harry meghan married before royal wedding
Marriage and Family

Harry and Meghan were indeed married before their wedding ‘spectacle’

“Three days before our wedding, we got married,” Meghan told Oprah, as she fed the hens and chickens. “No one knows that but we called the Archbishop and we just said this thing, this spectacle is for the world but we want our union between us. The vows that we have framed in our room are just the two of us in our back yard with the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

And then Harry sang, “Just the three of us.” And with that, chickens clucked and the hens went buck-buck-buck, and so did Harry.

What they didn’t know is that they’d unleashed the greatest intrigue of the whole interview – greater, even, than which member of the Royal Family queried “how dark” Archie’s skin would be, and what that might mean. They might have smeared the Monarchy with the stench of racism, and they might have trashed the Royal (if not the British) brand abroad, but to learn that Harry and Meghan were privately married before their wedding ‘spectacle’ set the theological fox among the lay chickens.

What was the Archbishop of Canterbury doing in Harry and Meghan’s back yard? What private ritual was he presiding over? Can a marriage service ever be secret?

We don’t exactly know the answer to the first question. Lambeth Palace was asked for clarification, but they didn’t respond. They did, however, apparently respond to The Sun: “A spokesman for the Archbishop of Canterbury said he would not be commenting on personal or pastoral matters”, which is helpful.

And so we can’t wholly know the answer to the second question, except to conclude that the Archbishop of Canterbury obviously wouldn’t have presided over something illicit; he wouldn’t have set aside centuries of Anglican tradition, canon law and the law of the land to marry two people privately. Kensington Palace may be licensed for weddings, but the permit doesn’t stretch to its ‘back yard’. And yet we have this:

This is just strange. Meghan is an experienced actress, and so would know the difference between a rehearsal and reality. She clearly believes that whatever took place privately with the Archbishop of Canterbury was ontologically (if not holily) matrimonial. And yet it would have been made holy, in a very real sense, by virtue of the Archbishop’s presence: vows were exchanged, and the moment was blessed. A final rehearsal requires the whole cast in the prescribed setting. You can’t rehearse Romeo and Juliet with just the lovers and Friar Lawrence in his cell: you need a whole array of Montagues, Capulets and the rest of the supporting actors. So for the Archbishop to suggest that what took place was the rehearsal (definite article) simply confuses matters further.

On the third question, the law is clear: a service of holy matrimony must be on licensed premises and witnessed, etc., etc. So whatever took place privately was not legally binding.

Yet sometimes a marriage service may be secret, and the living of the married life a closeted affair. If two families are in a state of enmity, you may decide to marry in secret, as Romeo and Juliet did. And the Friar was of the view that his covert presiding in his private cell was in accordance with God’s law:

Come, come with me, and we will make short work.
For, by your leaves, you shall not stay alone
Till holy church incorporate two in one.

If a Muslim girl falls in love with a Hindu boy, far better to marry in secret than to risk being beheaded in an ‘honour killing’. And if you were an ordained priest in the 16th century and vowed to clerical celibacy, and then you later came to understand that compelled celibacy is a pagan concept and that God intended man to live woman, “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part”, then you might have to be married secretly: ‘it is better to marry than to burn.‘ It wouldn’t be legal, of course, in the sight of man (priest or king). And yet who could say that such a union was not valid in the sight of God?

Which raises interesting questions.

What is a wedding service in the sight of God? What is a liturgy of Holy Matrimony in the eyes of men and women who do not believe? Is it possible to be married before a public wedding spectacle? At what point in a relationship are two people ‘married’? Is cohabitation a form of marriage?

Theological thinking on marriage has evolved greatly over the past 2,000 years, in particular through the Reformation principle of the ‘mutual society’ of the man and wife, and the post-Enlightenment concept of romantic love. These have led to the modern expectation that the couple should be ‘in love’ prior to marriage, with a consequent raising of expectations. If the primary purpose of marriage is to bring up children, or the pursuit of relationship, the absence of both may have become sufficient grounds for non-permanence, but the presence of both may also be enjoyed in the absence of a marriage.

The sexual union is not simply about the production of children; it strengthens and enriches the relationship of men and women and unites them with a bond of shared emotional and physical experience. It is not unreasonable to suggest that if human understanding of the purpose of sex within marriage has developed, there may be an argument for revisiting the question of pre-marital sex and acknowledging that it may be a means of preparing for marriage. If a cohabiting couple come to their church, insisting that they have embarked on a sexual union to “strengthen the union of their hearts and minds”, it would be unreasonable to assert that such a strengthening is irrelevant throughout the courtship or engagement. This is not to ignore the potential procreativity, but shifts the emphasis to the emotional, psychological and relational purpose of sex.

If Harry and Meghan were cohabiting, as they were, did they not then have an embryonic marriage?

You may call it ‘fornication’, but might it not be a marriage insofar as there is an intention to meet the biblical criteria for marriage? There may be a lack of a formal, legal ceremony, but the Archbishop of Canterbury provided an informal blessing. Was he not simply being pastoral in helping a young couple with a step along the path from singleness to married union?

A good cohabitation can flourish more than a bad marriage; a private exchange of vows can have more personal meaning than a public spectacle. Those private vows doubtless declared the qualities to which their marriage aspires; the life-enhancing reciprocity in which Harry and Meghan took each other to love and to cherish till death do them part. There is no grim necessity for moralists to impugn the validity of such a union when it has become happily established, just because it has not been officially ‘solemnised’.

If Harry and Meghan were betrothed and then went on a cruise to celebrate, and a storm arose and their boat sank and they were the only survivors on a desert island. May they not be married for want of a priest? Is not their declaration of an intention to marry the beginning of their marriage? If they exchanged vows to each other beneath the sky, would they not be married in the sight of God?

Such a marriage may lack the social and ecclesiastical acceptability of legal recognition, but it would meet the spiritual and mutual needs of the couple: it would aspire to permanence, to commitment, to love and to cherish till death do them part. It would be a marriage as a sacrament, as God intended.

If marriage is the proof of love because it asserts the choice of one above others, it is possible be privately married in the sight of God before being legally married in the sight of man. Anything the Archbishop of Canterbury can do to encourage a young couple along this journey is to be welcomed.