The Christian faith gets very little mainstream air time these days, and when it does it is usually as a sideshow to a controversy over issues like sexism or historical racism.
Not so on Monday, when a global audience for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral service was treated to an hour-long exposure to Christian beliefs about death and what comes after. I doubt that we shall see anything quite like it again.
It was the Anglican Church at its most solemn and ceremonial, set in the grandeur of Westminster Abbey, whose history goes back nearly 800 years. A church at its most doctrinal, with readings and prayers and the Archbishop’s sermon speaking candidly about sin, redemption, grace, life in Christ, death and judgement, the mercy of God, the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting.
Only a monarch of Elizabeth’s faith and moral stature could bear the weight of all that. To be part of such a ritual must challenge the most determined disbeliever, and surely there were a few of those looking on.
Anyone outside the cathedral could take it or leave it, but the 2000 dignitaries inside were a captive audience. When the cameras zoomed in on this group or that individual, I could not help wondering what they were thinking as the lessons and prayers were read and the hymns were sung.
Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; sang the choir, shut not thy merciful ears unto our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and most merciful Saviour, thou most worthy Judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee.
The average person’s idea of funeral today would involve a minimum of formality, some heartfelt speeches and jolly anecdotes, perhaps a favourite Scripture reading and some prayers, and songs ranging from “Amazing Grace” to “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” from The Phantom of the Opera.
The state funeral service of the Governor of the Church of England in an ancient cathedral is something else altogether. Invoking central doctrines of the Faith she confessed, it must have rattled a few agnostics’ cages, and stirred the lukewarm faithful.
Thanksgiving and hope were the dominant themes, expressed in the marvellous climax of St Paul’s paean to the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians (the first reading): O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Traditional hymns and beautiful choral pieces surely stirred a devotional chord in many hearts.
Bur God’s judgement, likely rather different from the world’s, made itself felt, and, hopefully, stirred consciences asleep to the evils now enshrined as goods in many countries.
In the opening prayer the Dean of Westminster prayed:
We meekly beseech thee, O Father, to raise us from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness; that, when we shall depart this life, we may rest in him, as our hope is this our sister doth; and that, at the general Resurrection in the last day, we may be found acceptable in thy sight; and receive that blessing, which thy well-beloved Son shall then pronounce to all that love and fear thee, saying, Come, ye blessed children of my Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world…
And the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, noted in his short sermon: “We will all face the merciful judgment of God. We can all share the Queen’s hope which in life and death inspired her servant leadership.”
Of course, there can be beauty in an ancient ritual quite apart from the beliefs its expresses. It would be possible to admire the dignified language of the King James version of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, the vestments and the artistry involved in the funeral liturgy, and remain unmoved by the idea of facing the divine Judge, albeit a merciful one.
However, no one who followed Queen Elizabeth’s funeral service could complain on judgement day that they didn’t know the score. Hearing faith speak its own language, uninterrupted, is a powerful thing, especially in a setting worthy of it by reason of beauty and decorum. The effects cannot easily wear off.
As to the future: the new King, understandably in multicultural Britain, sees himself as “Defender of Faiths” as well as “Defender of the (Anglican) Faith”. How this works out in a realm where a quarter of the population (in 2011) claimed to have no religion remains to be seen.
The odds are, however, that the funeral of King Charles III will not be the splendid Anglican affair that his mother’s was. And not only because the monarchy will change, but because the Christian faith itself is losing ground, not only in Britain but throughout the West.
Ceremony and sentiment are not enough to turn the hearts of younger generations to Christ. They need convincing witnesses to the truth that he lives, and that his teaching is lifegiving. Will King Charles III be one of those witnesses?