has been a string of marital disasters in the royal family in recent years. There is much ground to be made up. But this young couple fill us with hope. Not optimism, which is its very poor relation, but hope, which is a theological virtue.
I find I mind about this on this occasion particularly strongly. In recent years I have had a nephew and two godsons whose Church marriages have ended within their first year. I cannot bear to find out the reasons – it is not my business and it causes me too much sadness. I mind all the more so as my own marriage ended when my wife and one of my three children were killed in a car accident some years back.
Perhaps we all just expect too much. Every time I open a newspaper or magazine there seems to be an article about some relational problem which has to be ironed out. We seem to be sold the idea that there is the perfect relationship, the perfect marriage to which we must all aspire.
The advertisers persuade us that the perfect life is represented by the perfect golden couple striding through sun-kissed fields smoking a Marlboro cigarette. Our expectations of life are constantly being pumped up as our sense of failure deepens. Above all, we must not ever project these absurd expectations on to William and Catherine. This would be to insult them.
It was G K Chesterton who said that we are most probably still in Eden. It is only our eyes that have changed. Well, yes, and often the distorting mirrors fall from our eyes like scales so that for the moment we see things as they really are.
In relation to our royal couple and indeed all royal couples we should never be sentimental at their expense. False feeling and cheap gush have no place in a ceremony of marriage. When a man and woman surrender themselves to each other what we are confronted with is a reality, which is glorious because it is stark. May we always be able to perceive this.
Marriage is a business, relationships a matter of constant negotiation. The author of Ecclesiastes got it in one (chapter 3, verse 1): “There is a time to weep as well as a time to laugh, a time to mourn as well as a time to dance, a time to keep silence as well as a time to speak, and (even) a time to hate as well as a time to love, a time for war as well as a time for peace.” That’s it. That’s it precisely.
But what about marriage preparation? When my daughter got married last summer she and her fiancé were told to attend a marriage preparation course. The course was to be run by a married layman and a married laywoman. This sounded promising but in the event only the man turned up and little emphasis at all was put on the domestic, practical and physical aspects of marriage. If this is typical maybe the whole procedure needs an overhaul?
Those Catholic Herald readers who watched the royal marriage on television may have been amused, as I was, that the cameras returned time and time again to Sir Elton John and his civil partner David Furnish. This may have been a gesture towards political correctness but it reminded me, looking at this very contented couple, how absurd the argument is that civil partnerships are a threat to Christian marriage. Marriage is a sacrament instituted by Christ himself. How can it possibly be undermined by alternative arrangements?
But back to Christian marriage. I once heard a wedding sermon by a priest in Normandy where the preacher just could not stop himself launching into the subject of abortion. I ask you. Some years back, I twice heard a priest at weddings pronounce from the pulpit: “They who pray together, stay together.” This rather trite piece of advice seemed singularly out of place. Surely on their wedding night couples have some other things on their mind.
Some years back it was reported in the Times that the then Anglican Bishop of Llandaff had pronounced that the more fashionable a marriage the less likely it would be would be to succeed. Let us hope that William and Catherine prove him resoundingly wrong. The prospects for this look exceedingly good.