Sermon for Requiem for HRH the Duke of Edinburgh, 17 April 2021, the Vicar

“The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them.” The requiem’s prayers encompass emotions around death: fear, separation, love, memory, hope, thankfulness. This prayer for the dead calls the faithful to face mortality and finitude and situate them within the loving purposes of God, whose justice is true and who longs to forgive. We pray for eternal rest for the souls of the righteous, in the hand of God, beyond the torments of Hades, awaiting the final resurrection and joyful consummation of all things.

How very good to welcome Fr William Whitcombe, who serves in the Chapel Royal. Normally he and his colleagues would be keeping vigil with the body of Prince Philip before the His Royal Highness’s final obsequies. Thank you, William for being with us. We feel a very personal and particular connection with Prince Philip here, through our beloved Anne Griffiths, who worked with Prince Philip (albeit with a break) from 1952, dying in office. It was not insignificant that 48 hours after Anne’s memorial service, in May 2017, which Prince Philip attended, that he announced his retirement. Amongst Royal representatives and many guests and from the Household were members of the wider Mountbatten family, attending in their own right, in recognition of Anne’s encyclopaedic grasp of their history.

In speaking now, I am mindful of the Prince’s well reported comment that “the brain cannot absorb what the posterior cannot endure…”

Much has been said already, in moving tributes, especially by the Duke’s close family. I wish only to make a few points, beyond underlining what Joanna said on Sunday about Prince Philip’s vision in founding St George’s House in Windsor: a place of high level discussion, before the term networking was even coined.

On Sunday, Simone Chambers kindly sang the Kontakion for the Dead. This was in memory not only of Prince Philip, but her own 97 year old mother-in-law, Joan, who also died last week and whom we remembered on Tuesday. Our thoughts remain with Mike and family.

The Kontakion is a funeral text from the Eastern Orthodoxy, which in the last 100 years or so the Church of England has borrowed. In 1863 William, Prince of Denmark became King George I of Greece. His marriage to Olga of Russia, assured the Greek Church that the Danish prince’s Lutheranism, would be replaced in subsequent Royal generations by indigenous Orthodoxy. Prince Philip’s Lutheran mother, Princess Alice of Battenburg, converted to Orthodoxy in 1928. This was of her own accord some years after her marriage to Prince Philip’s father, Andrew of Greece. I will return to her story shortly, which itself is very moving, but I would make one point about Orthodoxy in relation to Prince Philip’s heritage. I know Orthodoxy well, having shared my last church with an Orthodox congregation. There are many ways to differentiate Orthodox and Western Christianity. The simplest is a visual distinction in their respective architecture.

St Mark’s own high pointed arches, and great spire point us to heaven – typical of the Western idea of striving upwards. Eastern churches are known by their domes. Orthodox thereby presents a vision of heaven descending to earth. There are big implications of this for how each views creation. There is nothing wrong with reaching towards the heavens, but the vision of heaven stooping to earth is a reassuring one. And one which reminds us that the stuff of creation, and we ourselves, are heavenly creatures, in our essence, and the world around us charged with divine potential. It’s no surprise there is no worked out doctrine of the Fall in Orthodoxy. But there is a very developed Theology of creation. We can see in Prince Philip’s love of nature and grasp how concern for the deep interconnectedness of all life, ran through his thinking.

He was no “bunny hugger” (not a turn of phrase to be used after a glass of wine). But he understood the delicate ecological balance of the environment. It should be added, remembering Anne’s work in his library, that there were nearly as many works of Theology as conservation on its shelves.

It may just be that the combination of both disciplines holds the solution to the aversion of climate catastrophe. And if that is true, Prince Philip will have been one of those who paved that path.

There may be a key to understanding Prince Philip’s motivation and faith in exploring his mother’s continuation of the mission of her Aunt Ella; Elizabeth of Russia. Did you hear Prince Charles’s story, when his grandmother announced her hope to be buried on the Mt of Olives near Grand Duchess Ella, at the monastery of St Mary Magdalene? The family exclaimed some concern about not being able to visit her grave. She replied confoundingly (whilst in Buckingham Palace at the time, 1967) “Nonsense there’s a bus which runs from Athens once a day.” Whilst working amongst the most deprived, during the privations of war, unbeknownst to anyone, she gave refuge to a Jewish family. Without her they would have been deported and murdered. Alice is commemorated at Yad Vashem as Righteous Amongst the Gentiles. There could be no more fitting resting place for her than the Mt of Olives overlooking the ancient site of the Jerusalem Temple. The place three world religions believe the Messiah will reclaim at his final Advent. It was to this otherwise tranquil place that Anne took us in 2015. In the tomb’s alcove were many laminated photographs and family trees, which Anne had sent years before. Digress: “You are family.”

When Prince Philip retired, he gave an, a rebarbative encounter. Prince Philip was asked whether the things he had done, not least the scheme which bears his name, and the countless other causes he had supported, was all about leaving a legacy. His response, disarmingly sincere and utterly Christian, to my ears chimed in with the selflessness and perhaps even eccentricity of his mother. Doing what he did, he explained, was about doing what needed to be done, not considering what would be left in his memory. Jesus’s injunction about our treasure, holds true here. Our treasure should not to be earthbound, but heavenward – where your treasure is there will your heart be also. This is about the renunciation of earthly glory and vanity. It concerns striving, with all pureness of heart, for the kingdom to come.

Prince Philip served as liege-man of life and limb his and our Queen & Governor. Throughout their remarkable marriage, they have demonstrated through service to the Crown, that this kingdom must bow the knee to the one to come.

Earth’s proud empires do and must pass away. They are of this world.

The Kingdom we serve is not of earthly legacies and glories. The Christian task now and at the hour of death is to pray with the Saints is to pray: Our Father which art in heaven, thy kingdom come, thy will be done… For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.


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