The Prince Philip I knew and why he was a ‘model example’ – John Sentamu

PRINCE Philip’s funeral will not see a congregation of hundreds, no grand procession, no crowds of thousands lining the route.

Along with many across our four nations grieving the loss of loved ones, the mourners present at Windosr Castle will be limited to 30 and the service will be shorter than usual.

In many ways this is appropriate for the Duke of Edinburgh who, though love and duty had led him into a life of great prominence, was a down-to-earth man who didn’t like ‘fuss’.

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I shall be in a BBC studio this afternoon, alongside my friend Huw Edwards, who will be commentating on the funeral of this remarkable 99 plus-year-old man, who once told me that he tries to emulate the example of birds: they take off to a high place but always have their feet pointing to the ground. That is why they land safely every time.

The Queen and Prince Philip with Dr John Serntamu, the then Archbishop of York, during the 2012 Maundy Thursday service at York Minster.

I share a birthday with Prince Philip, and on the occasion of his 90th birthday, I was honoured to take part in the House of Lords tributes to him as “the embodiment of devotion, duty and loyalty”, who in his service to our country was a model example to us all.

We had just witnessed his tireless, ageless energy as he took part in a royal wedding, the historic visit to Ireland and the welcome of President Obama. What stamina and resilience!

And in addition to his constant Royal duties, he developed many important initiatives. One close to my own heart is the Duke of Edinburgh Award which is now established in many of the countries he visited.

The award challenges all young people – “regardless of their ability, gender, background or location” – to discover their personal best and grow into mature and positive human beings. What a legacy!

The Queen and Prince Philip are greeted by the then Archbishop of York at the 2012 Maundy Thursday service.

Because of his robust no-nonsense style, it is not always recognised that his life was also deeply rooted in Jesus Christ, and he has steadfastly supported the Queen as Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith.

But he wasn’t afraid to examine his trust in God. Bishops who were invited to stay and preach at Sandringham faced a barrage of serious theological questions over lunch, and there was nowhere to hide. He listened appreciatively but never uncritically.

Once, when he was referring to the dark storms of that annus horribilis of 1992, my face lit up when he ended our short conversation by saying “Mightier than the thunders of many waters, mightier than the waves of the sea, The Lord on high is mighty” (Psalm 93:4). I quickly said that those words are inscribed on a large stone on St Cuthbert’s Farne on Holy Island. And below them an apt response: “God is always greater than all of our troubles.”

In conversation, no topics were off limits. He read widely and thought deeply.  He might well provoke you into conversing with him on a subject he had been considering; he welcomed a robust response even if it contradicted his own views. His conversation was always stimulating; there were no meaningless pleasantries.

The Queen and Prince Philip on the day of their Diamond Wedding Anniversary in 2007.

I saw this too, when he was present at the Windsor Leadership Conferences which he founded in 1981, together with Professor Charles Handy and Reverend Michael Mann, the Dean, aiming to tackle the big issues in society with leaders from all walks of life. As a participant in those gatherings, I saw at first-hand His Royal Highness the Duke as a leader who was open to change, a wonderful listener and flexible enough and sensitive to individual differences.

I also saw his sensitivity in one of my meetings with him after I had been involved in the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence. He expressed his concern, saying “You must have had a tough time listening to all that woefully inadequate police investigation”, and he recognised that a major change of attitude and occupational culture was needed if we were to get policing right. 

He emphasised that the world is constantly changing and we needed to adjust to it, rather than resist with our heads in the sand. But change also demands from us stability and faithfulness. He also expressed his concern that very little had been done following Lord Scarman’s report into the Brixton riots of 1981 which called for urgent action to prevent racial disadvantage becoming endemic.

But humour was never far away. After a lovely dinner on the Queen’s birthday, Her Majesty and His Royal Highness showed my wife Margaret and I the restored chapel and library at Windsor. He said to me: “See that. That’s my new piece of modern art.”

The funeral of Prince Philip takes palce at Windsor Castle today.

I looked at it intently, but really couldn’t work it out, and then asked: “Who’s the artist?” With a big laugh, he said: “That’s a piece of wood left behind by the fire.”

Her Majesty the Queen has told us that hearing him laugh, walking a few steps behind her, has been a great source of reassurance that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “all is well and all manner of thing shall be well”.

My strong conviction is that Prince Philip’s personal life, like his marriage, was built on firm foundations.  I’m reminded of Jesus Christ’s teaching to his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount:  “Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and acts on them is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundations on rock.When the river was in flood, it burst upon the house, but could not shift it because it had been soundly built.”

Now we grieve. Grief is a common bond for humanity. People across the world who have recently suffered the pain of bereavement are today joined by our four nations and the Commonwealth as we express our sadness at another death. We offer our deep, love, respect and condolences to Her Majesty the Queen and her family, as we commend Prince Philip with all those who have died, into the everlasting arms of the merciful God, who is our Creator, Redeemer and Life Giver.

“For all that has been – Thanks

For all that shall be – Yes.”

The Right Reverend and Right Honourable John Sentamu PC is the former Archbishop of York.