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An American’s Guide to the State Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II

By Richard Mammana

Westminster Abbey

The service takes place at Westminster Abbey, formally called the Collegiate Church of St. Peter at Westminster. There has been a church on the site since the seventh century.

Minster is an Anglo-Saxon word for a church founded with an obligation on its clergy to celebrate the Daily Office of Christian prayers and the regular recitation of the Jewish psalms. It is not a cathedral. Every English and British monarch since 1066 has been crowned in Westminster Abbey. There are 31 minsters in the United Kingdom.

Westminster Abbey is a royal peculiar, the term for a Church of England church exempt from oversight by a bishop and under the direct jurisdiction of the monarch (or the duke in Cornwall). There are 15 royal peculiars.

The funeral of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother in 2002 took place in the Abbey. Her husband King George VI was buried from St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle in 1952. Queen Elizabeth II is the first monarch to have her funeral in Westminster Abbey since 1760.

State Funerals

The most recent United Kingdom State Funeral before today’s was in 1965 for American citizen Sir Winston Churchill, whose mother was from Brooklyn. Prince Philip, the Greek-born Danish Duke of Edinburgh and husband of Queen Elizabeth, did not receive a state funeral.

Americans also have state funerals. The most recent was for US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2020, making her the first woman and the first Jewish person to have her death observed in this way. President George H. W. Bush’s funeral in 2018 was also a state funeral with many liturgical elements in common with the service for Queen Elizabeth II.

The Book of Common Prayer

The current English Book of Common Prayer (BCP) dates to 1662 and is the official standard of doctrine for the Church of England and other parts of the 85 million member Anglican Communion. An effort to revise the book in the 1920s was defeated by Parliament, but modern services not in the BCP are used by most Anglicans today.

Liturgical language

English contains two forms of address for another person (called the second person in grammar). The form thou is not used outside of formal settings today, having been replaced by you. The Prayer Book still uses only thou/thee/thy/thine for one person, whether that person is God or a human. When you-forms appear in the service, they refer to a group of people or to all of humanity as a whole.

The Queen and the Episcopal Church

The monarch has no constitutional role for American Anglicans in the Episcopal Church or in the Anglican Church in North America and other bodies with Anglican/Episcopal roots such as the United Methodist Church and the Reformed Episcopal Church.

Americans prayed for the monarch at all public church services from the landing of Sir Francis Drake in 1579 until the middle 1770s when King George III’s name was removed from Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, the Litany, and Holy Communion and replaced each four years with an elected president. In Anglican churches where the monarch is still prayed for daily by virtue of a constitutional role, this intercession at least twice daily has taken place over 70 years for every ordained cleric and congregation who follows the rubrics strictly.

The Crown receives a one-peppercorn rent annually from Trinity Church, Wall Street, the wealthiest and perhaps most influential Anglican parish church in the world. In 1976, Queen Elizabeth II came to New York City to collect 279 years’ worth of back rent in the form of peppercorns in a Steuben glass vessel.

The English and later British monarch has used the title Defender of the Faith (Fidei Defensor) since King Henry VIII received the title from Pope Leo X for his attack on Luther’s writings. Queen Elizabeth held the title as Fidei Defensatrix, its feminine form. King Charles III said in 1994 as Prince of Wales that he would remove the definite article from the title and serve as “Defender of Faith.”

Many Episcopal churches have held services of thanksgiving and memorial for the queen, particularly in places with large populations of UK subjects. In New York and Philadelphia, these services included British consular representation. About 37 million Americans or over 11% of the population identified themselves in the 2020 US Census as having British backgrounds (including English, Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish ancestry). An additional one million Canadians are residents in the United States. About 1.7 million Americans are practicing Anglicans of any kind, or just under 0.4% of the US population. One quarter of US presidents have been Episcopalians.

An Ecumenical and Interreligious Gathering

The Church of England is a state church with the monarch in a constitutional role as its supreme governor. The state funeral includes members of the Church of England as well as Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Free Church, Pentecostal, Orthodox, Methodist, and other Christian groups. The procession also includes Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, Bahá’í, Zoroastrian, and Hindu leaders in reflection of the very diverse religious populations of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.

The Service

Just as the Princess Elizabeth of York was baptized in 1926 with the same liturgy as any other person, the text of her funeral is essentially identical to one for any Anglican Christian. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer contains an Order for the Burial of the Dead that begins with Sentences from the New Testament and the Hebrew scriptures. The late monarch’s funeral adds material from the earlier 1549 Prayer Book as well.

The main body of Queen Elizabeth’s state funeral is substantially briefer than that of a normal person, notably in the very short readings and the absence of a celebration of the Holy Communion. The large number of persons who would not receive communion and the addition of musical and processional or ceremonial elements accounts for the shorter service.

The emphatic notes of the funeral service are gratitude for God’s goodness revealed in an individual life, hope for God’s mercy toward the person who has died, and prayer for strength to be worthy of the same promises she believed.

The dead person is referred to as God’s daughter and our sister, but without the regnal dignities that have been set aside with her last breath.

Ceremonies, music, and text

The coffin moves through the abbey during the singing of the Sentences with office holders and members of the royal household in procession. The Cross of Westminster in the procession is a gift of of Philadelphia department store magnate Rodman Wanamaker in 1922 as a symbol of Anglo-American friendship. The coffin is surmounted by the Imperial State Crown, the Orb, and the Sceptre, the authority of which have ceased to belong to the queen since her demise.

The Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr. David Hoyle, offers a bidding prayer explaining to the gathered congregation the purpose of its assembly and introducing a period of silence for gratitude.

A collect (a prayer pulling together the needs and intentions of the congregation) follows the bidding prayer, recalling St. Paul’s teaching about the resurrection and the divine welcome into the kingdom of heaven. It refers to the late queen as “our sister.”

A familiar hymn with text by John Ellerton and a tune by Clement Scholefield follows; it was first published in its current form in 1874 by Arthur Sullivan of Gilbert and Sullivan.

Traditional Anglican funerals have two lessons or readings from the New Testament.

The first is from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, proclaiming the powerlessness of death in the face of Jesus Christ’s victory over the grave. It is read by the secretary general of the Commonwealth of Nations, a grouping of 56 countries with about 2.4 billion individuals, or a third of the world’s population. Most states in the voluntary Commonwealth are former British colonies united by common history and ongoing good will.

A familiar psalm about the soul’s longing for God is sung by the choir before the second reading.

The new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Elizabeth Truss, reads the second lesson from St. John’s Gospel. It contains some of the core of Christian teaching about Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life.” The gospel text urges its hearers to lay aside grief and to replace it with belief.

Another hymn follows, inspired by Psalm 23 and Scottish musical tradition.

The sermon is by Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury and Primate or first bishop of all of England. Archbishop Justin has a first place of honor among all 883 bishops and 77 archbishops of the Anglican Communion. His sermon will reach an audience of perhaps four billion people, or more than half of the world’s population, all of whom have now heard about the Christian hope for persons who die and those who mourn in course after them.

An anthem and prayers follow, with a departure from the usual funeral order because of Queen Elizabeth’s constitutional role. Christians from Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Free Church backgrounds offer petitions for grace in the lives of all, of comfort for the immediate family of mourners, and for courage to follow the late queen in her many examples of faithfulness.

The service continues “in confidence and hope” with the Lord’s prayer used by all Christians.

All stand to sing the famous hymn by Charles Wesley “Love divine, all loves excelling,” and they remain standing for the Archbishop’s commendation of the queen’s soul to God’s mercy. The final two prayers entrust her to God’s keeping and repeat the words spoken to every Christian at the moment of death:

Go forth, O Christian soul, from this world, in the name of God the Father almighty, who created thee; in the name of Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who suffered for thee; in the name of the Holy Spirit, who was poured out upon thee and anointed thee. In communion with all the blessed saints, and aided by the angels and archangels and all the armies of the heavenly host, may thy portion this day be in peace, and thy dwelling in the heavenly Jerusalem. Amen.

The choir sings an anthem about the power of God’s love in the face of death. The dean pronounces a blessing, and the service proper is over.

The Last Post, Reveille, and the National Anthem form no part of the Prayer Book order for a funeral. There are more musical works as the procession of the coffin leaves the church toward St. George’s Chapel on the grounds of Windsor Castle.

The Committal

At the committal, there will be further and still more emphatic statements separating the person of the late queen from her crown, in echo of the earlier hymn “till we cast our crowns before thee.” The Crown Jewels are placed on the high altar of the chapel until they are given solemnly to King Charles III next year at his coronation.

The senior official in the former household, the Lord Chamberlain, will break his staff of office over the coffin, symbolizing the complete end of his service. The Garter King of Arms, who heralded the Accession of Charles III just over a week ago, will read the late Elizabeth’s many titles and styles for the final time after the Dean of Westminster reads another psalm. The Archbishop of Canterbury will pronounce another benediction on the smaller group in the chapel, most of whom were not at the earlier service at the Abbey, and the National Anthem will be sung again.

The Burial Service

The new King and immediate members of the royal family return in the evening for a small and private service when the coffin is interred next to Philip, the late Duke of Edinburgh.

Richard Mammana is an independent scholar and ecumenist, and the archivist of the Living Church. This article was also published at https://medium.com/@richard.mammana/an-americans-guide-to-the-state-funeral-of-her-majesty-queen-elizabeth-ii-2dc2b09f8874


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