In 1901 the Archbishop of Canterbury successfully vetoed the request made by the Royal Family that the Russian Kontakion for the departed should be sung at Queen Victoria’s funeral. He was concerned that it would give approval to what he saw as the questionable practice of praying for the dead.
Times, and outlooks change. Later in the twentieth century the Kontakion was sung at the funeral of Bishop Trevor Huddleston, and indeed at a funeral of an Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey.
The choice of hymns by Church of England Bishops for their funerals is, of course, varied. This variety encourages all to reflect on the nature and choice of funeral hymns. Some of the hymns reflect devotional favourites of the Bishop. For example Bishop Westcott’s choice of O God our help in ages past and Archbishop Cyril Garbett’s choice of Jesu, grant me this I pray were hymns the bishops said they used regularly in personal devotion.
The Lord’s my Shepherd is often sung at funerals, but not, it seems, at bishops’ funerals. However, other translations of Psalm 23 have been used. Bishop John Robinson chose Joseph Addison’s notable translation, The Lord my Pasture shall prepare, while Bishop Kenneth Kirk and Arcbishop Garbett chose The King of Love my shepherd is.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the beautiful poems of the priest and poet George Herbert feature strongly in the bishops’ choices. Bishop David Jenkins and Bishop Kenneth Stevenson both chose King of Glory, King of Peace, while Bishop John Robinson chose Let all the world in every corner sing. Bishop Kenneth Stevenson asked that Herbert’s Listen, Sweet Dove, unto my song, (‘Whitsunday’ from The Temple) be read out. The poem has yet to be set to music successfully as a hymn.
Hymns of Praise are popular choices. Bishop Kirk had Praise my Soul the King of Heaven, Archbishop Robert Runcie and Bishop David Jenkins had Praise to the Holiest, and Archbishop Garbett chose Let saints on earth in concert sing. Archbishop William Temple chose the Easter hymn of praise The strife is o’er.
Some hymns, are particularly personal, for example, Bishop Alfred Blunt’s funeral included O Thou not made with hands, a favourite from his schooldays, and Bishop Trevor Huddleston had Jesus, Son of Mary translated from the Swahili, reflecting his ministry in South Africa.
Undoubtedly some current bishops will have hymns in mind. One bishop we asked, who said he’d rather not be named, as his choice regularly changes, offered: All my hope on God is founded, (also a choice of Bishop Kenneth Stevenson), Love’s redeeming work is done and We shall go out with hope of resurrection.
I heard the voice of Jesus say, Thine be the glory, and The day thou gavest Lord is ended (a choice also of Archbishop Robert Runcie).