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Royal Wedding Emblematic of the Decline of the Church of England

Media outlets around the world are buzzing about the marriage of England's Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle. I admit that I woke up early Saturday morning to watch the nuptials and the uniquely British pageantry. I've had a fascination with such things since the ill-fated wedding of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles in 1980. I, along with millions of other Americans, watched in the pre-dawn hours of that July day to catch the first glimpse of Diana's dress. I was captivated by Diana's beauty and the mystique of the royal family. And, of course, like many girls through the ages, I indulged in frequent princess fantasies.

On first glance, today's royal wedding at St. George's Chapel at Windsor Castle was a grand and yet charming event. The bride and groom were all smiles, clearly deeply in love, and Markle's dress was elegant and appropriate (though it barely skirted the church's rules about bare shoulders). The celebration was intimate, with only 600 guests, and included many personal touches that, while shunning royal tradition, seemed meaningful to the bride and groom. Hollywood celebs were in—and heads of state were out on this day.

But the courtship and wedding of Meghan and Harry, who is sixth in line for the throne, signaled a sea-change for the royal family in many ways. The bride is American, divorced, biracial, and a commoner, all of which would have been considered scandalous just a generation ago.

The ceremony itself featured an African-Amercian bishop who cited the American civil rights movement and quoted Martin Luther King Jr. as often as he did Jesus. The couple opted for a secular song, "Stand by Me," performed by a predominantly black gospel choir—jaws literally dropped—in addition to old-school Christian hymns sung by the congregation. The traditional Anglican vows were altered slightly to allow the outspoken feminist Markle to opt out of the traditional promise to obey her husband.

While the acceptance of people of color into the royal fold is a welcome and long-overdue change, the acceptance of divorce and immorality by the Church of England is another thing altogether. That the Church blessed the union at all, coming as it did after the couple had been openly cohabitating and in light of Markle's divorce, signals a radical departure from the traditions of the church headed by Queen Elizabeth, who inherited the title "Defender of the Faith" on the day of her coronation. That designation was first granted to King Henry the VIII by Leo X in 1521. Henry VIII, you will recall, famously left the Catholic church after the Pope refused to annul his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He later appointed himself Supreme Head of the Church of England and went on to wed five more women.