William and Catherine have returned to the monarchy’s Christian origins

Prince William and Catherine Middleton exchange rings in front of the Archbishop of Canterbury (Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire)

Two days before the royal wedding, the Wall Street Journal, with ill-disguised satisfaction – under the headline “Pope Vies With Prince for Public Eye” and the subheading “Royal Wedding Steals Attention From Late Pontiff John Paul II’s Beatification” – came to the confident conclusion that the effect of the worldwide attention being paid to the royal wedding would seriously affect the numbers attending the beatification two days later:

The May 1 beatification of the late Pope John Paul II is an occasion for the Holy See to bask in the aura of a pontiff widely seen as a modern Catholic hero. But a high-profile event involving another European institution, the House of Windsor, is stealing the Vatican’s thunder. The wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in London on April 29, two days before the beatification ceremony, is dominating news coverage around the world, leaving less time for the late pope.

Behind closed doors, according to one Vatican “planner” who had, so the paper claimed, been talking to the Wall Street Journal (oh, yeah?), the effect of all this was that he and other “planners” had come to the conclusion that only around 150,000 people would turn up to the beatification. Well, estimates of the crowds who actually came to Rome for the ceremony vary, but they’re all between one and 1.5 million, so sucks to the Wall Street Journal. But the two ceremonies were linked in more people’s minds than one (including my own) if only because they reinforced each other, by anticipating, then recalling, a mood of communal joy and celebration which – to put it no higher – reminded us all in grim times that there’s more to life than the bottom line.

Archbishop Nichols, who attended both ceremonies, made the point that the beatification “is a celebration of the same love that William and Catherine promised to each other – yesterday in marriage, today in service of priest, bishop and Pope – but it’s the same well-spring of love that comes from God that we see on both days… It was very remarkable [that] when Catherine said ‘I will’ there was a great cheer. People recognised the solemnity of the promises that were being made. The second was when the Archbishop of Canterbury said ‘So in the sight of God and these people I now declare you man and wife’ and there was a great cheer.

“There is popular recognition that marriage is a fresh start. That this from now on was something different and it was a profound change in the life of both those young people. And everybody recognises it. I think that gives the lie to the idea that marriage is of little consequence in our society.”

Well, I think there’s more to be said than that, true though it no doubt is. Friday’s royal wedding was in sharp contrast to that of 30 years ago between Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer. I remember that occasion very well, apart from anything else because I had written the Daily Telegraph’s main leader about the wedding that day; when Bill Deedes commissioned it, he said he wanted my piece to be “the paper’s wedding present”: he wanted an article celebrating the religious and national significance of the occasion.

That wedding itself was, of course, religious enough, it could hardly be otherwise: but what remained in the mind afterwards were irrelevances: Archbishop Runcie’s foolish words, “this is the stuff that fairy tales are made of” (ironic only in retrospect, but just as silly at the time as they seem now), and the showbiz element in the whole thing: Kiri te Kanawa singing “Let the bright seraphim”, the extended drive from the city, that ridiculous puffed-up wedding dress. The BBC got in on the act by showing that wonderful extravaganza “High Society” (Grace Kelly, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby) when they all disappeared into the palace after the balcony appearance: it all seemed to blend somehow into one.

Friday’s marriage was very different, despite the fact that the words of the service were identical. First, the couple seemed (was, indeed, after nearly 10 years) better prepared for the event. Catherine Middleton, despite her splendid sense of humour (which constantly emerged, even during the ceremony) had taken the religious dimension of the event with great seriousness, insisting on being confirmed in good time before the wedding: she was prepared and confirmed by the Bishop of London, who had himself confirmed Prince William, and I have no doubt that that is why it was he (and not the Archbishop of Canterbury, as one might have expected) who preached the homily. The most striking thing in his sermon to me (though hardly mentioned by anyone in the coverage afterwards) was that the couple had composed a prayer for the event, which the bishop ended his homily by praying from the pulpit. It was simple, highly personal and, I found, very moving:

“God our Father, we thank you for our families; for the love that we share and for the joy of our marriage.

“In the busyness of each day keep our eyes fixed on what is real and important in life and help us to be generous with our time and love and energy.

“Strengthened by our union help us to serve and comfort those who suffer. We ask this in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Many observers commented on the number of young people in the crowds, and concluded that the couple had brought the monarchy into the 21st century, demonstrating yet again the institution’s capacity constantly to reinvent itself. But that prayer says to me that they have also taken the monarchy back again to its Christian origins: that will ultimately be how it will retain its capacity to survive and flourish anew.