The question of whether or not the wedding of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle took place on the day of the official ceremony or happened in a private ceremony between the couple with just Justin Welby present has come back into the news again. The claim was made by the Duke and Duchess in their interview with Oprah. Understandably, the Archbishop has come out in an interview to correct that because as you may know, it is simply not legally possible to hold a wedding in private without at least two witnesses present. A wedding is a public affair and whilst the Duke and Duchess may have felt that the ceremony was for the public and they wanted something for themselves, it is actually meant to be for the public and by being for them is for the good of the couple involved.
I’m raising this because there has been a reaction along the lines of “so what” from some people to the archbishop’s response. Who cares about legalities? Isn’t it always the case that a marriage and the vows are a personal affair between the two people concerned (and of course if that’s the case, then the chose gender of the parties, the issue of previous marriages and divorce or come to that whether or not both parties are professing believers are also no-one else’s business).
So, it is worth going back to what marriage is. It isn’t simply a private matter between two people who are in love. We might indeed describe it as a union sealed by public covenant and consummated through private intimacy. The public bit means that the vows are not just said to each other but to witnesses because these are about a lifelong commitment. So first of all, marriage is public because it is intended to hold people to a commitment to faithfulness and this is for the public benefit of all society.
Secondly, it is public as a protection. In the Church of England this traditionally means that Banns are read out in the parish churches of the couple prior to the wedding so that people have the opportunity to challenge the wedding. Similarly for a free church or civil wedding, the wedding date is published at the registry office. The ceremony must be public, you cannot bar people from attending and the traditional requirement was for it to happen during daylight hours so you could see and recognise the faces of the couple.
All of this to guard against the following dangers
- Of a coerced abusive relationship (free consent is required).
- Of incest
- Of child abuse
- Of bigamy.
Of course people can always find their way around such protections. The law assumes that those involved will be instinctive law keepers not law breakers. However clergymen and registrars remain under a heavy duty of care to try and ensure that the protections hold.
In other words, sentimental words about personal privacy may sound loving but are far from it and what seems formal and legalistic in this case is in fact a process that arises out of loving concern for those involved. We need to be careful that our society does not end up privatising everything concerning love and faith at the expense of love and faith.