A sermon preached by the Bishop of Salisbury, The Rt Revd Nicholas Holtam
Friday 16th April 2021, 17:30, Choral Evensong with Prayers for HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
Psalm 23, Isaiah 61.1-3, Revelation 21`.1-7
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The Duke of Edinburgh did not like long sermons which he said should not last longer than the bottom could endure.
In the funeral service tomorrow there will be three basic elements: giving thanks for Prince Philip’s life, asking forgiveness for his sins and commending him to God’s eternal care. It would be the same for anyone but as it happens the Duke of Edinburgh has given great national service and the memories and reflections this week about his life have been both impressive and deeply moving.
In this service we have gathered at Evensong to pray for Prince Philip, which is what Christians do for all who have died. Evensong is particularly appropriate as our prayers are towards the end of the day. We have just heard sung the Nunc Dimittis, “Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace”
His Royal Highness was part of our national life for longer than most of us have been alive. He made an extraordinary contribution in his own right and in support of the longest serving monarch this country has known. In these COVID times we have come as representatives from across the county of Wiltshire, and there are similar services at Wimborne Minster for that part of our diocese that lies in Dorset and around the country to remember him on the eve of his funeral at St George’s Windsor.
“Blessed are those who mourn” is a strange blessing from the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel. It can only be because they loved. As the Queen said, “Grief is the price we pay for love.” And love is eternal.
At its most simple, it is deeply human for us to come together to surround the Queen and Royal Family with our sympathy, love and prayers at the death of a husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather. In doing so we are asserting not just that Prince Philip was an important figure in our national life but above all he was a human being, who loved and was loved, and that every individual matters under God.
The Duke’s childhood was extraordinary. Very much European royalty - Prince Philip of Denmark and Greece – he was born on a dining table and escaped Greece in an orange box on a British war ship. His mother’s mental illness and early family deaths could have broken him but they made him the determined and strong minded person he became. Gordonstoun and the Royal Navy were perfect for him.
He was an exceptionally promising young Naval officer but his marriage to Princess Elizabeth meant that his prime public role was that of consort.
Like all the Royal family he was in much demand as a Patron of almost 800 organisations. What this gave him was the opportunity to build a big picture of what is going on in the country and the world. His view was very powerful and like every good leader he could see things others barely glimpsed. He was deeply concerned to further the possibilities for dialogue between science and religion. His own Christian faith and his responsibilities to the monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, meant he and they had a care for clergy. Every Diocesan bishop was invited to stay for the weekend at Sandringham and this was not just a formality. They took a personal interest and wanted to know what was going on. The Duke’s founding of St George’s House at Windsor was a major contribution to clergy in-service training. It is a centre for exploration and dialogue about the things that really matters in life.
The Duke was hugely committed to improving the world of work, industry and design. His early recognition of the environmental crisis and work with the World Wildlife Fund looks now to be what we all think, but forty years ago it was not. Perhaps most striking of all was the development of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, founded in 1956 to help young people develop the skills and resilience to do well in life, a “Do-it yourself kit in the art of living”. The Duke said, “If you can get a young person to succeed in any one activity then the feeling of success will spread into many other areas.” 6.7 million young people have done the award. This is a major legacy.
One of my favourite passages in the New Testament is from the First Letter of Peter, a letter to people who were newly baptised, chapter 2 verse 9: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the gifts acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light.” A characteristic of those who have been baptised is that they should treat each other in ways that recognise that we are special, “a royal priesthood”, under God.
In 2012, on the tour to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, the Queen and the Prince Philip came to Salisbury. There was a lot of interest in the visit and the Lord Lieutenant gathered a group at the Rifles Museum to meet them. As we waited for their arrival it seemed that everyone had a story about a personal connection or an event at which they had last seen the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. Because of them, we all felt special and looked our best. That’s what Royalty does for us, all of us. They set an expectation about the way in which we are with each other. We smarten up, want to be at our best, get ourselves and the place ready for royalty and all our visitors. Royalty raises our game. “You are a royal priesthood.”
The Christian Gospel began at an empty tomb and the first disciples were afraid. As the disciples became a community of the resurrection, what began to take shape was a movement of people who in their care for the dead showed how to live with love and without fear. Today, here in Salisbury cathedral, in remembering Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh we pray,
Rest eternal grant unto him O Lord and let light perpetual shine upon him.