As many as 2 billion people — about a third of the world — were expected to watch as Prince William took Kate Middleton’s hand in marriage. For all the extravagance and fanfare of a future monarch’s wedding, we recognize in it some of our deepest human aspirations. We share in the nobility of the institution of marriage.
That same chord was struck 30 years ago, when much of the world tuned in to see the Prince of Wales wed Lady Diana Spencer on July 29, 1981. As ABC’s Ted Koppel commented that evening: “Today’s marriage between Charles and Diana was … a hugely magnified version of what most of us hope for, the idealized beginning of what is meant to ripen into the perfect partnership of a man and a woman.”
Koppel’s ABC colleague Bob Green added: “The royal aspect almost was secondary. … [T]here was something universal about the ceremony of life that was taking place. The message was the same one that comes through at a wedding in a church recreation room in New Hampshire or a justice of the peace’s office in Ohio.”
When Charles and Diana said “I will,” the roar of the crowd outside St. Paul’s Cathedral “was almost as if the world was cheering for itself,” Green reported.
And indeed we do cheer for ourselves when we rejoice in wedding vows.
Marriage is a promise. Not just between one man and one woman, but to the community at large, to generations past and to those yet to be born. Wedding vows set apart this lifelong, life-giving relationship from all others.
That’s why we cheered in 1981, even though, to quote ABC’s Green, “marriage and the family have fallen on hard times.”
How much more so in the 30 years since: The bitter, postmodern ending to Princess Diana’s own fairy tale is an apt metaphor for the troubled state of marriage today.
Still, the institution endures, even when a particular marriage falls apart. Our failure to attain it doesn’t change the ideal.
With good reason, the world once again roared with joy at the universal promise embodied in William and Kate’s vows.
— Jennifer A. Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org) and author of Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the Twenty-First Century.