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.”