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Angela Tilby: Inhabit the words: don’t drone on

23 April 2021


The Dean of Windsor, the Rt Revd David Conner, conducts the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, on Saturday afternoon

The Dean of Windsor, the Rt Revd David Conner, conducts the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, on Saturday afterno...

THE funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh on Saturday provided a masterclass in pastoral liturgy. It was a perfect blend of formality and immediacy, prompting the Cambridge theologian Canon Andrew Davison to tweet that it was easy to wish that the Duke of Edinburgh had been put in charge of the revision of the Church of England’s liturgy.

The words and music chosen by the Duke invited reflection on death as an inevitable part of the stream of life. Grief was given its place, but so were love and hope in the resurrection mystery. The blend of sources flowed together seamlessly. But the power of the service was not only in the choice of texts, but also in the way in which the Dean of Windsor, the Rt Revd David Conner, led it. His restrained manner expressed the sadness of the occasion while conveying an intimacy that gave the service heart.

The secret of this was that the Dean knew how to inhabit the words before they were articulated. They were not simply being read from a page, but spoken with and for everyone. The Dean’s personal engagement with the texts, combined with his reticent delivery, opened up the power of connection which we all need to negotiate grief: connection with nature, a reminder of human order and benign hierarchy.

There was space to become newly aware of the presence of God in and through all things. As I watched on television, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Harry and Meghan’s wedding — also in St George’s Chapel — and how afterwards everyone was speaking of the US Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop, the Most Revd Michael Curry, and his stunning sermon. No one will speak of the Dean of Windsor. But that was the whole point.

Liturgical leadership is not easy. Some of those who lead public prayer are so afraid of expressing personality that they drone away as though they are bored rigid. Others, terrified of appearing text-bound, shift the natural emphases of the words in a tortuous and misguided attempt to convey spontaneity.

I remember being present at a number of services led by Michael Perham, the former Bishop of Gloucester, now sadly deceased. He had the same rare ability to lead a congregation, usually with Common Worship texts, in a way that simply gathered people in. There you would be, distracted as always, and yet you found you couldn’t help praying. Deep speaks to deep, and heart to heart.

It is a selfless art that mostly involves getting out of the way of words that convey more than they express, but still need to be expressed, because only by expressing them can we glimpse the truth that we are not finally alone. Liturgy prepares us for heaven, which is perhaps particularly obvious at funerals. I wish this were better understood and encouraged.

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