Royal Peculiarities

Mark Jones | Flickr |

Postcard from London

When I came to London from Australia at the end of the 1970s to launch the communications arm of the Anglican Communion Office, I quickly discovered that U.K. religion reporters were a formidable lot. The Times boasted the donnish Clifford Longley, who for many years doubled as a leader writer. Gerald Priestland, a distinguished former foreign correspondent, was at the BBC. Genial social activist Baden Hickman had the religion portfolio at The Guardian.

These were the golden days of British religious journalism. This trio, particularly, had persuaded newspaper proprietors that religion was news and church stories should be treated without deference and with the same hard-headedness as any other news. No privileged church columns, thank you. There was a lot of headline church news in the wake of Vatican II, and running stories, like the contraception debate. This golden run continued through the 1980s, with big-ticket events such as the visit by Pope John Paul II and the Church and the Bomb debate.

Following in the train of the “big three” were many more runners and riders. Church of England media briefings would often attract in excess of 50 reporters. The trade press included quite a few heavyweights. There was The Tablet, the influential Roman Catholic weekly. Susan Young, who died just recently and who was previously press officer to Archbishop David Hand in Papua New Guinea, was queen bee of the Church Times newsroom. Several times she invited me to spend days with her team. She could be intimidating and irreverent, but was also kind-hearted, a tenacious investigative reporter whose thick files are legendary.

So why this journey in nostalgia? Media coverage of the nuptials of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle has me lamenting the demise of the religion specialist, in some cases even among the nationals. A stand-first in The Guardian Online proclaimed, “Michael Bruce Curry, bishop of Chicago, will preach at Windsor ceremony.” This was not an isolated instance. Numerous publications and news sites copied the same error. Few national titles have religion specialists who would spot an error like this, and maybe it is not deemed important.

It’s emerged that the idea to invite Bishop Michael Curry to preach at the Windsor ceremony came from the Archbishop of Canterbury. The marriage of a British royal to an American of mixed race, with an African-American as the preacher, is an irresistible media story in the United States. Inviting Bishop Curry was inspired, an example of Justin Welby’s adroit news instincts. It had British journalists trawling the internet in search of information about Episcopalians.

Leading the service will be the Rt. Rev. David Connor, a former suffragan in the Diocese of Norwich, with Archbishop Welby leading the couple through their wedding vows. James Vivian, director of music at St. George’s Chapel, will oversee all of the music. It will be a blend of popular and traditional.

St. George’s is one of about a dozen so-called Royal Peculiars. Westminster Abbey is undoubtedly the most famous of them. This quaint term denotes places of worship outside the diocesan system, and they are governed directly by the monarch. St. George’s dates from the 14th century and is the burial place of many British giants, including King Henry VIII and latterly King George V. The chapel will be host to about 600 invited guests.

Side stories abound. One national newspaper said that having done his duty at Windsor, Bishop Michael Curry would leave immediately to join an anti-Trump protest march. There is on-again, off-again coverage of whether Thomas Markle would accompany his daughter down the aisle, with his recent heart attack perhaps having the last word. Or not.

Kensington Palace took its time in announcing that Prince William would be best man, and then the question arose whether as president of the English Football Association (FA) he could be in two places at once. The FA Cup, the highest-profile match of the year, is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. May 19. With a long interval between the service (set for noon), it was feasible for William to be whisked off by helicopter and return around 8 p.m. in reasonable time for the evening festivities.

One report triggered anger. A member of the Windsor Borough Council allegedly wanted to remove homeless people from streets surrounding Windsor Castle. This was counterbalanced by the Windsor Homeless Project marketing items, from a £10 pack of postcards to a £5,000 plate, to help homeless people in the borough.

Not surprisingly there is no shortage of Harry and Meghan souvenirs. For those on a budget there are Harry and Meghan gingerbread people. Amazon sells masks. Slightly up the price ladder are coloring books. If you like beer, one choice is Harry & Meghan Knot, a pale ale brewed from barley grown on the royal estates near Windsor. The wedding has some weird and wonderful sausages. A Yorkshire butcher improbably named HECK is purveying a “Majestic Sausage,” blending sweet ginger and American mustard. And you can even buy “Ginger & Sparkle” parsnip crisps.

There have been grumbles about the enormous costs involved, not least for security. Figures obtained by the Press Association through a Freedom of Information request shows that, in total, £6.35m was spent policing the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton. This one will cost just as much, even though it is smaller in scale. But let’s be realistic. The royal family is one of Britain’s prize assets. It draws in innumerable tourists who come to Britain to spend their money.

By previous agreement, neither the Trumps nor Obamas will attend, not least because the Prince is only fifth in line to the British throne. One likely break with tradition is that Meghan is expected to make a speech at the wedding breakfast.

By the presence of Justin Welby, Michael Curry, and the Dean of Windsor at a service at St. George’s chapel, Harry and Meghan (who was recently baptized and confirmed) keep alive a longstanding tradition that the royal house defends the Christian faith.

John Martin


Online Archives