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Queen Elizabeth II: The Bible in the Funeral

Author: Mark Woods, 20 September 2022

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Photo credit: Danny Lawson/Reuters

The funeral yesterday of Queen Elizabeth II was both dignified and deeply moving. It was a great state occasion, marked by all the pomp and circumstance due to a great queen, but it was also thoroughly Christian and soaked in Scripture.

From the moment the coffin entered Westminster Abbey to the words ‘I am the resurrection and the life’, the Bible shaped the service. 

The texts were drawn from the Authorized or King James Version, familiar to older people and certainly the one most familiar to the Queen. The old forms of words make it more difficult to follow today if you aren't used to it, and translation has moved on, but it is still amazingly powerful. As well as Scripture, there were prayers from the old Prayer Book, which the Queen would also have known intimately. 

Some Scripture was read, some was sung. All of it, Old Testament and New, referred to the Christian hope of eternal life through the grace and mercy of God. ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ is from Job 19.25, but points forward to the saving work of Christ. ‘Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord: even so, saith the Spirit; for they rest from their labours’ is from Revelation 14.13, and is a wonderful word of comfort to those who mourn. 

The first lesson, 1 Corinthians 15.20–26, was read by Baroness Scotland, and speaks of the Christian hope of resurrection. ‘For as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive’ – Christ's resurrection is a pattern for our own. And so, ‘O death, where is thy sting? ‘O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ ...’ 

The sung psalm which followed was Psalm 42.1–7, which speaks of the soul's ‘thirst’ for God at a time of sorrow. It ends, ’Why art thou so full of heaviness, O my soul: and why art thou so disquieted within me? Put thy trust in God ...’ All will be well. 

The New Testament reading was by Prime Minister Liz Truss, from John 14.1–9. Jesus tells his disciples not to be ‘troubled’. ‘In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you ... I am the way, the truth and the life.’ These are great words of comfort, spoken by Jesus in the knowledge of his approaching death, and they are gospel words.

The congregational hymn, ‘The Lord's my Shepherd’, is a favourite at funerals because it captures so perfectly the light and shade in the lives of all of us, but still speaks of eternal hope. 

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, began his sermon with the words, ‘The pattern for many leaders is to be exalted in life and forgotten after death. The pattern for all who serve God – famous or obscure, respected or ignored – is that death is the door to glory.’ 

He referred to the reading from John 14, saying: ‘Jesus – who in our reading does not tell his disciples how to follow, but who to follow – said: “I am the way, the truth and the life”. Her Late Majesty’s example was not set through her position or her ambition, but through whom she followed.’ He also referred to Jesus' words in Matthew 20.28 when he said, ‘Her service to so many people in this nation, the Commonwealth and the world, had its foundation in her following Christ – God himself – who said that he “came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”’

The congregation – and many gathered in churches and public spaces throughout the land – joined in the words of the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6.9–13). 

The final anthem was ‘Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?’, from Romans 8.35 and 38 – a rhetorical question to which the answer is ‘nothing’. 

These wonderful texts from the Bible – and the Prayer Book blessings and prayers that are themselves soaked in Scripture – were broadcast around the world. It's estimated that somewhere between 4 and 5 billion people watched it. Queen Elizabeth II influenced millions of people during her long life. But perhaps it was after her death that she spoke most clearly and powerfully of her Christian faith, and enabled the gospel message to be preached around the world. 

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