Prince Philip’s funeral in hallowed St. George’s Chapel was thoroughly Christian
The ceremonial funeral Saturday of Prince Philip was a theologically orthodox service as expressed through the timeless Anglican rites of the Church of England, observers said.
It also came at a time when faith in the public square is more often than not watered down to accommodate the panoply of beliefs and nonbeliefs.
“It was a fitting liturgy for a man in whom the traditional and the modern combined,” the Right Rev. Anthony Clavier said. Originally from England and today a cleric in the Episcopal Church, he noted the late duke of Edinburgh’s steadfast “service to God, the Queen, the nation and the Commonwealth.”
Others in the Anglican tradition — Queen Elizabeth II is supreme governor of the Church of England, the mother church of the wider Anglican Communion — were impressed with the funeral’s overt Christianity, which was reflective of the deeply rooted faith held by Philip.
With minor exceptions, the order of service was essentially the liturgy of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. It also blended seamlessly with the pomp and pageantry that the British do so much better than anyone else.
“The service was very traditional,” said Lord George Carey, archbishop of Canterbury from 1991 until 2002. “It echoed the funeral service for Princess Margaret, which I took part in some 20 years ago.”
Philip, born the grandson of the Danish and Greek kings, was baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church. Later, he was received into England’s Anglican state church before marrying the then-Princess Elizabeth at Westminster Abbey in 1947. His mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, was a great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria who lived out her later years a Greek Orthodox nun. Her aunt, the Lutheran-turned-Anglican-turned-Orthodox Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, is canonized as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church.
“He had a questioning faith,” Carey said, “but was a strong believer.”
Of a lesser rank than a state funeral, Philip’s ceremonial funeral was equivalent to the funerals of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 2002 and Philip’s uncle, the Earl Mountbatten, in 1979 with one notable exception. While those funerals brought together hundreds, Saturday’s funeral included just 30 mourners — the maximum number allowed under the U.K. government’s coronavirus restrictions on gatherings.
“Although Prince Philip’s service had the ornaments of royalty and military honor, at the core of the service was the hope of eternal life available to all,” said the Rev. Steven J. Kelly, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Detroit. “Whether at St. George’s Chapel, a local church or graveside, the words strike to the same core truth.”
Presiding within the quire of a socially distanced St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle were the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. and Right Hon. Justin Welby, and the Right Rev. David Conner, dean of Windsor and a former suffragan bishop in the Church of England.
“This is like every other funeral and distinct from every other funeral,” Welby told Sky News on the eve of the funeral. “It’s like every other funeral because the family is the family is the family and it’s distinct because they are having to bear this loss and sorrow in the glare of, goodness knows, how many people watching [the royal family] from around the world.”
St. George’s Chapel, built between the reigns of King Edward IV in 1475 and King Henry VIII in 1528, is one of the finest examples of perpendicular Gothic architecture. It has regularly served as the backdrop of royal occasions, including the 2018 wedding of the present duke and duchess of Sussex in which the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church gave the sermon.
One of the chapel’s most notable architectural features is the elaborate fan vaulting above the quire, where the service took place. This dates to the late 15th century.
Before the pandemic the chapel was open to visitors as part of admission into Windsor Castle. Another way to get inside was attendance at one of the regular church services. Both paid admission and free services are expected to resume May 17, when some U.K. government coronavirus restrictions are lifted.
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Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.