Church and State, Remembrance and Commendation: The Funeral of HRH Prince Philip

Watching the funeral of Prince Philip today (like so many people around the world) elicited a sequence of often-conflicting emotions in this liturgist. In my case, I was glued to CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company). The funeral played on multiple channels in Canada, not surprising, recalling that Canada is a member of the Commonwealth, (and a favourite of the late Prince’s, who made multiple visits in his role as the Duke of Edinburgh).

In the lead-up to the actual liturgy, one of the best lines from a Canadian commentator on the ground in Windsor was a comment of how almost shocking it was, after living in a “ceremony-free zone” for so many months (and in Canada, locked down again with insufficient vaccines and rapidly rising COVID cases), to see real people, real ceremony, real choirs – amazing. The pandemic, of course, did affect many elements of this part of the funeral events, especially the place, the scope, and the size of the gathering.

Like many royal or state funerals, what was presented was an often-strange amalgamation of military rituals, situated in a royal event, with the accompanying state realities, within the church – sometimes in sharp juxtaposition. A reminder to those in the US in particular, the relationship between state and church (i.e., the Church of England) is very different in the UK, the so-called “National Cathedral” in Washington, DC cannot be so, full stop, because of the stated separation of church and state. But polite secularism, at its very best practicing inclusivity, led to the newscasters, the interviews, the commentators, the news prior to the actual service all focused on remembering – with many archival photos and stories (personal and corporate) shared. But as soon as the coffin was carried into the chapel (by military pall bearers), the choir began singing the funeral sentences, “I am the resurrection and the life…I know that my redeemer liveth…we brought nothing into this world” – the liturgy brought us abruptly from reflection on a famous life lived to the life to come for a baptized Christian. The eclectic service, presided over by the Dean of Windsor, assisted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and designed by the Prince himself, continued to veer between military, royalty, and Christian prayer, reflecting the tensions in identity-forming affiliations that marked his life. Almost in the exact centre of the actual service bulletin sat perhaps an interpretive key, the reading from St. John’s Gospel (John 11:21-27) proclaiming the encounter between Jesus and Martha, and the declaration of eternal life in Jesus as the resurrection and the life. While several of the Canadian commentators kept mentioning “the” prayerbook, this was actually not the “Burial Service” from the 1662 BCP, there were elements from there, from other liturgies, adaptations from the wishes of the Prince, elements drawn from the contemporary order of funerals in Common Worship, military rituals, and ceremony associated with the royal household and their memberships, all melded into an office structure.

Most unusually there was neither sermon nor eulogy (at the request of the Prince who prepared his own funeral). And, rather than the boy choristers (and in many places now, girl choristers) – a commonality of most formal liturgies, four adults (three men, one woman) sang both the ritual music and the texts between readings and elsewhere (and provided again a reminder of why one does not carpet churches, acoustics create theological space – even mediated through a screen). The Prince’s choice of readings and music pointed to Christian faith, a lively faith revealed in the Prince’s ongoing theological conversations in his later years. But, the military hymns, military rituals at the beginning and ending again marked those multiple affiliations. Remarkably after the multiple collects, the quartet sang the stunning funeral Kontakion (“Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy saints, where sorrow or pain are no more, neither sighing but life everlasting”) which has become so much a part of Anglican funerals around the world and a nod to Prince Philip’s baptism in the Greek Orthodox Church (but absent the censing of the coffin or presence at the coffin of the officiants-perhaps partially adapted because of the pandemic caution). The proficiscere (“Go forth upon thy journey from this world, O Christian soul”) followed, then a series of honorific acknowledgements and three pieces of military ritual music (“The Last Call”, “Reveille”, “Action Stations”) returning to the dismissal prayers and the blessing, before ending with the quartet singing The National Anthem (“God Save the Queen”). Interestingly, with just the four voices, the standard ending of any royal liturgy sounded far more like a caress than a triumphant blast.

Funerals, like weddings, have always sat at the intersection of culture(s) and Christian faith in the resurrected life. Christians have never had a monopoly on dying, and from the earliest centuries of the church cultural rituals and rites were adapted (minimally or greatly) and above all, reinterpreted as to their meanings. Rather than analyse every detail of what many described as a “simple” funeral (but was actually very complex in its layers of meaning), I want to leave this august online gathering of experts with two thoughts. The first was the cultural ‘lens’ through which commentators and newscasters framed this. Again and again the terminology was “it was so somber”…wow, if only from the lessons learned from the overly-perky “Mass of Resurrection” toward a greater balance in theological expression, one would find the palpable dismay with a somber funeral a bit confusing. But I think what we were hearing from many was the growing characterization of a funeral as a “Celebration of Life” – looking back at the life lived rather than forward to the life to come – and this in the light of so much death and suffering as the worldwide pandemic keeps on killing. This Christian funeral was for the deceased, not primarily for the mourners – and I suspect that was “foreign” enough to startle the commentators, and actually the source of confusion behind the constant references to “such a somber funeral…”

There was another dimension though that was not at one or the other extremes of the popular funeral spectrum (“let’s not talk about death at all” to “in sure and certain hope of the resurrection…with absolutely no doubt at all in our hearts because all good people go straight to heaven”) In many parts of Anglicanism, the funeral liturgy (once referred to solely as “The Burial Office”) has moved away from the reformed protestant assumption that one is judged at the second of death – hence there is no need to pray for the dead nor to articulate in prayers the mystery of the ‘space’ between individual death and the resurrection at the second coming. Rather, the popular saying at death “May he rest in peace and rise in glory” captures the return of the sense of the communion of saints (small ‘s’ and capital “S”) in which we continue to pray for each other while we wait for the general resurrection.

Lastly, when I mentioned above that this was not a “simple” funeral I was referring to the deep layers of symbolic reality expressed in the liturgy at almost every turn. They did not need to be pointed out, they were allowed to “give rise to thought”, at the moment and for days and months to come. I was struck by the responses (actually not dialogical here but sung by the choir) and the faithful acknowledgement that we pray for the migration of the soul now undertaken after death, pleading before God:
Enter not into judgement with thy servant, O Lord,
For in thy sight shall no man living be justified.
Grant unto him eternal rest
And let light perpetual shine upon him
We believe verily to see the goodness of the Lord
In the land of the living
O Lord, hear our prayer
And let our cry come unto thee.

Maybe, this funeral liturgy said, we do not actually have this all figured out, hence the essential nature of symbolic discourse reminding us there is always more than we can ask or imagine. The liturgists of the world have started the analyses of what was and what should have been, but I trust that most realize what was made public was not the full extent of prayers, liturgies and ceremonies for the Prince – we were privy to only part of a sequence of events. May this sequence of prayers and liturgies commend the dead to God, bring comfort to all who mourn, and for those mourning their own losses around the world, may there have been some comfort in the words Christians have spoken for centuries: “May thy portion this day be in peace, and thy dwelling in the heavenly Jerusalem.”

22 comments

  1. Thank you for this.
    The Order of Service may be found:
    https://www.royal.uk/sites/default/files/media/strictly_under_embargo_until_2230hrs_bst_friday_16th_april_2021_-_the_order_of_service_for_the_funeral_of_the_duke_of_edinburgh.pdf
    Note that the trumpet piece is not “The Last Call” but “The Last Post”.
    Note of interest the Catholic version of the Our Father without the bit added on by Anglicans.
    The Naval and military roles reflected the Prince’s service and was perhaps a reminder to the viewers of the value of such service as well as a way of showing honour to current and fallen comrades. The Royal Naval sword on the coffin is like that of my grandfather who served in both world wars and is by me now.

    1. Thanks for catching my error with “The Last Post”. The Lord’s Prayer is “the Anglican version” not the Roman Catholic version! All of the prayerbooks prior to the ecumenical inheritance of the liturgical movement reserved the doxology for the eucharist (in the course of the liturgy, not the first round which was technically private prayer), daily office always had no doxology, and that distinction between liturgy of the hours and eucharistic versions is still carried forward in practice in a number of places around the Anglican Communion. Often you will hear this in Evensong because of the older musical setting (This was a setting by Robert Stone, 1516-1613).

    2. The naval officer’s sword was in fact a gift from the Queen’s father, given to Philip on his wedding day.

  2. Thank you for this excellent and balanced view of today’s service. As Eastern Christiansare wont to pray out loud, “May his memory be eternal!”

  3. Having played at dozens of socially distanced requiems with numbers limited to 30 during this pandemic, the dreadful sight of the solitary widow resonated with me.
    Covid makes us all equal.

  4. The cameras also specifically did not transmit images of the lowering of the casket and bier through the pneumatic patch of pavement down to the Royal Vault beneath the Chapel, where the prince’s remains will be temporarily interred until his wife passes and her remains are interred with his in the George VI Chapel therein with those of her parents.

      1. Thanks, I had seen that after I posted that comment. The feed I saw Stateside only offered a couple of brief visual clues (one just before the piper’s lament, the other afterwards), but no sustained camera focus on the lowering – instead, the camera was kept on the Garter King of Arms’ reading of titles.

  5. Thanks for this, Lizette. I wouldn’t read anything into the soprano singing what would have otherwise been sung by boys. Only an adult would have had a strong enough voice to sing with three other adults (the alto line was sung by a countertenor).

    The reading from St. John may also have been an allusion to the communities of nuns founded by Grand Duchess Elizabeth (his great-aunt) and Princess Alice (or Andrew), his mother, both dedicated to Sts. Martha and Mary (although his mother’s never actually took off).

    1. The only thing that troubled me about the soprano was that she was not vested like the other cantors.

  6. -It was refreshing to have no sermon, eulogies, or other speeches. No one’s personality got their moment in the sun. I hope that many take note and this trend continues and grows.
    -It was comforting to be able to mourn: black vestments, unbleached candles, the family all in black. Not mourning without hope, just mourning.
    -The one dreadful thing was using the communion table as a display, whether it’s the best silver on holidays, or the medals, awards, and honors of the decendent yesterday.

      1. I wondered why there was a display on the alter. Surely another place could be found for displaying the items.

  7. There is no rationale for the upper limit of 30. The Govt’s guidance (rightly) notes that some small venues may not be able to accommodate this number, but doesn’t go on to draw the logical conclusion that larger venues may be able to accommodate more than 30. St George’s Windsor can accommodate up to 800 people, and there were 100 people present at the Choral Eucharist there on Easter Sunday. So there was no reason for limiting the number of mourner’s at the Duke’s funeral to 30, apart from the need to be seen to observing the Govt’s arbitrary limit. COVID does indeed make us all equal – equally in thrall to a cruel and heartless policy.

    1. On the other hand, every venue in the world does not have a consultant on hand to determine a more exact safer number. Especially perhaps churches, some of whom seem to struggle to find competent leadership in liturgy, let alone crowd control. Is it 30? Is it 100? Is it 86? Is it more about dealing with pandemic deniers? Is it an issue of making an appropriate example for others to follow, with some seriousness. It wouldn’t surprise me to know if the Queen pressed, she could manage to persuade for extra bodies. It would surprise me less if she deliberately chose not to cram in some extra nobles or choristers based on her sense of duty.

      So, yes: bad, bad virus. That satisfy?

  8. You do know, I trust, the reasons the cathedral in Washington is called “Washington National Cathedral,” and how those reasons have nothing to do with a claim on the part of the Episcopal Church to be an established church? (For which, thanks be to God)

  9. I do like a holy table laden with all manner of church plate, and I see nothing wrong with the prince’s decorations displayed thereon which I construed as an offering of his life to God.

    I do remember seeing a painting in the palace of the doges of a mensa on which not only two liturgical plates were displayed but also a thurible on the gospel and its boat on the epistle sides. I’ve even read that the tablets of the law could be found behind altars on the continent.

  10. The Kontakion is available in the Hymnal 1982 at #355. And it is arranged by Sir Walter Parratt, onetime organist of St George’s Windsor. Would be nice if it were used more frequently.

  11. Re the vesting of the woman singer. St George’s Choir is still just boys and men so she wasn’t a member of the choir (as the men were) and so didn’t wear the robes of that choir.
    I have conducted many funerals restricted to 30. The silver lining to this situation is the intimacy of the service and that the immediate family is able to grieve and are not overwhelmed by large numbers of other guests

    1. In concert settings, quite often the male singers are in black formal wear, and the female singers are in dresses that are of brighter colors and not necessarily matching. Or the choir is all in black and a female soloist in a bright dress. I didn’t see anything wrong or out of line with the soprano in black dress rather than cassock and surplice. The chapel choir is, I gather, all male, and she wouldn’t be a member of that, so it didn’t bother me that she wouldn’t wear their vesture. She and the male singers were excellent.

    2. Except that cassock and surplice aren’t the distinctive uniform of that particular choir but the appropriate dress for anyone singing or serving at divine service. I’m afraid to me it still smacks of the practice found in some Anglo-Catholic churches where women sing with the men but are not deemed to be part of the real “liturgical” choir.

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