Monthly Letter, May 2021

PRINCE PHILIP’S DEATH

Dear Friends,

It’s often only when a person dies that we discover much about them which we’d never previously known. Sometimes sorrows and griefs in a person’s past, about which they rarely, if ever, would speak – the wounds still, years down the line, too raw, and the pain still far too keen. Sometimes honours and accomplishments, to which, through a self-effacing modesty, they chose not ever to refer.

‘Nature abhors a vacuum,’ it’s said: and the void which the absence of a loved one brings very often sucks in a wealth of information about the person now deceased which up ‘til then but few had ever known.

That certainly was the case last month when the Duke of Edinburgh died. I didn’t know, for instance, that he wasn’t born on his birthday! Greece didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar until 2 years after his birth, which meant that in his home country he was actually born on May 28th (rather than June 10th)!

Nor did I know that his father’s family name was Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg. Little wonder that in 1947 he chose to go by his mother’s maiden surname, Mountbatten!

The mourning which follows a person’s death creates more often than not the time and space for the sort of helpful reflection which the busy-ness of our every-day lives precludes. Discovering a treasure-trove of over-looked or long-forgotten details of a person’s life, details which were either never known or simply so familiar that they’d long since been unthinkingly taken for granted: and then piecing those details together and understanding that much better just what it was about the person now deceased which made them the person they were.

It’s been no bad thing at all, therefore, for us all to have had cause to pause and reflect on the life of a man who has simply been a fixture of our national life for more than 70 years. Always there in the background, like the familiar, fading paper on the walls of the room we make for royalty in our national life.

The river of widespread grief with which the days of national mourning were marked had its source in a number of ‘tributaries’, each of which has something pertinent to say to our land in these days.

The first of these ‘tributaries’ lies, I think, in the depth of our mourning for the Queen. We surely felt for her. A God-given instinct which prompts us at such times to mourn with those who mourn.

Behind the façade of all the regular royal pomp, it dawned afresh on many that, princess or pauper alike, we are, each and every one of us, ultimately just the same: unique created individuals, fearfully and wonderfully made, both by God and for God, with hearts which can be bursting with delight and yet which can be just as easily broken, too – broken by the sorrow and the grief bereavement brings.

The monarch as much as the man or woman on the street. We saw the Queen rather differently. Her humanity rather than her royalty. As one of us, rather than the one over us. A widow rather than some well-to-do head of state. A woman with needs rather than a sovereign with subjects. An elderly lady whose manner of life has endeared her to so many, herself now bereft of the one who was her soulmate, strength and stay. Behind the customary, quiet dignity of her own quite obvious mourning, it wasn’t hard to feel her pain and heartache at her husband’s death.

That picture of her in St George’s Chapel said it all. A frail and elderly lady, dressed no longer in the colourful costumes of great ceremonial pageantry, but dressed instead in the sombre garments of grief, bedecked in black from head to toe, with the Covid regulations underlining her complete aloneness.

All of the grieving of countless mourning multitudes who through this year and more have been bereaved across the land – indeed, across the globe – all that heaving sea of grief was compressed into the fragile frame of our sorrowing, solitary sovereign as she sat alone in the Chapel to mourn the passing from this earthly life of her dear, beloved man.

With the eyes of a watching world all focused through the lens of TV cameras on this grieving wife-turned-widow, the terrible aloneness which this past year’s long pandemic has entailed was somehow in that moment greatly magnified, until we saw and felt afresh the wretched weight of sorrow in our sin-stained, fallen world where death has long since reigned.

We mourned for our Queen in her grief. She became the focal point of every grief, for in her grief we surely mourned for all whose grief across these many months has been deprived of that key healing balm which having others present at your side affords: great crowds of friends and family, each with massive reservoirs of memories, whose waters gently bathe the gaping wounds of sorrow and of loss: and the comfort of their warm embrace, body tight on body in the tenderness of care – and in the very tightness of that tenderness, communicating to the dreadful void bereavement always brings the re-assuring knowledge that they’re not alone.

Perhaps more than ever, in the immediate aftermath of another Easter, we needed the reminder that our God, who at the very start declared it is not good that we should be alone, has come Himself to make His dwelling with us, that we should now no longer be alone. And when Prince Philip passed away, a week beyond Good Friday, the fragrance of that solemn day remained, a whispered intimation that this Jesus is indeed that ‘man of sorrows acquainted well with grief’. No one understands our griefs more fully than our Saviour and our Lord. None can plumb the depths of our bereavements and our griefs more wisely and more wholly than the One who bore the anguish of the cross on our behalf.

We have needed again to know that as a nation. And our mourning for the Queen in her grief was perhaps, in the kind and gracious providence of God, His means of thus pointing us back to Himself.

We mourned, though, also, with the Queen. A second major ‘tributary’ of sorrow flowing into that river of grief. It dawned upon us all just who and what we’d lost when this long-standing royal consort passed away.

Only in the passing of a person, who is so very permanently there – only in the passing of such people do we often start to realise how great has been the gift we took for granted all those years. Only as we found ourselves obliged now to reflect a bit upon this self-effacing ‘backstop’ to Her Majesty the Queen did the full extent and nature of Prince Philip’s life and living prompt a growing realization of the characteristic hallmarks of his role.

Gospel truths began in such reflection to seep their way beneath the careful barricades our land has been erecting in defiance of the Word of God. The landmarks in the man’s long life were somehow reminiscent for a people who’ve become so terribly forgetful of the grace of God in Christ – they were somehow strangely reminiscent of those ‘grace lines’ of the gospel.

This man of noble birth, with rich and royal blood that pulsed through every vein. His travelling to a distant land to seek for himself a bride. Exposing himself to hostility, scorn and derision; but intent on securing that bride. Counting not his noble roots and inherited rights as things to be held onto. Making himself as nothing, ready to be and become a nobody that his bride might become the ‘somebody’ history would ever recall. Sacrificing his own ambitions, career and prospects, and submitting them all to a cause he saw as higher and better and great, to elevate his bride. Always there to support and uphold her in all the demands which her calling has entailed. The ear to whom she could pour out her heart. The one to whom she could turn for advice. The shoulder on whom she could lean in her trials. Out of sight, on his knees, at her back, at her service. Always. Year on year. Decade on decade. To the end.

As the narrative of the man’s life-story was played across the nation’s screens, there was surely stirred in many a heart, a strange, compelling sense of ‘déjà vu’: as if this story awoke somehow a distant, long-forgotten memory of the ‘grace lines’ of the gospel – a memory at once too challenging and yet as well too comforting and good; and thus, for many now, a memory suppressed and long since buried in the cellars of their arrogant defiance of the Lord.

But the ‘grace lines’ of the gospel can be stubborn things! And a week of national mourning for this long-time royal consort, coming as it did so close on the heels of our Easter celebrations, was like some modern-day rehearsal of the writing on the wall which rudely interrupted king Belshazzar’s feast: a bit of ‘Banksy’ wall-art, appearing overnight upon the gable end of Britain’s national life, an uncomfortable, surprising reminder of the ‘Servant King’, whose cross and claims had long since been despised, dismissed and whitewashed out of sight.

The ‘grace lines’ of the gospel re-presented in the contours of this centenarian’s life: a whispered, final warning from the great Creator God, to woo a wayward people back from the self-indulgent, going-nowhere pathways of the present-day religion of the self.

A final warning? Perhaps. Because there was, I think, a third important ‘tributary’ of pain and loss which flowed into the river of our national grief. A strange, uneasy sense that this man’s death was also somehow marking the demise and final dying of a way of life. Just two months on from Captain Tom’s quiet passing from this earthly life, the Prince’s death has been the royal seal upon the dying of a noble generation. Like Captain Tom, the Prince, too, has epitomized the ethos and perspective of what now we see to be a largely bygone generation: the ending of a certain way of life: the curtain coming down upon a vital set of values, which society today has bit by bit discarded in its haste to ditch its long-established, deeply Christian roots.

These two men, in their different ways, have been perhaps God’s two-fold, final witness to the lifestyle and the values of the Kingdom. Submission. Service. Sacrifice.

And thus I think, deep down in our subconscious, we also mourned somehow prospectively about the Queen. Mourned, because she more than any other has embodied just those values in the way in which she’s exercised her rule. Mourned, because we realized afresh she will not be around to give that lead for ever and a day. And mourned, therefore, because the Prince’s death has signalled for society at large the death of that whole Kingdom way of life.

The steady, persistent chipping away at the roots which as a people we have had in the Word of God and in a life that’s been centred, however tenuously, on Jesus as Lord – that ruthless undermining of our Christian heritage has seen the very foundations of our national life subtly and slowly eroded: and too late, perhaps, we’ve been given to see that the values which those solid foundations sustained – those values, too, will be lost.

Submission has given place to a self-assertive, independent spirit. Service has given place to a self-advancing, dog-eats-dog mentality. Sacrifice has given place to a self-indulgent, here-and-now perspective. Faith which issues in submissiveness. Love which flows into service. Sacrifice which always has its impetus in hope. Too late perhaps we’ve come to see that it is in truth the values of the Kingdom which we have so inadvertently been blindly laying to rest.

Too late? Perhaps. “The harvest is post, the summer has ended, and we are not saved” (Jer.8.20).

Too late? Who knows? Perhaps in the mercy of God He will yet use such mourning as the means by which the eyes of a nation are opened again, and the hearts of a people are humbled again, and the mind of this ‘prodigal son’ sees sense again and steps out on the long path home.

Let us pray the more earnestly to that end.

Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord,

Jeremy Middleton