Aware of Jeremy’s Vine’s absence from the air waves last week I tuned into BBC Radio 2’s lunchtime programme hosted by someone that I regard as a queen of articulation, Vanessa Feltz. Like many Jewish women who have chosen careers in the media, she has a wonderful ability to display the best of our verbal powers of communication in a manner that gives any listener an appreciation of the richness of the English vernacular. The diction, pronunciation, expressiveness and seeming endless dictionary of words that we share under the umbrella title of the English language is the conveyer of joy and satisfaction when used well and appropriately. Christopher Casson, the son of actress Sybil Thorndike, who taught public speaking to countless generations of seminarians in All Hallows, Dublin, my own training ground, would be proud of Vanessa ! In full spate, Ms. Feltz suddenly disappeared, and there followed a brief moment of silence making me think that that the power source had been interrupted. The pause was soon filled with an unrecognised voice reporting that news had been received from Buckingham Palace announcing the death of His Royal Highness, The Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh. As the brief contents of a written statement that I could imagine being hung on the palace railings, were read aloud the firmness and stability of the floor beneath my feet felt that little bit less solid and secure. Death had removed someone who had for an incredible number of years, for so many of us, been a part of the fabric, pageantry and structure of institution that make us as a nation who we are, and who on the highest, finest, grandest, most glorious, tragic and sad occasions has been a visible and ever present figure at public displays envied the world over.
Living in the public eye from the time of his summer engagement to the then Princess Elizabeth, with whom he would share an amazing seventy-three years of married life which began on a mild but cloudy November day in 1947, in reality those able to remember times when he was not a feature of royal and state occasions will be approaching the venerable age of eighty. More than the span of years lived by some. In light of this there was something appropriate about having an opportunity to pause and acknowledge his passing. For some, it appears as though it was all a bit over the top judging by a reported 100,000+ complainants who took the time and trouble to contact the BBC over the disruption of viewing schedules. The anticipation surrounding the crowing of the Masterchef supremo of 2021, the loss of a socially-distanced but otherwise seemingly completely other worldly (in comparison to the restrictive one in which the rest of us inhabit !) episode of Eastenders, alongside the sacrificing of Gardeners World all taking place on a solitary Friday evening was clearly too much for some. Personally, what I saw of the programmes aired in their stead, measured in time, offered little more than a respective and appreciative nod to a man who had given decades in an attempt to make a positive difference to the lives of others, however that was done be it through the establishment of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, a walkabout allowing the briefest of conversations to be held with someone who had stood hours just for a glimpse of a royal, or through numerous determined efforts to bring people to a point of conversation, not least those of differing beliefs, as the case in 1986 when he was the mover and shaker orchestrating a meeting between the leaders of five major faith traditions with their topic of discussion being that of a shared concern – ecology. Definitely a man who thought outside the box.
As a committed radio listener I took delight in the programmes broadcast by the BBC over the weekend offering many the opportunity of sharing their memories of Prince Philip. There were some amazing tales which revealed facets of the man which would never have been shared otherwise. My only encounter with the Duke of Edinburgh was in 1997 when the Queen came to Bradford in its centenary year as a city to distribute the Maundy Money. After the Service in St. Peter’s Cathedral the couple did a walkabout in a packed Centenary Square amongst a wonderfully diverse crowd whose facial delight alone conveyed affection and warmth for the monarch and her consort. In what was by then a time honoured custom the couple separated and worked the crowds, stopping to chat and gather armfuls of flowers and cards, faces delivering the broadest of smiles. Noticeable about the prince was his height, accentuated in comparison to the Queen’s diminutive figure, and his ramrod straight back. At the same six foot as myself, he appeared much taller facing the throng through good bearing and posture. With one arm crossed over to the elbow of the other he was clearly enjoying some longer conversations on the concourse. When the couple reunited it was to wave a final farewell, and receive a rapturous cheer from those like myself who would not forget the experience no matter how far back in the happy throng they may have been. Two very special people, igniting an equally special moment in the storeroom of memory.
Little could I have imagined that within a decade I would be asked to supply the names of two people who would be the recipients of the Maundy Money distributed at Wakefield Cathedral in 2005. It was a privilege to do so, and my choice came after local research and discreet enquiries, as both candidates had to be volunteers of long-standing within the community. Those nominated, each of pension-age, committed to supporting children within and outside of their school life, were numbered amongst the one hundred and fifty-eight people, of equal division between women and men, representing the age attained by the Queen that year (seventy-nine), who received not only the Maundy coinage but also a purse containing newly minted commemorative currency. Each could take a guest, and were invited to a luncheon afterwards. The lady whose name I had put forward had intended to attend with her sister, but shortly before the day, her nominated guest was laid low with a bad back rendering it impossible for her to be present. Having sensed the upset in her voice at having to make the journey alone, in a conversation with the said lady, I enquired if there was a telephone number anywhere on the preparatory paperwork that she had received. Phew … there was ! Encouraging her to ring and explain the situation to the ‘event organiser’ believing that this would not be the first time such an issue had arisen, about half an hour later I received a return call from the lady concerned. She was very excited, bursting to tell someone that when she dialled the number, it was answered by an incredibly well-spoken man, whose first words were “Buckingham Palace !” At over eighty years of age, I suspect that the lady concerned could never, even in her wildest dreams, have imagined making such a call from her modest flat in Dewsbury to, perhaps, the best known residence in the world. Nor was I ever sure which had given her the greatest delight: the actual ceremony at which she met one of the residents of Buckingham Palace, or the fact that she had dialled digits that were answered in such a gracious manner. The gentleman that I had nominated regaled his captivation by the Duke of Edinburgh’s delivery of Sacred Scripture, commenting that not only did he read well but he did so with the conviction of believing every word. An insightful observation and compliment indeed.
For a man who joined the royal ‘firm’ as an outsider, treated with suspicion by some, from both within and without, the role that became his, when in distant Kenya, he was the one to break the news of her father’s death to his wife, she became monarch, was one without precedent. There was no blueprint and the nearest model, that of Prince Albert – with whom Prince Philip shared similarities in a sharp and inquisitive intellect, foresight and vision, not to mention a devotional love for the woman he had married – was well beyond lived memory. Bringing himself into the role heart and soul, in many ways Prince Philip was a man whose life-experience was well ahead of his generation. His early years were in what would today be described as a dysfunctional family unit, and when stability was restored, having arrived penniless and homeless in England, it was shattered by the premature loss of his mentor. Like so many of his age-group life and limb were risked in a World War, and he learnt what hard work and discipline were in a continuing military setting. He bore the credentials necessary to face a modern and evolving world. Long term he showed that it is possible to make a difference, but it takes time. Breaking down barriers is often a life-time’s work. An important lesson for those who expect change to be instant, obtained easily and devoid of effort, pain, or sacrifice. These were elements that are recognisable in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Taking talent and skill, culturing them in an environment that, whilst supportive and encouraging, is also challenging, drawing participants beyond their expectations, working as individuals forming a team that provides benefits for the wider community.
First and foremost, the late Duke was a husband, father and grandfather across two generations. It will be as such that he is most mourned and by those closest to him that the pain of loss and absence will be felt. Many commentators lament his death just weeks shy of his hundredth birthday. Whilst his wry sense of humour may have made much about receiving a telegram from his wife, he undoubtedly would have hated being in the limelight. He was naturally ill at ease when praise was offered, skilled at deflecting accolades, so the attainment of his hundredth year was probably a good compromise reached between himself and the Good Lord. Acknowledged as a no fuss individual his Funeral will be in accordance with his wishes, aligning itself to many celebrated over the last year with limited numbers, social distancing, facial coverings and no congregational singing. In its execution, I anticipate, that the royal family will lead the nation by good example. Above all it will be a time when the ultimate hope of our Christian faith is expressed and shared with a worldwide viewing congregation. Prince Philip’s own deep rooted Christian faith, initially that of the Greek Orthodox tradition, and subsequently as a confirmed Anglican, was hugely significant to him. The unabashed and obvious references to the Christian Faith and significance of Christ’s birth made by his wife in her Christmas Speech in more recent times bear all the hallmarks of his influence. Whilst some may attribute his respect and reliance upon faith as being a legacy from his mother – described by her own mother as “a nun who smokes and plays canasta !” – the Duke of Edinburgh took nothing as a given, and will have tried and tested the gift of his faith, as well as seen the benefit and advantages of it, before committing to it or being guided by it. In offering his sympathy to the Queen, Pope Francis (to whom Prince Philip presented a bottle of Scotch whisky in 2014) wrote: “Recalling Prince Philip’s devotion to his marriage and family, his distinguished record of public service and his commitment to the education and advancement of future generations [we] commend him to the merciful love of Christ our Redeemer,” adding the Lord’s blessings of consolation and peace upon all who grieve his loss in the sure hope of the resurrection.
In a moment of silence at three o’clock today (Saturday) we are called to pause briefly. As a people of faith may we do so in prayerful remembrance. Royalist or republican, public service, duty, fidelity and humility are great virtues in either’s language and worthy of acknowledgement.
May we remain united in heart and soul just as the early people of the Christian Faith were recognised as being by those whose lives they shared. Be assured of prayerful remembrances and affection.
As ever, Fr. Nicholas