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Prince Philip surprised me with his theological knowledge and spiritual engagement

16 April 2021

We discussed the Pelagian heresy, says Graham James


Prince Philip walking to church in Sandringham, Norfolk, in January 2015. By custom, new diocesan bishops were invited to preach and dine

Prince Philip walking to church in Sandringham, Norfolk, in January 2015. By custom, new diocesan bishops were invited to preach and dine

IN NORMAL times, the Queen spends about seven weeks at Sandringham in the depths of the winter. During January, a diocesan bishop arrives early on each Saturday evening in time for dinner, preaches at the Sunday service, and stays on until Monday morning. The Bishop of Norwich follows this routine every year for the weekend immediately after Christmas.

Most diocesan bishops have this experience just once. The Bishop of Norwich usually writes in advance to offer some advice. My letter included a word of caution about the sermon: a State of the Nation address was not required, I ventured. Instead, a brief sermon (emphasis on brief) of the sort preached in any rural church on that Sunday was best.

Many bishops were nervous at the prospect, as I was, too, in my first year. But the Queen is so good at being hospitable that the majority of bishops enjoy the experience. I never mentioned the Duke of Edinburgh in my preparatory letter. Perhaps I should have done, since a few bishops found his interrogation of their sermon — it could go on for the rest of their visit — draining.

Clergy sometimes complain that no one ever comments about their sermons except to refer to an illustration or anecdote. I never heard the Duke of Edinburgh say, “Lovely sermon, Bishop” (to me or anyone else), but he did engage with the content of whatever I preached — as he did with others, too. He listened intently. He expected much of the preacher. He wanted to be intellectually and spiritually engaged.

Once, I said that St Mark’s Gospel was the first to be written. Afterwards, Prince Philip asked how I or anyone else knew that, and, if it was so, why did Matthew come first in the New Testament? It was a bit like being back in a theological-college tutorial, but his mind was fascinated by how things worked and developed. I recall sending him a copy of Anthony Harvey’s short introduction to the New Testament, Something Overheard, as a consequence.

Prince Philip was a voracious reader. He may not have known about the primacy of Mark’s Gospel, but he could surprise me with his theological knowledge. Recalling that I was once Bishop of St Germans, he asked me who these sanctified Germans in my old title were. I told him about St Germanus of Auxerre coming to Britain to suppress the Pelagian heresy. “Isn’t that the one where you save yourself by your own efforts?” he said. “What’s wrong with that?” I found myself defending justification by faith alone, my inner Lutheran emerging.

Pelagianism is the great British contribution to the list of heresies; it’s not surprising in a country that has always admired self-made men. Prince Philip may have been born royal, but he was virtually stateless as a young man, and had to create a position for himself. I can see why Pelagianism appealed.

He may have been baptised in the Greek Orthodox Church, but he seemed more at home at matins than high mass. I think sermons were more important to him than sacraments. His was a cerebral faith, and, in that sense, he was a son of the Enlightenment. But he did have a sacramental understanding of creation. His book Survival or Extinction, written with Michael Mann, was an early contribution to developing a Christian theology of the environment, one in which the earth was understood as a means of grace given by a Creator God, and which should not be exploited, but demanded good stewardship.

Occasionally, as I preached at Sandringham, I realised that I was treading on dangerous ground, unintentionally. A comment on the way in which people sometimes want to recapture their youth struck me suddenly as dicey, given the age of my listeners. I quoted Oscar Wilde, and Prince Philip wanted the reference afterwards. A character in A Woman of No Importance says: “To win back my youth there is nothing I would not do . . . except take exercise, get up early, or be a useful member of the community.” This appealed to his sense of humour.

We mourn the loss of someone who did take exercise, got up early (you never got to breakfast before him), and who was never anything other than a useful member of the community of nations. May he rest in peace, after St Peter is appropriately interrogated. I did tell him that there was a tradition that St Mark had an eyewitness account from St Peter which informed his Gospel. Well, now he will know.

The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich.

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