The Power of Ritual

In light of Prince Philip’s funeral, Simon Smart ponders the enduring importance of ritual.

Whatever you think of the royal family, Prince Philip’s funeral this week was a reminder of how well the British do big occasions. Even the staunchest republican would surely find it hard not to be moved by the sense of grandeur, the finely crafted theatre of it all, the beautiful solemnity.

In the days since, commentators have been reflecting on the power of ritual to mark significant moments in our lives. They have also lamented the loss of ritual in a deeply informal and individualistic age that resists any loyalty to institutions.

Rituals place us within a community where signs and symbols signify something meaningful. They locate each of us within a story that is larger than ourselves—a story that began before us and will continue beyond us. Importantly, they tell us that we are not alone. Everything does not depend on me!

As philosopher James KA Smith writes, “Rituals are not solutions. They don’t fix things. They are how we live with what we can’t fix, channels for facing up to our finitude, the way we try to navigate this vale of tears in the meantime. But precisely for that reason they can also be conduits of hope.”

That hope was unmistakably present in the ceremony at St George’s Chapel and in the old prayer offered by the Archbishop of Canterbury before Prince Philip’s coffin was lowered into the royal vault:

“O eternal God, before whose face the generations rise and pass away … we remember before thee this day Philip, Duke of Edinburgh … to him with all the faithful departed, grant thy peace; Let light perpetual shine upon them; and in thy loving wisdom and almighty power work in them the good purpose of thy perfect will.”