My dad spent his whole working life in the shipping industry, first in the Merchant Navy and then in the operation and management of ports. When he came to retire, a German shipbuilder he’d become very friendly with invited him to come and launch a ship to mark his retirement. But the thing is, men don’t launch ships – apparently. Only women launch ships. So, when he and my mother went off to Hamburg to launch the ship, it was to be my mum who would do the honours. I was very lucky to be able to go with them and what an experience it was. Various lunches, dinners and receptions were held in honour of the launch – and in honour of my mum it seemed.
Everywhere we went there would be a brass band playing and lots of hand-shaking and speech making – including my mum. After about two days of this, as we walked through the docks to finally launch the ship, all the dignitaries – and my mum – walking ahead of us, my dad leant over to me and said– “now I know how Prince Philip feels.”
And over the past week, as we’ve been remembering Prince Philip, as well as rightly recalling his important charitable work and his support and encouragement of young people through his Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme, we’ve often recalled how he put so much of his own self-interest aside to be a support for the Queen. He was, as she described him, her strength and stay. And over the past few days I’ve found myself marvelling at how he did that – and what it must have cost him personally.
Prince Philip may have spent nearly a lifetime walking three paces behind his wife, but he was certainly no shrinking violet. We know he could be brusque; he could be out-spoken; he relished a good debate and intellectual questioning. So, he wasn’t someone who preferred to be in the background because he lacked confidence. He had excelled in the Royal Navy and served his country with great honour. So, he wasn’t someone who lacked courage and conviction, far from it.
But, perhaps through his naval career, he was someone who knew the meaning of service and of duty. He knew the meaning of submitting himself to a higher purpose. We hear the word ‘submission’ and we think: weakness. But, if Prince Philip has taught us anything, it is that true submission: the laying aside of our own agenda, our own desires, for the sake of a greater purpose and a greater calling, in fact requires real strength: strength of character and the strength of conviction that this isn’t all about you, that there is something and someone of greater significance and importance. For Philip that something and someone was the Crown and his Queen. But not just that and not just her. Both our Queen and her husband recognise someone who is of even greater significance and importance than both of them: Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the words of John the Baptist in John’s gospel sum up the Duke’s attitude. When John’s disciples are getting anxious, maybe even a bit annoyed at the attention Jesus is attracting, John’s response is ‘No, no, not at all. My whole reason for being is to prepare the way for him and see him take centre stage. He must increase and I must decrease.’ (John 3. 23-30) I wonder how many of us have had to ‘decrease’, so that someone else can ‘increase’. We might do it for a spouse or for our children – but it is hard isn’t? It’s a sacrifice. To intentionally ‘decrease’ our self-importance, personal ambitions and use of power, so that someone else can flourish is very sacrificial. But that’s what Prince Philip did for the Queen.
It’s what John the Baptist did for Jesus and in fact it is what Jesus himself did for all of us. God himself was willing to set aside his own power to come as a human being and submit himself to loving and serving us and ultimately dying for us. It was in that apparent weakness and submission, that Jesus showed his greatest strength, conquering death, drawing its sting, so that we could know the hope of eternal life. His Royal Highness Prince Philip the Duke of Edinburgh had that hope. He knew the meaning of strength through submission and sacrifice and he knew the Saviour who had made the ultimate sacrifice for him.