DURING the Queen’s funeral in Westminster Abbey, the words of Thomas Cranmer, burnt at the stake in 1556 for his evangelical Christian beliefs, were heard by more people on a single occasion than at any other time in history.
As Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer was the author and compiler of the Book of Common Prayer, commanded for use in public worship in England’s parishes in 1552 during the reign of King Edward VI. Cranmer’s liturgical book, with minor changes, was reintroduced in 1662 for public worship in the Church of England after the restoration of the Monarchy under King Charles II, hence it is now known as the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (BCP).
Before a global television audience of around 4billion people, the Dean of Westminster, David Hoyle, recited this public prayer (Collect) written by Cranmer in the BCP Order for the Burial of the Dead:
‘Merciful God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the resurrection and the life; in whom whosoever believeth shall live, though he die; and whosoever liveth, and believeth in him, shall not die eternally; who hast taught us, by his holy Apostle Saint Paul, not to be sorry, as men without hope, for them that sleep in him:
‘We meekly beseech thee, O Father, to raise us from the death of sin unto the life of righteousness; that, when we shall depart this life, we may rest in him, as our hope is this our sister doth; and that, at the general Resurrection in the last day, we may be found acceptable in thy sight; and receive that blessing, which thy well-beloved Son shall then pronounce to all that love and fear thee, saying, Come, ye blessed children of my Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world.
‘Grant this, we beseech thee, O merciful Father, through Jesus Christ, our mediator and redeemer. Amen.’
The Collect’s opening words are based on Jesus’s statement to Martha, the grieving sister of Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead, as recorded in chapter 11 of John’s Gospel. Following the order of the BCP burial service the Westminster Abbey choir sang Jesus’s declaration during the procession of the Queen’s coffin: ‘I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die’ (John 11 verses 25 to 26 – King James Version).
Jesus could not have been clearer that faith in him is necessary for salvation in the world to come. His statement therefore runs counter to the idea popular among some modern Western Anglicans that the various world faiths are different paths up the same mountain to God.
The Collect’s opening reprises the Apostle Paul’s words in his first New Testament letter to the Christians in 1st century Thessalonica: ‘But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him’ (1 Thessalonians 4 verses 13 to 14).
Paul’s teaching as reflected in Cranmer’s Collect reminds Christians that they should view death very differently from the non-Christian world around them. The Christian hope of eternal life with Christ after death frees people from a life of purposeless hedonism and despairing selfishness. Christian hope in the face of death is therefore the ultimate antidote to lockdown religion.
The Collect’s second paragraph emphasises that Christians should always rely on God for salvation, asking him to raise them from ‘the death of sin unto the life of righteousness’. This phrase is derived from Paul’s teaching in his New Testament letter to the Christians in Rome, particular in the sixth chapter.
The emphasis on sin and righteousness is profoundly countercultural. It resonates with the biblical teaching that our human rebellion against God incurs the penalty of death, both in its physical bodily form and in its spiritual form of eternal separation from God. It reminds us that we are culpable for our wilful rebellion against the God who made us and therefore cannot claim victimhood. I should stay well away from victimland as a Christian and should instead seek to live righteously according to God’s commands.
The ‘General Resurrection’ in the second paragraph refers to the biblical teaching that there will be a final day of judgement at Christ’s second coming when all of humanity will rise from death to face God. Christians should desire to ‘be found acceptable’ in God’s sight through their faith in Christ and should long to receive ‘that blessing’ of him welcoming his believing people into his eternal kingdom.
Thanks to the Queen’s respect for the BCP, so many people around the world got to hear authentic, biblical Christianity, as opposed to its watered-down, me-centred modern Church of England version, through Cranmer’s beautiful words.