A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler at Choral Evensong giving thanks for the life of HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
The General Thanksgiving (Book of Common Prayer)
What can be added to the many, many words that have already been said about Prince Philip since his death? As I watched his coffin slowly lowered into the vault of St George’s Chapel yesterday afternoon, I was struck by the contrast between the way in which we fill the death of someone with words – and there have been a lot of words said about the Duke of Edinburgh in the past week – the contrast between all these words and the stark simplicity and understatement of the content and leadership of his funeral service. For a man who clearly meant what he said (and often said what he meant), there are times when an economy of words is sufficient.
So let me say a few words about thankfulness in this service of thanksgiving.
To be sure, I am sure Prince Philip had much to be thankful for in his life. He was, by any accounts, not just an able man and a long-lived man, but a privileged man as well. When the Garter Principal King at Arms read the Styles and Titles he had been honoured with as his coffin descended into the vault of St George’s Chapel, one cannot but be aware that, despite the sometimes onerous responsibilities and duties that came his way, he was a fortunate man indeed.
But this sense of privilege brought with it a sense of duty as well. Maybe some of us feel instinctively uncomfortable with that word than Prince Philip’s generation did. No matter: if that word ‘duty’ does not sit well with us then let us talk about a sense of ‘responsibility’ instead. Instilled in the Royal Family, with an example set by the Queen, is that her duty – and therefore the duty of all those who are born into this privileged world – is to serve her country, her subjects, or perhaps in these more enlightened times, the citizens of this country and the Commonwealth. In marrying Princess Elizabeth – sooner than was expected to become Queen Elizabeth – Prince Philip chose to embrace a life of responsibility, duty and service. We need not rehearse again how well he has followed his chosen path.
Tucked away in the Book of Common Prayer is a prayer called The General Thanksgiving. Let me read it to you:
ALMIGHTY God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men; We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we shew forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives; by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.
The way in which thankfulness and duty or responsibility are woven together seems so much part of our culture that perhaps we don’t ever stop to appreciate that it comes to us from the heart of the Christian tradition. Before it was part of Anglo-Saxon culture it was part of Christian culture, itself building on our Jewish origins. This is no natural way of living – getting what you can for you and yours has always been another path to privilege and success. And we should not forget that there have been many occasions where Christian faith has been used as a smoke screen for such selfish living.
But it is part of what we have inherited from our Christian forebears and, in as much as the Queen and her Consort have lived out this inheritance and made it their own, they do what Christian constitutional monarchy at its best can do – which is to reflect back to the country a way of life that all should admire and imitate. We can be thankful that, with all his personal quirks and character flaws, this fellow-sinner who is also a fellow citizen of God’s kingdom, has been able to inhabit this reflective role with personal integrity. We pray that he now would rest in the arms of his Lord. “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Such a life of service has to be chosen not assumed, however: as the General Thanksgiving invites us to ponder, our living and our responsibility are a reflection of our own gratitude to God for what we have been given in Christ. None of us have the good fortune of living in palaces or anything else that accompanies royalty or high office. But, with what we have been given – wealth, talent, a heart for others, perhaps health, perhaps a loving family or partner – we are invited to a life of duty and responsibility, letting gratitude flow into service and responsibility. We do well to remember that taking this seriously is the best way to ensure that we do not lose the Christian inheritance from our culture and society. It is by no means a given and can easily be squandered in our temptation to abandon duty for self-fulfilment, or service for selfish gain. I can think of no more obvious example of this than the climate crisis about which the Duke felt so strongly. Look what is happening when we choose not to take our responsibility to the world seriously.
But this all starts with thanksgiving and gratitude. Each one of us is privileged in some way or another, as the General Thanksgiving implies, above all with “the inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.” Living out a life of duty and responsibility from that place is the vocation of princes and paupers. This we share with Prince Philip, Her Majesty the Queen, and all who choose to follow the way of Jesus Christ. Amen.
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