Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, is pictured tipping his hat outside London's Buckingham Palace Aug. 2, 2017. Prince Philip, the longest-serving consort of any British monarch, died April 9, 2021, at age 99, Buckingham Palace said. CNS photo/Hannah McKay, Reuters

Editorial: Faith and the prince

  • April 22, 2021

About 30 years ago, a catalogue of Prince Philip’s personal library revealed more than 8,300 books, over 450 of them classified under the label of religion.

“The only thing he had more books on than theology was bird watching,” said Gavin Ashenden, a former Anglican bishop who was chaplain to Queen Elizabeth for 10 years and one of the many faith leaders, including Pope Francis, who mourned the prince’s passing on April 9.

The fact he read a lot of books on faith doesn’t make Prince Philip a saint, or any better than your average Joe or Jane. But it does give us a bit of insight into the importance the royal placed on religion and its role in the world. We saw it in the causes he promoted and in the people he was most drawn to. It all contributed to a remarkable life of public service, one worth celebrating.

Admittedly, there are those who look upon royalty with disdain for all its trappings of privilege. And even royalists have had their patience tested with the well-known gaffes attributed to Prince Philip. Still, just as society has evolved, so has the British royal family, shedding its sheltered existence to direct its perceived prestige to public service. Prince Philip was a major player in that change, much of it driven by his personal faith journey.

Born into the Greek Orthodox faith, he converted to Anglicanism just before his marriage to then-Princess Elizabeth in 1947. Five years later, thrust into a monarch’s shadow upon her coronation, he set about re-inventing himself and, by extension, the role of royalty into a dynamic force for good in society.

In the early 1960s, he was an early champion of environmentalism, adopting the spirit of “care for our common home” principles with genuine zeal. He was the first president of the UK World Wildlife Fund and in 1995 founded the Alliance of Religions and Conservation.

He co-founded St. George’s House, a centre for religious study which embraced dialogue and debate among clergy, scientists and politicians on all major issues. He long supported the Templeton Prize, which recognizes religious and scientific achievement in advancing insight into man’s place in the universe — he presented its first award to Mother Teresa.

He was also a huge youth booster. His Duke of Edinburgh Awards program fostering life skills among young people was established in 1956 and has expanded to more than 140 countries, including Canada. In all, there are about 800 organizations which benefitted from his hands-on support.

Flaws? Sure, but give him his due … his sense of duty and service never wavered. And nor did his trust in the power of faith. After Philip’s death, a member of the House of Lords, John Alderdice, summed up the prince’s philosophy quite well: “Meaning, faith and commitment in life were truly important. It was not just the content of belief but the conduct of life that was crucial to him — to ‘do justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.’ The Jesus he followed was a ‘servant king.’ ”

Not a bad epitaph for anyone, royal or not.

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