The Christian faith gets very little mainstream airtime these days, and when it does, it’s usually alongside controversy over issues like sexism or historical racism.
That was not the case on Monday, when a global audience for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral was exposed for an hour to Christian beliefs about death and what comes after. I doubt we’ll ever see anything like it again.
It was the Anglican church in its most solemn and ceremonial form, set in the grandeur of Westminster Abbey, whose history dates back almost 800 years. A church at its most doctrinal, with readings and prayers and the archbishop’s sermon speaking frankly of sin, redemption, grace, life in Christ, death and judgment, mercy of God, of the resurrection of the dead and of eternal life.
Only a monarch of Elizabeth’s faith and moral stature could bear the brunt of it all. To be part of such a ritual must challenge the most determined miscreant, and there were sure to be a few among those watching.
Anyone outside the cathedral could take it or leave it, but the 2,000 dignitaries inside were a captive audience. When the cameras zoomed in on this group or individual, I couldn’t help but wonder what they were thinking as the lessons and prayers were read and the hymns were sung.
You know, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; sang the choir, do not close your merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, O most holy Lord, O most mighty God, O holy and most merciful Saviour, thou most worthy eternal judge, suffer not, in our last hour, for any pain of death, to fall from thee.
The average person’s idea of a funeral today would involve a modicum of formality, a few heartfelt speeches and cheerful anecdotes, perhaps a favorite scripture reading and a few prayers, and songs ranging from “Amazing Grace” to “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” from The Phantom of the Opera.
The Church of England Governor’s state funeral service in a former cathedral is something else entirely. Invoking the central doctrines of the Faith she confessed, it must have shaken the cages of some agnostics and stirred the lukewarm faithful.
Thanksgiving and hope were the dominant themes, expressed in the wonderful climax of St. Paul’s hymn to the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians (the first reading): O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory? The sting of death is sin; and the force of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Traditional hymns and beautiful choral pieces surely sparked a devotional chord in many hearts.
But the judgment of God, probably quite different from that of the world, made itself felt and, hopefully, awakened consciences asleep before the evils now consecrated as goods in many countries.
In the opening prayer, the Dean of Westminster prayed:
We docilely entreat you, O Father, to raise us from the death of sin to the life of righteousness; that when we leave this life we may rest in him, for our hope is that our sister will; and that at the general resurrection at the last day we may be found acceptable in your sight; and receive this blessing which your beloved Son will then pronounce to all those who love you and fear you, saying: Come, you 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 hope of the Queen who, in life and death, inspired her leadership in service.”
Of course, there can be beauty in an ancient ritual regardless of the beliefs it 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 art involved in the funeral liturgy, and remain indifferent to the thought of facing the divine judge. , though a merciful one.
However, no one who attended Queen Elizabeth’s funeral could complain on Judgment Day that they didn’t know the score. To hear faith speak its own language, uninterrupted, is powerful, especially in a setting worthy of its beauty and decorum. The effects cannot easily fade.
As for the future: the new king, understandably in multicultural Britain, sees himself as the ‘defender of religions’ as well as the ‘defender of the (Anglican) faith’. It remains to be seen how this happens in a kingdom where a quarter of the population (in 2011) claimed to have no religion.
However, it’s a safe bet that the funeral of King Charles III will not be as splendid as that of his mother. And not just because the monarchy will change, but because the Christian faith itself is losing ground, not just in Britain but across the West.
Ceremony and feeling 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 life-giving. Will King Charles III be one of these witnesses?