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Homily at Choral Evensong with the commemoration of the life of His Royal Highness, Philip, Duke of Edinburgh

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Transcript below

Norwich Cathedral, Friday 16 April 2021

Proverbs 4. 1-13 and Ephesians 2.14-22

During the last two decades, as Her Majesty The Queen and His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh have entered the west door of Westminster Abbey, ten statues have looked down on all who come and go. These depict twentieth century martyrs, among them Grand Duchess Elizabeth of Russia, Prince Philip’s great aunt. She eschewed the riches of jewels to found a religious order to treasure the riches of the poor through intercession and action in the heart of a disordered world. She was murdered in 1918 along with so many other members of the Russian royal family.

Alongside her statue is that of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and theologian murdered by the Nazis for standing against the tyranny of a disordered world also through intercession and action. He died on 9th April 1945, a month before Germany’s surrender.

Exactly seventy-six years to the day later, we mourned the death of another who had bravely fought against that disordered world and spent a subsequent lifetime contributing to ways to mend the world.

Prince Philip’s served this country in war and in peace, and served his anointed Queen with dedication and devotion, living out his oath at her Coronation to be her “liege man of life and limb”; the one who she has said was her “strength and stay” for over 73 years of marriage. Their love story lived out Bonhoeffer’s words about marriage, written from prison to his niece on her wedding day, “In your love, you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind.”

It is, therefore, only right that at the heart of our prayers this week has been a simple prayer that Her Majesty will know the peace and love of the God who gently holds her in his strong and gentle hands.

In all the words of the last week, I have kept wondering what was at the core of Prince Philip’s character? One aspect, for me, was his curiosity. “Get wisdom, and whatever else you get, get insight”, is wise counsel from the Book of Proverbs in our first reading and it seems to me that this is something Prince Philip was always doing. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who said that “[The Church] must move out again into the open air of intellectual discussion with the world, and risk saying controversial things, if we are to get down to the serious problems of life”, Prince Philip was unafraid to engage in debate, even with contentious topics.

Like Bonhoeffer, he always allowed his curiosity and interest to take him beyond ignorance and prejudice, to see and see into the world of the other. Bonhoeffer also had an intense sense of duty and of responsibility to take action in obedience to God’s law. Both men undoubtedly gave over their entire lives in service to God and country. And there was a certain fullness of curiosity and activity, even urgency, within the Duke’s life, as if he was living out Bonhoeffer’s words, “Time is the most precious gift in our possession . . . time lost is time not filled, time left empty.”

I suspect that many people in this Cathedral or watching online, experienced Prince Philip’s fullness of curiosity. I encountered this in two key ways:

As an undergraduate I wrote to my university’s Chancellor, then at his summer home at Balmoral, to ask if he might write the foreword for Sylva, the journal of the University of Edinburgh Ecological Society that I was editing. I was summoned, a few weeks later, by my head of department to be told that this hadn’t followed university protocol. The professor then smiled at me, and said, if I had followed protocol it would never have been forwarded to Prince Philip, as he handed me a signed foreword on Balmoral Castle note paper. In it, Prince Philip wrote prophetic and urgent words about how we live well with the whole of creation, “the development of techniques for the sustainable and wise use of resources has never been more important than it is today” and he went on to write that the management of natural systems needing to be done “without reducing biodiversity, on which the whole global system depends.”

Whether engaging in the fields of ecology or engineering, or on royal engagements with institutions, or visiting other nations and meeting people from diverse cultures, or critiquing the bishop’s sermon over Sunday lunch at Sandringham, Prince Philip’s natural curiosity was always at the fore. This was none more so than in his endeavours to encourage religion and science to be in dialogue, way before it was fashionable, to discuss the scientific evidence about the ecological dangers for our planet and to explore, through the prism of theology, the care for God’s creation. Curiosity that sought to mend a damaged planet.

The second aspect of curiosity that I witnessed was Prince Philip’s concern for young people. As an adolescent, he was shaped by another man whose very existence was threatened because of the disorder of the world. Kurt Hahn, the founder of Gordonstoun, a German Jew, who, like Bonhoeffer, opposed the Nazi’s anti-Semitism, came to Britain as a refugee in 1933.

From the collaboration of Prince and Headteacher the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award was established which has influenced millions of young people for good, including three generations of my own family. Like for so many others, the Award Scheme gave me key life skills, plus a few outdoor survival skills that I’m very glad not to have had to use since! But seeing first-hand its influence on young people in prison and on our toughest estates has most inspired me. Many people owe the Duke of Edinburgh a huge debt of gratitude for this influence in their lives.

His curiosity about society’s ills and its gains, and his curiosity about the unique person we each are, drove Prince Philip’s vision that within each person there is enormous potential if only it can be allowed to flourish. “One of the perpetual problems about human life”, he said in 2010, “is that young people of every generation have to discover for themselves what life is all about.” Again, his curiosity led to him seeking the mending of disorientated young people.

It was through volunteering for the Award Scheme that I found myself invited to Prince Philip’s 80th birthday party in the Royal Albert Hall. An abiding memory will always be Dame Shirley Bassey singing Big Spender to him: “The minute you walked in the joint I could see you were a man of distinction”, she sang. The look on his face was one of mild curiosity!

Today we thank God for carving out Prince Philip from the volcanic stone of his Corfu birth into the unique human being that he was. We thank God for all of the ways that his curiosity sought to mend the world as he lived out his faith in the imitation of the Christ who makes peace, reconciles groups, joins together, mends the world.

Seventy-six years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer turned to his fellow prisoner, as he was taken from their cell to face death, and said, “This is the end—for me the beginning of life.” Remarkable words, and words that Prince Philip now knows in all of their gloriousness, surrounded by the great company of saints in the household of God. His armorial motto: “God is my help”. True for him, true for us. Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and Prince of this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, rest, we pray, with the saints until the ages of ages.