The people of England encounter the Church of England in precious few ways, and one of the ways leads the Church into mortal and spiritual danger: colluding in the worship of an idol.
A bit of a kerfuffle in the British media over the weekend, a sideshow to what Ruth Gledhill, with characteristic understatement, is calling the “Summer of Schism”. A wedding was disrupted by, depending on what you believe, an ill-behaved toddler and worse behaved wedding guests, or (the line most newspapers and shamefully, the church authorities have taken) by the parish priest ordering the toddler and the protesting guest to leave the church. The Observer had a little fun with the story because the priest is named (snigger, snigger) David Cameron. The Archdeacon of Stoke, in the usual terrified response of the church to any possible bad publicity, muttered “It is a serious allegation. A wedding is a time of celebration and we want parents with children to feel welcome in church.”1 So, no prejudging the situation there then.
The responses in the vox pop organised by the BBC (Should children be banned from weddings?) seemed to be uniformly hostile to either a) the vicar or b) parents of badly behaved children. How dare these people spoil the most special day of a person’s life, the “big day”.
During Lent I published a 3MT on the fashion for weddings to become more and more expensive, more and more exemplary of a fantasy conspicuous consumption, more and more anti-human. I quoted, disapprovingly, a journalist interviewed on the Today programme, who had encouraged such gaudy displays. Imagine how thrilled I was to find, a few weeks later, a comment on this website from the same journalist who took umbrage against my criticism of her position: “it doesn’t take money to express yourself however if people choose to celebrate their big day by treating their guests to salmon rather than soup how can that be considered un-Christian”. Well, to continue the metaphor, refuting such a position is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel— it’s just not sport.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the church actually had the courage to use the occasions of this particular occasional office to critique one of the overwhelming obsessions of our age, the narcissistic impulse to see ourselves in the face of another, an impulse which we call romantic love. Ben Myers is fierce in his condemnation of this impulse, which he calls “an idol”, which leads inexorably to “an abyss of violence and self-will, a voracious need to find my own image reflected in the face of another.”2
That might be going a little far for my tastes, but how else are we to understand such famous “sleb” weddings, such as that between Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes. When they married in 2003 it was a secret kept from the media (fair enough) but also their family and friends. A spokesman said “This tiny ceremony was an entirely private event, which is what they both really wanted. All their close friends and family now know and the couple are on honeymoon for another two weeks.”3 Which is what, technically, we can call entirely the wrong idea of what marriage is.
But imagine being the priest or prophet who begins to rebuke our society for such a muddle-headed and harmful picture of what marriage is! The Archdeacon of Stoke would soon emerge like, as Ben Myers says, “the comically odious Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice – that sycophantic clergyman who waits upon the pleasure of his exalted benefactress, Lady Catherine De Bourgh, and is only too pleased to do her bidding whenever the opportunity arises.”