When we all show up: Meghan and Harry's royal wedding gave Windsor some much-needed soul

From a gospel sermon to "Stand By Me," the royal wedding was a powerful inclusive statement

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published May 19, 2018 11:59AM (EDT)

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, during their wedding in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle on May 19, 2018 in Windsor, England. (Getty/Jonathan Brady)
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, during their wedding in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle on May 19, 2018 in Windsor, England. (Getty/Jonathan Brady)

The bride was 15 minutes late leaving the hotel where she and her mother were sequestered prior to the ceremony, but somehow made it to the church right on time.

Her dress, simple and unadorned by crystals, seed pearls or any other frippery, is a Givenchy designed by Clare Waight Keller. A long lace veil flows behind her in place of a lengthy train. Upon it, subtly embroidered, are the 53 flowers representing each territory of the British Commonwealth.

At a distance, on what looks like a clear day borne by the softest of breezes, the veil looks impossibly like light. But as she is accompanied down the aisle by her father-in-law and the future king Charles, Prince of Wales, one imagines that the unseen load of expectations the bride bears with her even now is heavy. One suspects that at times in the coming months and years, it will feel like the weight of the world.

But for a couple of hours on Saturday morning, on May 19, 2018, the loving television coverage of His Royal Highness Prince Henry of Wales' wedding to American actress Meghan Markle, hereafter to be formally known the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, allowed viewers around the world to hold it with them, to feel its transformative significance more than its burden.

The happiness of the occasion, the affection the bride and groom have for one another, is demonstrable. The event was star-studded but not entirely stiff — a merger of old pomp, new glamour and real joy.

It didn't matter what your local time was when they exchanged their vows; it didn't matter if you were in your pajamas drinking coffee or somewhere fancier sipping champagne. Cameras put millions of us close enough to the heart of St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle to witness Harry drop any pretense of reserve as he first took in the sight of Meghan, to read his lips as he told her, "You look amazing."

They giggled at the swell of cheers rising from the crowd of thousands lining the streets outside of St. George's Chapel after each "I will," loud enough to reach them in the heart of the sanctuary. Their vows did not include the word "obey," and once exchanged, they were presented as "husband and wife," not man and wife.

All of this may seem gag-inducing unless you got up at whatever ungodly hour the ceremony aired live in your neck of the woods; on the West Coast most of us rolled out of bed at 1:30 a.m. or never went to sleep in the first place. Trust us, though — every drop of hyperbolic gushing about this wedding is true.

From the greenery and florals lining the chapel to the stunning fashions to the music, which ranged from a traditional choral piece by British treasure Thomas Tallis to the gospel choir singing "This Little Light of Mine" as the newly married couple made their way to the carriage to greet well-wishers, everything was flawlessly executed.

No shocker, this. A royal wedding is supposed to be the paragon of ceremony, setting the standard for all to follow. No doubt Harry and Megan's wedding fulfilled those obligations, further establishing itself as one for the history books, and coffee table tomes, and GIFs, and memes.

What nobody could have predicted was the House of Windsor's conscientious and strategic usage of Harry and Meghan's wedding to send a message of inclusion and hope to the world.

A number of commentators mentioned that neither Prime Minister Theresa May nor the Trumps were invited while also pointing out that the Obamas weren't invited to Prince William's wedding to Kate Middleton. Partly this is a matter of maintaining the security of the event, but it's also an effort to keep politics from drawing focus away from the couple.

However, the message was an unmitigated social and political statement by the nature of its very existence as well as its execution. To echo the sentiments of one British correspondent, never in my lifetime would I have imagined I'd witness Ben E. King's "Stand By Me" rendered in all its full-throated passion by gospel singers; Karen Gibson and the Kingdom Choir did the honors here.

Even that was subdued compared to the sermon delivered by Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. Here, in front of royalty and the British aristocracy — the beneficiaries of colonialism and one of the world's best known and still strictly enforced social class systems — an African-American preacher took the people to church.

Using a passage from the Bible's Song of Solomon as a jumping off point, Reverend Curry began in what would be thought of as a universal comfortable place, with a quote about the power of love made by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"When we do that," Curry says, "we will make of this old world a new world."

Then the incredible happened, and without pause or apology: Curry made reference to slavery in the antebellum-era South and spoke of love's power to lift the poor out of misery, to move the cold, profit-driven corporate world to generosity. This, in front of some of the wealthiest people in the world. "Imagine governments and nations when love is the way," Curry offered.

Windsor was not ready for this level of blackness.

The old-school royals looked distinctly discomfited at the unapologetic blackness of these moments, unused to the feeling of, as Americans would put it, being taken to church. Not all of them appeared to feel this way. The younger generation, signified by the David Beckhams and Tom Hardys in the audience, smiled warmly the bishop's declaration that the power of love can lead all of us to behave toward one another "like we are actually family."

CBS anchor Gayle King, who led the network's coverage from Windsor, observed that this sermon was meant less for the people in that room than for everyone else watching the wedding from afar. She's right about that.

But that 13-minute sermon, not to mention everything we witnessed before and afterward, stood as evidence of how consciously the House of Windsor, and specifically Harry and Meghan, intended to use the spectacle of the wedding to send a message to the world.

It is a story of a different frame of existence where inclusion creates joy. Where embrace and a legal marital bond is possible between the child of British royalty and a descendant of American slaves.

We all giggled at the Archbishop of Canterbury's formal mention of the words "sexual union" as the proceedings began, but it makes the ramifications of Harry and Megan's marriage plain to the world. Not only is this the new Windsor, it also marks the possibility of an important transformation of a bloodline whose whiteness goes back for centuries.

Now, Harry and Meghan may not ever have children, but if this event represents an unequivocal declaration of anything about the couple (not the entire royal family; that's expecting too much) it is an announcement of their progressiveness.

This is evidenced not merely in their union but the choices they made in the creation of the pomp surrounding it. Curry is the first African-American to preside over the American Episcopal Church. A benediction was given by Rose Hudson-Wilkin, chaplain to the Queen and a black female Anglican Priest. Waight Keller is Givenchy's first female artistic director.

Following their exchange of vows came a moving orchestral interlude starring 19-year-old cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, the first black person to win the BBC Young Musician of the Year award, in 2016. When we say this wedding was the blackest event in all of British Royal history, it's no joke. Indeed, it is a matter of pride.

At the same time these choices, though quite intentional, felt totally natural to the couple. For all of the pageantry and loud goofiness of the network pre-game, which NBC covered with all the garish enthusiasm of the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, the quiet intimacy of the service itself ruled the day. On CBS, King raved about the genuinely loving looks between Harry and Meghan and the fact that they touched frequently during the ceremony, at times holding hands during the sermon. That's a huge deal for a formal event driven by eons of protocol and tradition.

Then there were the smaller details we discovered later, such as the fact that Harry selected the forget-me-nots for Meghan's bouquet to honor his mother, the late Princess Diana of Wales. All of the floral decorations in the chapel featured Diana's favorite flowers, ensuring her presence would be felt on the day of a union that might never have happened if not for the example of humanity and philanthropy that she presented to the world.

And though the guest list was exclusive and would have made for a swoon-worthy red carpet, the pews inside that chapel were lined with many black and brown-skinned folks sitting amongst the blue bloods. Yes, we held our collective breath for a moment at whether the arrival of Sarah Duchess of York would be met by a cool breeze; there was some question as to whether the Queen's least favorite former daughter-in-law would be welcomed to the service.

A bigger deal was made over the fact that Oprah Winfrey arrived to St. George's very early. Idris Elba and Tom Hardy provided eye-candy for viewers, as did David Beckham, handsome in his steel-grey suit beside his wife Victoria Beckham, dressed, bewilderingly, in funerary navy.

Perhaps she was following the cues of Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice, who opted for understated looks after the world-stopping couture they sported at Prince William and Princess Kate's wedding in 2011. With Hollywood in the house there's no way for the aristocracy to go toe to toe without veering toward the territory occupied by Kathie Lee Gifford, whose swan fascinator was a bad joke. Levity is fine in fashion, especially in millinery, but this one finally lets Bjork off the hook for criminal decorative use of a water fowl's likeness.

Besides, there was no way that anyone was going to beat the style precision of international human rights attorney Amal Clooney, luminous in her canary-colored Stella McCartney. Serena Williams was a vision in blush pink. Markle's "Suits" co-star Gina Torres held her own, sporting a very American fedora as opposed to an ostentatious hat or a fascinator, as did Markle's famous friends Janina Gavankar of "True Blood" fame,  "Quantico" star Priyanka Chopra and Abigail Spencer of "Timeless." The star-power was overwhelmingly TV-centric.

Nevertheless, some elements of bittersweetness about the blessed event could not be overlooked. The bride's father Thomas, the subject of controversy involving staged photos with the paparazzi, could not attend due to health concerns; he's been forced to undergo heart surgery. A few people mentioned how alone and emotional Markle's mother Doria Ragland looked in her pew, representing the bride's sole blood relative in a room of 600 guests.

Royal biographer Penny Junor told King that part of Ragland's quiet tears were the result of knowing this wedding represents a farewell to life with her daughter as she knows it. Junor likened the Duchess of Sussex's coming existence to "taking the veil." But a few breaths later she also praised the relatively small size of the wedding, owing to its location in Windsor as opposed to London. "It's like being at a family wedding," she says, adding that the closeness of the crowds to the procession on the long walk, "feel like 400 years ago, when the world was smaller."

One wedding will not calm the rancor among nations. It is not the antidote for the poison lurching through global politics and crumbling our houses. Rather, let's think about it as a noble moment dedicated to the dream of a new world.

Marveling at the sight of witnessing American, British and Canadian flags waving beside each other on the long road, King observes, "We live in a chaotic world, it seems very chaotic. It seems very cruel, many times very unkind. And this is certainly a very unifying moment for everyone."

Hear, hear.

Harry and Meghan disrupt tradition

A look at the new, modern monarchy.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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