By Todd R. Nelson
Following Meghan Markle’s marriage to Harry Windsor, one commentator spoke about her experience being “taken to church” as she watched the service. I resonate to that feeling, and a certain arc of rhetoric that exceeded Saturday’s nuptials.
In the hallowed hall of monarchy and patriarchy, the black American preacher said words that echoed down the ages. When love comes to town, you better hop that train.
The Right Rev. Curry’s memes and memories, of slavery and Martin Luther King Jr. and all manner of biblical poetry and experience, were an infusion of multiculturalism, or “other-culturalism,” in the high church cadences of the Anglican ceremony. It was a first, a benchmark, and perhaps a bellwether of the meaning of the biracial, divorced American Ms. Markle, who walked unaccompanied into the chapel at Windsor, marrying into Britain’s royal family. Who married whom?
But it was a moment of familiar involuntary emotions that I’ve felt before. Every so often, the spirit quickeneth at an unexpected moment and we get “taken to church” by a certain set of words — if church means a breakthrough of light and love, the unexpected appearing of values higher and more profound than expected, the moving of the human spirit on the waters of tensions or tragedy that seem impossible to overcome.
These peculiar words of church are not transactional. They are inevitably an effusive expression of possibility and redemption above history and partisanship. They come from the best of the human spirit, and soothe like a balm the human condition. That’s why we need to wipe a tear.
When Rev. Curry spoke at the royal wedding, it was more than just his words. It was the cadence and humor and tenor of the black church. As tempered by a certain lineage. Curry is the descendant of African slaves, as is the new Duchess of Sussex, the bride. From the house of the former slave traders and oppressors, he spoke to the world about love.
For me, his words echoed a far less joyous occasion: President Obama’s eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinkney at Charleston. “We are here today to remember a man of God who lived by faith,” Obama said. “A man who believed in things not seen. A man who believed there were better days ahead, off in the distance.” And when the words proved too staid, he broke into song, “Amazing Grace.” Church is not just the words and rhetoric, but the song from the heart when words prove insufficient.
It’s not just a case of the language of one sphere showing up in the language of another — the language of religion or spirituality appearing in the secular realm. It’s the unexpected breakthrough, the challenge to assumptions, the feeling that something that hadn’t to be expected has, nonetheless, arrived. It’s always something better, something good, something restorative and has the feeling of transcendence. It feels like thought is in accord with something higher, aligned with truth.
In this sense, “going to church” is the essence of other recent words that transcend the fray. When 11-year Naomi Wadler stood with poise and determination before thousands in the nation’s capital to cry for peace and tolerance; when high school seniors speak with greater resonance and passion than seasoned politicians against gun violence, we are experiencing the rhetorical arc of church.
Another eloquent speechwriter, Richard Goodwin, has departed us. He owns some of the last half-century’s most powerful public speeches, spoken by others. He took us to church repeatedly as the voice of peace, democracy and anti-war candidates. His appeals to principle above politics and righteousness beyond rights set a standard for wholly secular values and possibilities.
As recently as 2017, Goodwin wrote about the persistent income inequality in the United States. He wrote, “I’d like to believe that the optimistic pulse of what I wrote in 1985 — that problems devised by us can be resolved by us — still resonates.”
Church is a trend toward optimism and the possibility of greatness.
Reflecting on the 50th anniversary of the 1965 March on Selma and President Johnson’s speech regarding voting rights, he reflected, “While I may have helped with the words, it was the message the President wanted to send. The force of his embrace gave them their power.”
In the speech, Johnson said, “At times, history and fate meet at a single time, in a single place, to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.” In a few more lines, Johnson spoke Goodwin’s lines that resonate far beyond the moment: “It’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice … and … we … shall … overcome.”
If they are the right words, though they are spoken at a particular place and time, the words of church echo above the chamber, the current events, the insistent rancor or will of the moment. So it was at Windsor.
Todd R. Nelson is a retired English teacher and school principal. He lives in Penobscot.