We are used to focussing our attention on the main characters in a film or play or story. They take centre stage and much of the plotlines revolve around them. A lot of media and popular culture is star-studded and platforms like Instagram and TikTok make stars out of us all, at least in our own social media account. There is even a whole industry of ‘influencers’, whose claim to fame is that they have become famous.
Most of us are not really in the central role. We occupy a place at best to the side and may be even well at the back where it’s not always easy to see or hear, let alone be seen or heard. That’s why I like the scene from the Monty Python film, ‘The Life of Brian’, in a parody on the Sermon on the Mount, someone at the back can’t quite make out what Jesus has said, mishearing ‘peace-makers’ for ‘cheese-makers’. Why would they be singled out to be called ‘Blessed’?
The death of the Duke of Edinburgh brings the support roles, the ones at the side or even two paces behind, into the spotlight. That was his lot in life, the moment he fell in love with the young Princess Elizabeth, who he knew would one day become queen. And when it happened, he knew their life would never be the same again and his face is said to have revealed the horror when he heard the news of the death of King George VI. The implications for them both were enormous.
But those at the sidelines are vital. In fact the lime-light dwellers don’t actually really do as much as we give them credit for and none of it is status for status’ sake. That is something that the narcissism of social media does not understand. In contrast our Queen is well known for understanding that a life of service brings roles to play and each are important. If the last year has taught us anything it should be to value ‘key workers’, those often on the sidelines, never up front. Without them we would have collapsed as a nation.
The Queen has spoken of what Prince Philip did for her, describing him as her rock and sure ground in the unbearable buffeting of public gaze and sycophancy that they endure. It’s hard for anyone not born into this to understand and those not born into this culture will struggle even more. By all accounts, it’s hard for those who are born into it.
Over this coming week we are in national mourning for one of those who occupied a side line more than most. It is the one who can be a sounding board and speak honestly in a way no one else can. It is one who can provide support that enables the principle actor to perform. Behind every great person there is someone close who enables them to function, enables them to serve.
Something of this common purpose and bigger story was contained in our first reading (Acts 4:32-35). ‘Everything being held in common’ can sound like an archetypal commune and there are models of living which hold to this, not least monastic communities. But it is a model of social living too, where private and individual gain is surrendered or moderated because it is known that there is a bigger goal which works for all. Our society has become grossly unequal and out of balance between the richest and the poorest.
A large part of his public sense of duty and service , which the Duke held, came from his deep Christian faith. Like Thomas in our Gospel reading (John 20:19-end) Prince Philip had a questioning faith. Far from doubting, as it is often described, this is faith that wants to know and so asks the questions that must be asked.
All of us are in a bigger story, one which we serve, rather than which serves us. Christ occupies the throne in this story and all of us pay homage before his throne of grace. All of us have a part to play, with our exits and entrances, as William Shakespeare put it in his Seven Ages of Man speech.
The bigger story, the metanarrative to give it its philosophical name, touches the biggest challenges that we face. The vaccine, which is being rolled out and I received my second dose yesterday, is the product of scientists working together so that each can contribute their part. We wear masks to protect not just ourselves, but more to protect others. We endure lockdowns because it is the loving thing to do to protect and reduce transmission.
Prince Philip was an advocate of environmental concerns. He wrote a book in 1989 with the then Dean of Windsor, Michael Mann – Survival or Extinction: A Christian attitude to the Environment – they wrote it long before it was trendy or popular. And he had the power of drawing people together so that conversations would happen and the right people be in the room together. He set up St George’s House in Windsor, a place for different disciplines to talk and feed one another. A place for character, for resilience in public life to be nurtured. We underestimate the value of that bringing together role, but it is a way the lure of royalty can be used to make a difference, a service which effects change.
So this week we honour the supporting actor role, the one who sits at the side, but not passively so. This is a position that can still be used to effect change, to make a difference, not for its own goals or ego, but to bring the bigger picture to bear. Power is always something to be used in service of a higher goal. Most of us are not in the centre of attention, but nonetheless have a role to play to bring about the kingdom of God. ‘All things held in common’ is about more than a commune; it is itself an outlook onto the bigger scene, expressed in lives of service.
As we commemorate Prince Philip, we shine a spotlight on the sidelines and thereby the bigger story which holds all our stories and is the true goal of all our life’s service.
Sermon commemorating HRH the Duke of Edinburgh who died on 9th April 2021, Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 11th April 2021.