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Archbishop pays tribute to Duke of Edinburgh


5:14pm 8th June 2011

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, today paid tribute to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh on the occasion of the Duke’s 90th Birthday.

In his House of Lords tribute the Archbishop said:

“My Lords, on behalf of these Benches, I wish to express warmest congratulations to His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday. 

As the embodiment of devotion, duty and loyalty, in his service to our country, the Duke has been a model example to us all. 

As someone who shares a birthday with the Duke, I look with admiration and - if it is allowed in someone from these benches - envy on his stamina and resilience. Until 2006 he was still pursuing his passion for carriage driving and competing with fell ponies. We have witnessed his tireless energy again in recent days - the Royal Wedding, the historic visit to the Republic of Ireland, the welcome of the President of the United States of America, Barak Obama, on his State Visit.

I have had particular cause to reflect on these qualities over the past couple of weeks during a stay in St Thomas’ Hospital where, in the words of the Consultant Surgeon, Mr Simon Atkinson, I had to have “a nasty appendix” removed – and was discharged only this morning from that hospital. In my somewhat fragile state the question in my mind has been a very simple one: how does the Duke do it?

His Royal Highness’s long record of service to our nation began before his marriage to Her Majesty the Queen. Like so many who risked their lives in the cause of freedom during action in the Second World War, the Duke’s record of military service was a distinguished one. As an officer in the Royal Navy his quick-thinking in distracting a Luftwaffe bomber saved the lives of many on board the HMS Wallace.

After the war, his marriage to the then-Princess Elizabeth brought much happiness and a hope to a nation during what were still uncertain and straitened times. The recent wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge has been a reminder of how much the spirits of the nation can be lifted during difficult days by events which capture the imagination and draw on the symbols and heritage that underpin our history and identity.

Since giving up his 14 year naval career, His Royal Highness has acted as patron to some 800 organisations, as well as being Chancellor of the University of Cambridge.  In particular I pay tribute to his passionate commitment to the welfare of our nation’s young people, notably through the award scheme which bears his name and has been an inspiration to so many other similar schemes overseas. The Award’s emphasis on physical achievement and on service as ways of building confidence and character reflects the Duke’s own experience and values.

Underpinning those values has been his rootedness within the Christian Religion, first within the Greek Orthodox Church and now for many decades within the Anglican branch of “the one Catholick and Apostolick Church”, giving steadfast and tireless support to Her Majesty in her role as the Supreme Governor.

Not everyone is aware that His Royal Highness has a keen interest in theological questions. Bishops who are invited to stay and preach at Sandringham face a barrage of serious theological questions over lunch, and there is nowhere to hide.  He listens appreciatively but never uncritically. In my case, the sermon was based on Jesus turning water into wine at Cana of Galilee.

In conversation, the Duke suggested many possible explanations for the miracle, including a Uri Geller-type explanation, and he produced a spoon which Uri Geller had bent for him.  To my rescue came that still small voice of calm from Her Majesty the Queen, saying, “Philip and his theories!”  Secondly, among the Duke’s theological interests are several publications he co-authored, including “Survival or Extinction: A Christian Attitude to the Environment”, a work that incorporated another of his enduring concerns – that of wildlife preservation and care for the environment. 

In ecclesiastical affairs as on other issues the Duke of Edinburgh likes to cut to the heart of the matter. My Right Reverend Friend the current Bishop of Norwich recalls that on first arriving at Sandringham, the Duke asked him, “Are you happy-clappy?”, to which he responded, “No, I’m smells and bells”. I’m pleased to say that following this robust exchange they’ve got on fine!

Humour is ever one of his characteristics, and the Duke is in fact a Tease par excellence. For example, when showing me around the restored Chapel in Windsor Castle, he said, “See that.  That’s my new piece of modern art.” I looked at it intently, but really couldn’t work it out, and had to ask, “Who’s the artist?”  With a big laugh, he said, “That’s a piece of wood saved from the fire”.

Later on in writing to him I suggested that he sent that “piece of modern art” to the Yaohnanen Tribe, in Tanna, who regard him as a god. I’ll leave you to imagine his response!

My Lords, we the Lords Spiritual wish His Royal Highness the Duke many happy returns.

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