Generous Orthodoxy  


Reflections concerning the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales

 

This article appeared in The Living Church in 1997.  I received more than 75 favorable letters from readers.

A letter to The Wall Street Journal on this subject  [not chosen by them to be published] is at the end.

 

by Fleming Rutledge

 

The funeral service for Diana, Princess of Wales, has given Episcopalians much to think about. Being keenly interested in the public reaction to the service, I listened for many days to the TV coverage and read as many newspapers as possible. Without exception, the commentators and interviewees, whether old or young, Establishment or working-class, said that the two emotional high points of the service were “Candle in the Wind” by Elton John and the address by Earl Spencer. Many people said they had not wept until Elton John began singing.

 

Two and a half billion people watched this service. What proclamation of the nature and purposes of God did they hear? What did they learn of the resurrection of our Lord? The drunk driver and the paparazzi were not the only sinners in this sad story: what message of Christ’s death to save sinners was conveyed? Only one Scripture lesson was read, and since I Corinthians 13 has become a sentimental favorite to many people, its Christological foundation is virtually unknown. There were no Psalms. The powerful words of the ancient Burial Office, sung by the entering choir, were incomprehensible to most, since—unfortunately—music, even that of the great Henry Purcell, tends to take precedence over text in most people’s minds.

 

The Archbishop and Dean were not commanding personalities; they seemed almost like irrelevant walk-ons. The Archbishop’s prayers were not without warmth, but they were very much oriented toward the concerns of the moment, with little explicit Biblical reference to the promises of God. The Commendation should be one of the emotional high points of a funeral, but the Commendation of Diana’s body passed almost unnoticed. There were no clergy gathered around the coffin, nor did the Dean move down toward it; it seemed that the famously approachable Princess was once again left alone—there in the aisle—as words were read from on high at a distance. “Into thy hands, O merciful Saviour, we commend our sister departed...” has a resonance that was altogether missing from the bland new version read by the Dean.

 

No wonder all the attention went to Elton John and Earl Spencer. TV programs, such as “Larry King Live” and “Crossfire,” focussed exclusively on the Earl’s speech. It was reprinted in its entirety in many papers and magazines. Michael Coleman, the Fayed family spokesman, said “It had the power and the eloquence of a Gettysburg address. It will last as long as a Shakespearean sonnet.” A very few voices, one of them that of The Wall Street Journal’s John Fund, raised questions about the suitability of such a speech at a funeral, but they were quickly drowned out by the majority. No one at all was heard to explain that the funeral service is meant to convey the Resurrection of Jesus and the hope that it gives to the world. Thus the mainline churches of America and the Church of England continue in their self-destructive course; the more we abandon our heritage of faith to trendy popular currents, the more irrelevant we shall continue to be.

 

The pulpit from which the everlasting gospel of redemption and reconciliation is supposed to be preached was used as a platform from which the Princess’ brother launched an attack, not only on the media, representatives of whom were present, but also on the royal family in their own church in front of billions of people. David Starkey of The Times of London wrote that it was an act of “calculated vengeance” which made the young Princes “victims of a public tug of war.” Caryn James wrote in The New York Times that “it was as if another momentary media star had been born in the calm of the Abbey.” Is this what funerals are designed to accomplish? How can the message that our Lord has broken down the dividing wall of hostility (Ephesians 2:14) be heard when those who speak are simply “venting,” however artfully? How are we to know that Jesus has created in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, reconciling us both to God in one body through the cross (2:15-16) if we turn over the pulpit to people who have no commitment to proclaiming the gospel?

 

I do not want to be misunderstood here. In a setting where churchgoers are thoroughly steeped in the Bible and the Christian tradition, there might be room for various contributions from other sources. But the opposite was the case at the Abbey. Only a tiny minority of those present—let alone the billions around the globe—would have ever heard the gospel of Christ presented in any sort of meaningful way. The unique opportunity was lost forever. Those who watched the service on television have come away with the idea that Diana is in heaven because Elton John wrote a song saying so.

 

In my twenty-two years of preparing and conducting funerals, I have struggled to teach that the purpose of the service is not “the celebration of a life,” though that is the popular idea today. Sometimes when a person dies—as in the case of some alcoholics, suicides, mentally ill people—there has not been much life to celebrate. The purpose of the Burial Office is the proclamation of the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord, his unconditional love for sinful humankind, and his promise to redeem the world from its wraths and sorrows. Many bereaved families resist this idea until they see for themselves how a funeral can be done according to the Prayer Book rites without any loss of warmth and personal involvement. I have received many notes of appreciation from families who originally fought against the use of the traditional liturgy but eventually came to understand and appreciate it. The priest must work very hard to prepare sermons which evoke the living person and at the same time bear witness to the Resurrection, but it can be done. The Rt. Rev. Frank Allan, Bishop of Atlanta, did this beautifully for Diana at a special service I saw on cable TV from St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields in Atlanta.

 

It is important for all of us to acknowledge how complete the breakdown in the Christian consensus in America has become. It has been replaced, not so much by secularity as by generic religiosity. This is the real threat to the mainstream churches in our time, I believe. If we do not resist this trend, we will have nothing to say at all. The religious message in America is no longer Jesus Christ crucified, risen, and coming again; it is “Touched by an Angel!” The Princess of Wales really did bring angelic comfort and joy to many, but the wonder is that God granted her the gifts to do this even though she was a sinful creature, like all the rest of us. In the midst of all the candles, flowers, notes, incense and shrines, widely noted to be more like those in Catholic countries than in Protestant England, there is everything to be gained by a renewal of the insights of the Reformation. Salvation is not through intercession of saints, invocation of spirits, ministry of angels, reverence for nature, or even exercise of what is imprecisely called “spirituality.” Salvation is not gained through a whipping up of our religious sensibilities. Rather, “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach);  because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10:8-9)

 

            But how are people to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?” (Romans 10:14-15) If we continue to turn our pulpits over to people, however well-spoken and well-intentioned, who have no training in communicating the Christian gospel, then it is no wonder we find no followers for Christ.

 

            When the famous journalist Murray Kempton died recently in New York City, his service at St. Ignatius’ was straight out of the 1552 (!) Prayer Book. Those who attended were simply bowled over. For weeks after, article after article in various papers and magazines referred to the great impact of the service on those who were there. Particularly noticeable were the many favorable references to the fact that no one rose to speak of the deceased. Many commented that remarks made at funerals and memorial services, however well meant, were invariably self-serving. I was reminded of an article I read a few years ago by Wilfrid Sheed in which he said he had attended a memorial service in which, as usual, the speakers were supposed to be talking about the deceased but were really talking about themselves. It is the unique task of the Christian preacher to raise the sights of the congregation beyond the person who has died, beyond the mourners, certainly beyond the person of the preacher, to the Throne of Grace.

 

            It is my hope that these words might be of some encouragement to those who have been feeling that they can no longer hold back the tide. It will be much more difficult than ever, now, to steer our people away from popular songs, well-meaning eulogies, and “inspirational” readings back to Scripture, the Prayer Book rites, the Eucharist, and the great music of the Church. The only way that this can be done is by the tenderest pastoral care for our congregations at every moment of their lives so that they will trust us to lead them into a better way of planning baptisms, weddings, and funerals—a way that has for many centuries been an inestimable comfort to hundreds of thousands of Christians, a means of bringing the gospel to those who have never heard it, and a ringing declaration of the name of Christ our Lord. We are having a crisis of confidence in our church. The only antidote is a mighty dose of faith like the faith of Abraham, who believed in “the God who raises the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:l7) Do we not want to bring this message to all the people who never set foot in a church except to go to funerals? We do not proclaim a vaguely divine figure who is for sale in soft focus in greeting-card stores. This is the God who has unconditionally and definitively intervened upon the human scene by entering it himself.  While we were still helpless, Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:6).


September 8, 1997

 

To the editor, The Wall Street Journal:

 

A factor in the funeral service of the Princess of Wales that has been completely ignored in the cataract of talk is the near-disappearance of the Anglican (Episcopal) burial rite. Few today are aware that until about twenty-five years ago, eulogies were never included in the noble liturgy, one of the greatest treasures of the Church,. The Psalms, the readings from the New Testament, the Apostle’s Creed, the hymns and the prayers were considered an ineffably rich banquet of consolation in and of themselves. The service was essentially the same for everyone, to emphasize the Christian belief that God is no respecter of persons—as the Biblical book of Acts says—but extends his mercies equally to king and commoner. When Murray Kempton’s service was held at St. Ignatius’ Episcopal Church a few months ago, many leading New York journalists and writers testified of their reactions to the unique simplicity and power of the ultra-traditional Burial Office. Particularly appreciated, by novelist Mary Gordon and others, was the fact that the liturgy stood by itself, with no one rising to offer remarks about the deceased.

 

In the 70s, the American liturgy was expanded to include a homily or sermon, which includes personal references to the deceased person, but is supposed to be essentially a message of the Resurrection of Jesus and the hope it gives to the world. The service has been developed in other ways to make it warmer and more personal, which is all to the good, and the Eucharist is often a part of the service nowadays. Unfortunately, not long after this essentially conservative revision, the Prayer Book guidelines began to erode as clergy began to capitulate under pressure from the culture. Most Episcopal funerals and memorial services nowadays feature a parade of testimonies, usually anecdotal, frequently self-serving, almost never theological. These appearances become the focus of attention as the liturgy is pushed to the margins. Thus the angry speech of Earl Spencer was repeatedly hailed as the most extraordinary part of Diana’s service.

 

The point here is that the funeral service for the Princess bore little resemblance to the classic rite. The Wall Street Journal’s John Fund, on “Crossfire” Monday night, was one of the very few voices that I heard saying that the Earl’s inflammatory address was inappropriate for a funeral; he was quickly overridden by the majority. There has been no commentator on television who knew or cared to say anything about the theological significance of the Church’s burial rite. The performance of the clergy at Diana’s funeral was so uninflected that most people did not even notice them, and the modernized translations of the prayers were so flat and bland that they did not move anyone. No wonder the Church of England and the mainline churches are considered so irrelevant.

 

Sincerely yours,

 

The Rev. Fleming Rutledge

 

 


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