The amiable, articulate priest was standing outside his church after the 11:15 a.m. Eucharist, greeting his varied flock one by one, with warm words for those from far away and an easy familiarity for his regulars. He was not exactly an ordinary priest, though. In a week or so, he will be presiding over the service at his “church”—Westminster Abbey—that will join Prince William and Catherine Middleton in holy matrimony.
There’s a lot riding on this marriage, like the future of the monarchy, but the Very Rev. John Hall, dean of Westminster, wasn’t revealing any important secrets. One visitor wondered if he knew what “the gown” would look like. The dean laughed. “No,” he said, “but I am sure she’ll be wearing one.”
The dean was open about what will happen to his former Benedictine monastery on April 29. There will be no scaffolding built, as it is during a coronation, but the “sardine tin” element will be to the fore. “We can get more than 2,000 in here if we have to, and we will really have to.”
In the final lead-up to the wedding, the abbey will be closed to the public to allow full-blown rehearsals. Up on the massive organ loft, which sits athwart the entire abbey nave, the furniture has been rearranged to accommodate the trumpeters and a small orchestra.
On the day, Dean Hall will be joined by two other Anglican clergy, who, despite outranking him, will still be looking to him for all their cues as he is, in effect, the master of this particular ceremony, from the initial greeting to the final blessing. The archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, will be the celebrant, taking the couple through their vows, while the bishop of London, the Right Rev. Richard Chartres—who presided over Middleton’s recent confirmation—will preach the wedding sermon, an often hazardous task.
At the ill-fated wedding service for William’s father and mother, the then-archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, preached a sermon of such spectacular cant—from the fruity opening evocation of a “fairy tale” come true to the spectacular off-mark evocation of faithfulness—that it still makes painful watching on YouTube.
As people who know the Welsh-born archbishop will testify, Rowan Williams is a decent man much afflicted by the declining state of Church affairs. He’s also much maligned by the media, which depict him like that other famous Welshman, Shakespeare’s goofy Glendower (“I can call spirits from the vasty deep,” he crows to Hotspur in Henry IV, who replies, “Why, so can I, and so can any man, but will they come when you do call them?”). Archbishop Williams will probably have enough trouble just working his way through the vows, although it will not be known till the actual service unfolds how “traditional” they will be. It is highly unlikely that Catherine Middleton will pledge to “obey” her man, as specified by the Book of Common Prayer. The Queen’s sister Margaret vowed it; William’s aunt, Anne, vowed it; even uncle Andrew’s tacky bride, Sarah Ferguson, vowed it: all to no avail as they neither obeyed nor stayed. A pledge eschewed too often leaves itself open to mockery. Williams will have his work cut out for him coming up with a wording for a different sort of trust.
Richard Chartres, on the other hand, is considered one of the best preachers in the Church of England. He’s a modern prelate, comfortable with the jarring juxtapositions of contemporary life and an ever-encroaching secularism. One of his theological mentors is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the martyred German Protestant pastor, and Bonhoeffer’s evocation of a church caught up in modern realities could be effectively deployed for a future king and queen.
If he’s smart, he may even point to the marriage of William’s grandparents. When the Queen and Prince Philip celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1997, it was the Queen herself who spoke a truth known to all couples who have survived the ups and downs of married life: that friendship and mutual support trumps all the ordeals and challenges. Prince Philip, she said, “has quite simply been my strength and stay all these years and I…owe him a debt greater than he would ever claim.”
As for Philip, he spoke a truth all husbands of successful marriages also know to the marrow of their bones: “The Queen,” he said, “has the quality of tolerance in abundance.”
John Fraser’s new book, The Secret of the Crown: Canada’s Fling with Royalty, will be published in 2012 by Anansi Press