I wonder whether we should really be lamenting the latest delay of so-called freedom day quite so much. Confusingly, under new rules there will no longer be a maximum number cap on partygoers, but social distancing must remain enforced. In effect, this means no dancing and no singing but plenty of time for praying. Marquees – wait for this – are required to open 50% of their walls in order to count as outdoors. Of course many secular couples are outraged, particularly since vaccines and testing are now freely available.
Some have complained that the Prime Minister was permitted to marry in Westminster Cathedral whilst many couples find themselves faced with the option of further delays. But Boris and Carrie stuck to Canon Law and then only held a small reception for up to 30 guests in his back garden. Few should begrudge the PM a proper Catholic wedding, even if his former girlfriend Petronella Wyatt ungenerously described the new Mrs Johnson dressed up in white as if attending a “sacrifice”. Ouch.
I am – or I was, before the pandemic – in the chaotic midsts of the wedding season. Almost every weekend involves witnessing friends say “I do” in front of 300 of their nearest and dearest. Since March of last year, I have lost count of the number of emails I have received: “It will come as no surprise that we’re having to send this email and let you know that it’s with a heavy heart that we have made the decision to postpone our wedding that was due to take place this year. The world that we’re living in can’t allow for the celebration that we would like to have with you all.”
It’s not just weddings that are changing face: christenings, funerals and indeed church attendance at large have crashed. Writing in these pages, a Philadelphia priest says church attendance in the USA has fallen below 50% for the first time, and is unlikely to return. A survey conducted by YouGov in January of this year found that here in Britain, 41% of people said they did not believe in any God or spiritual power. People increasingly do not believe in God, and it shows in our empty, ventilated, churches.
But do not despair, I say. Enjoy the restrictions and the purity they bring. The reduced numbers, and the slightly forbidden nature of worship are a return to the days – admittedly some 500 years ago – when religion and belief in the sacrament of marriage had clout. Weddings, pre-Covid, were so often air-kissing merry-go-rounds, less about a holy union and more about one hell of an expensive party.
In 2019, the average cost of a wedding was over £31,000. The social theatre, Insta-preening and and dysfunctional family dramatics attached to the so-called celebrations were often vulgar, vain and ostentatious, usually thrusting through the best part of a weekend: three days, maybe via EasyJet to Toulouse or at some incurably trendy vegetarian hotel in Puglia.
Restrictions on weddings and funerals serve to intensify their spiritual aspect. You can’t nip out for a cigarette and glass of champagne at The Punchbowl pub (next door to Farm Street) in the middle of an intimate service with just two dozen guests. Yet I’ve seen many do that in the middle of a 90-minute nuptial mass for 250 in the Mayfair home of the Jesuits. Now numbers are limited, engaged couples might actually get more out of focusing on the ceremony and sacrament itself.
Consider the historic treatment of Catholics in this country. A secret Catholic chapel recently found in Norfolk serves to remind us of the resourcefulness and courage of Catholics in a time when the celebration of the Old Mass was forbidden (admittedly many practical Catholics happily went to the new Church of England service and then worshipped again in the ancient form – with the same parish priest – at their homes). They must have been pretty cramped in their secret chapels. But I bet they prayed hard, not just to God but also that the pursuivants didn’t catch them out. One of the best known secret chapels – more of a room – was discovered in Harvington Hall in 1894. Another example is a pedlar’s chest containing vestments and a chalice in Samlesbury Hall in Lancashire. These serve as proof of the courage Catholics in this country had.
We will never be able to fully understand how Catholics must have felt under the reign of Elizabeth I but celebrating Mass behind closed doors – with a fear of heavy fines or a grisly capital punishment – must have given it a spiritual focus incomparable to that of the traditional Farm Street or Brompton Oratory Nuptial Mass experience, which can resemble a cocktail party. As wedding celebrations are driven almost underground, I watch with intrigue. Stripped back to the religious essentials, with only a few close family and friends, and no large bills or fear of insulting the uninvited, is this not the perfect time to consider the sacraments for themselves?
Perhaps Boris Johnson is secretly advancing the Catholic cause after all.
Constance Watson is assistant editor of the Catholic Herald
This article first appeared in the July 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.