Jonathan Baker finds literary and liturgical highlights in the funeral services


The rites used at Her Late Majesty’s funeral liturgies were resonant, solemn, dignified and drew deeply from the wells of Anglican tradition. The ceremonial was simple but assured, the music by turns uplifting and ethereal. But perhaps it was, above all, the texts which communicated so powerfully. Here indeed was ‘speech tongued with fire’. 

The language in these services – at Westminster Hall, in Westminster Abbey, at St George’s Chapel, Windsor – was unmistakably in the Prayer Book tradition. But these were not the unabridged rites of 1662, or indeed of any of the earlier English Prayer Books. Instead, here were the fruits of a living tradition enriched both by later compositions from Anglican liturgies, and by other literary texts both Anglican and ecumenical.

The Service for the Reception of the Coffin at the commencement of the Lying-in-State at Westminster Hall began with a setting of verses from Psalm 139 composed by James O’Donnell – himself a former organist of Westminster Cathedral and a papal Knight. The Opening Prayer which followed (‘O God, the maker and redeemer of all mankind…’) is not to be found in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, but (in modern English) appears as the Collect for the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed – All Souls Day – in Common Worship. As far as I can tell, it was first proposed in a published Anglican liturgy in the 1928 Book, famously never authorised but which is such a rich resource for liturgical material in the Prayer Book tradition. It appears in the Appendix, among the ‘Collects, Epistles and Gospels for the Lesser Feasts and Fasts,’ although the ‘unsearchable benefits of thy Son’s passion’ have become ‘the sure benefits of thy Son’s saving passion and glorious resurrection’ in the version used at the service for our late Queen. Was Bishop Frere the author of the prayer as it appears in 1928? If anyone can tell me where he derived it from, or if it was someone else’s original composition, please let me know. 

After a reading (John 14.1-6), the Dean of Westminster offered the prayer, ‘O merciful God, the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the resurrection and the life…’ This we certainly can call ‘Prayer Book’. It is there in the 1549 book, in 1552, 1559 and 1662. In each of these rites the prayer is to be said after the body has been buried; and, subsequent to 1549, it is the very last prayer of the burial office. In the 1549 book, the prayer includes the wonderful petition that we, and the departed, should, at the general resurrection, ‘regain our bodies,’ and, with all the saints, ‘obtain eternal joy’. But both the robust corporeality of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, and the confidence in the communion of the saints, had disappeared by 1552. It was when the Dean of Westminster prayed this prayer that we first, and like a bolt of electricity, heard the late Queen named simply as ‘our sister’.

Following the Lord’s Prayer, the Anthem offered a glimpse of a tradition older even than that of the Book of Common Prayer, mediated via post-Reformation Anglican and Roman Catholic patrimony. ‘Jesu, the very thought of thee’ is a version of the so-called ‘Rosy Sequence’ attributed to St Bernard of Clairvaux and translated by Edward Caswall. He resigned his Church of England curacy to be received (and subsequently ordained) into the Roman Catholic Church in 1850. He published his translation of St Bernard’s hymn in 1849, on the cusp of his conversion which took place very much under the tutelage of St John Henry Newman. John Mason Neale also translated a version, demonstrating its popularity among Victorian Anglo-Catholic circles, and used the Sarum Gradual of 1527 as his source. 

The Collect after the Anthem was that for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity (1549 through to 1662) with its admonition that ‘we may so pass though things temporal, that we finally lose not things eternal.’ Like most of Cranmer’s for the ‘green season,’ this is not an original composition but derived from the Latin rite, in this case the Gregorian sacramentary.

Without making a similar analysis of the funeral at Westminster or the committal at Windsor, having mentioned literary and ecumenical sources, let me simply draw attention first to words of the priest and poet John Donne. We heard them not once, but twice: spoken in the Abbey, sung in Windsor to a setting by Sir William Henry Harris. The text is that extraordinary passage full of paradox and promise: ‘Bring us, O Lord God, at our last awaking…’ These words are often described as a poem. In fact, they come from one of Donne’s sermons, preached at Whitehall on 29 February, 1627, just weeks after the death of his daughter Lucy; she was just 19 years old. In March 1625, Donne had preached at St James’s Palace a week before the proclamation of the accession of Charles I at the new King’s request. Donne said of the death of Charles’s late father James I, in words which resonate almost 400 years on, ‘The Almighty hand of God hath shed and spread a text of mortification over the land’. The ‘Bring us’ text was formulated into a prayer from lines in Donne’s sermon by Eric Milner-White (1884-1963) who became the Dean of York in 1941 and composed many prayers and anthologies. This prayer in particular has become popular since it began to circulate and is included in the Common Worship funeral resources.

What, finally, of texts from other great Christian traditions? In St George’s Chapel we heard the haunting sound of the Russian Kontakion of the Dead (sung to the melody properly known, as many commentators on social media pointed out, as that of Kyiv), bringing in the Christian East. This was beautifully included at the late Prince Philip’s funeral in April 2021, also at St George’s, Windsor. Then it was sung by a quartet of just four voices to former organist Sir Walter Parratt’s arrangement and clearly underlined his own Orthodox heritage (his great-aunt was Grand Duchess Elizabeth, the Orthodox saint, and his mother an Orthodox nun). The Kontakion’s inclusion at Windsor was a nod to Her Late Majesty’s husband as well as a striking an Anglican note; it features in both the English and New English Hymnal, translated by William John Birkbeck (1869-1916) who did so much for Anglican understanding of and relations with the Russian Orthodox Church.

Meanwhile in both services a version of the Proficiscere anima Christiana, from the Rituale Romanum was recited, ‘Go forth upon thy journey from this world, O Christian soul’. The reference to the anointing of the Holy Spirit in respect of our late anointed Queen was especially poignant (‘the Holy Spirit, who was poured out upon thee and anointed thee’), and brought a further dimension for the whole nation to the deathbed prayer, along with the rest of the world, to witness. It was used again in St George’s, Windsor, in the unadapted form, and as had been heard too at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997. It gained much recognition through Newman’s revival of it as part of his 1865 prayer The Dream of Gerontius, and set to music by Sir Edward Elgar in 1900. The experience of the First World War saw a great increase in demand for prayers for the departed with this contributing to the canon and informing subsequent revision of liturgical resources. It is in Common Worship both as a prayer for the dying and at the final commendation in a funeral.

We should also note that again – not once but, as with John Donne, twice – we heard the words of another prayer attributed to Newman: ‘O Lord, support us all the day long of this troublous life…’ I say ‘attributed’ because that is what is always added when the Cardinal’s name is associated with this text which was not strictly speaking a prayer originally. It appeared in the 1928 Prayer Book as an adaptation from the ‘Wisdom and Innocence’ sermon by Newman preached in 1843 at St Mary’s, Oxford, and one of his last as an Anglican before he resigned his living for Littlemore.

The Prayer Book tradition, certainly and gloriously: but augmented by an equally noble treasury of texts and the grandeur of Elizabethan English. Each word, we are told, chosen or approved by Her Late Majesty herself. How beautifully and profoundly Queen Elizabeth revealed herself, in the manner of her departing and this legacy.

Photographs: Twitter/The Royal Famil