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Anglicans Online last updated 21 October 2018

The Funeral of the 102nd Archbishop of Canterbury
Reported by Simon Sarmiento
22 July 2000

Bishop Robert Runcie died on 11 July 2000, the feast of St Benedict, founder of the monastic order which built the great medieval abbey church in St Albans, where he had been diocesan bishop from 1970-1980.  It was in the nave of this great building, now the Cathedral and Abbey Church of Saint Alban, that his funeral took place on 22 July, the feast of Saint Mary Magdalene. Since his retirement as archbishop in 1991, he and his family had lived in St Albans and worshipped regularly in the cathedral.

Saturday’s event was a family funeral, to which all his friends were invited. Tickets were not required. Queues formed outside the building more than two hours before the service started, and all 1700 seats were taken well before the starting time. An overflow crowd (estimated in the press at about 500) stood outside on the Abbey Orchard, where the service was relayed by loudspeaker. Dozens of bishops, each vested in black chimere and tippet, with white rochet, sat in serried ranks on the south side of the nave. The Dean and Chapter of Canterbury were also present as a body. Ecumenical representatives, including the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox archbishops, together with the present Archbishop of Canterbury, had seats of honour in the nave sanctuary. So also did another former archbishop (of Cape Town) Desmond Tutu, who had flown from the USA specially for this service.

The wooden coffin, with a mitre and stole laid out on top, rested in the centre aisle next to a huge paschal candle which was decorated with white flowers.  Three tall candles surrounded the bier on each side. (The coffin had been brought into the cathedral the previous evening and had rested overnight near the Ramryge Chantry beside the High Altar.)

When the starting time came, the clergy entered from the West Doors, and as the procession started down the centre aisle, the Cathedral Choir began to sing the Burial Sentences from The Book of Common Prayer to the traditional music of William Croft and Henry Purcell which has been used at so many Anglican funerals over the centuries. The Bishop of St Albans, Christopher Herbert, presided at this requiem eucharist, assisted by the Dean and Sub Dean of the cathedral, Christopher Lewis and Christopher Foster, all wearing purple vestments. The service followed Rite A of The Alternative Service Book 1980.

Following some brief words of welcome, the whole congregation burst into song with the hymn Praise to the Holiest (sung to Elgar’s tune Gerontius).  After a brief penitential rite, the Bishop read the ASB funeral service Collect. A portion of 1 Corinthians 15 was read as the Epistle by a member of the cathedral congregation, Cressida Rayner. The choir then sang a chorale from Bach’s St Matthew Passion, “Commit thy way to Jesus...”, and the Dean read the Gospel, Luke 18.9-14.

The Bishop of Norwich, Graham James, who was the former archbishop’s chaplain during the latter part of his term at Canterbury, gave an address which was based on two texts:

All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.  (Luke 18.14)

I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it for the sake of the gospel.   (1 Corinthians 9.22, 23)

The full text of the sermon is available here. It was immediately followed by Prayers led by Sister Frances Dominica of the All Saints Sisters of the Poor, and then the Peace. Then the hymn Come down, O Love divine was sung  by the congregation (to the Vaughan Williams tune Down Ampney), while the holy table was prepared. Incense was used.

The Bishop proceeded with the Eucharistic Prayer (EP 3 of the ASB rite and the Resurrection Proper Preface). The choir sang the Sanctus and Benedictus (and later in the service the Agnus Dei) using Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor.

After the Our Father had been said, communion was administered at various stations around the building, as well as to those outside. During this, the choir sang William Walton’s Set me as a seal upon thy heart and the congregation sang William Bright’s hymn And now O Father, mindful of the love to a tune (Song 1) by Orlando Gibbons. 

When all had been communicated, the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, who had been chaplain to Robert Runcie both in St Albans and during the earlier part of his time as archbishop, sprinkled holy water on the coffin and censed it, while the choir sang The Russian Contakion of the Departed, which begins and ends:

Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy saint: where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting...

He then spoke The Commendation:

Our brother Robert has fallen asleep in the peace of Christ.
We commit him, with faith and hope in everlasting life,
to the loving mercy of our Father,
and assist him with our prayers.
In baptism, he was made by adoption a child of God.
At the Lord’s table, he was sustained and fed.
May he now be welcomed at the table of God’s children in heaven
and share in eternal life with all the saints.
We also turn to our Lord on our own behalf.
May we who now mourn our brother’s departure
be one day united with him.
May we all go forward together on that day to meet Christ
when He, our life, appears in Glory.

The choir sang their final anthem, again by Ralph Vaughan Williams, the words from Cymbeline by William Shakespeare: Fear no more the heat o’ the sun...

During the final congregational hymn, The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended (tune: St Clement) the procession of clergy, with the coffin, and the family members, moved down the North Nave Aisle of the cathedral to the North Nave Door which leads directly out into the churchyard.

The music of the organ then ceased. It was replaced by the music of bagpipes, as a piper from the Scots Guards played The Mist Covered Mountains and The Flowers of the Forest, while the procession moved to the graveside and the ceremonies there were completed. A further piece of bagpipe music, composed especially for and named after Robert Runcie, was played, and the congregation started to move out of the cathedral. The family had invited all to join them for a drink in the nearby hall of St Albans School.

The service had lasted nearly two hours. Beforehand, while the queues had waited to get in, the skies had been overcast, but now the sun was shining brightly, and there was Resurrection hope and joy among all the crowd. This morning the grave is covered with flowers and a plain wooden cross stands there which has a simple engraved brass plate upon it:

+Robert Runcie 

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