In the Falkland Islands Wednesday memorial and thanksgiving service to Baroness Thatcher, Reverend Dr Richard Hines led the congregation through the messages of the hymns and Bible readings she personally chose for the day of her funeral.
Earlier today, the attention of many around the world was focussed on the Funeral Service in St Paul’s Cathedral in London of the late Baroness Thatcher, former British Prime Minister. As the Dean of that church had earlier advised, it would be unashamedly (at Margaret Thatcher’s express request) a Christian funeral service – no eulogy would be given, no tributes offered, but an Address from the Bishop of London would be included.
And so it was. But, of course, the whole rich ceremonial of this morning’s service - all the preparations that went into it and all the comments that have followed from it – provided eloquent testimony to the esteem in which many now hold the memory of this extraordinary woman.
Now some hours later, here in the South Atlantic, as the sun sets over London, we in the Falkland Islands hold our own service, a memorial and thanksgiving service, an explicit attempt to express by our presence and by our carefully-chosen words, something of the profound gratitude felt in these Islands for the unique contribution made by Margaret Thatcher in ensuring its residents’ liberty and future well-being.
One way in which we are making our tribute to her memory this afternoon is by singing the same three hymns and hearing one of the two Bible readings that Baroness Thatcher herself chose for this day. It’s perhaps worth asking ourselves therefore, what messages we can read from her choices. What final thoughts or exhortations, if any, might she have been leaving us?
Words from the first hymn require no special interpretative powers: ‘I’ll fear not what men say …’ – she was fearless as a conviction politician, and formidable as Britain’s first female Prime Minister; ‘I’ll labour night and day …’ - she was, by all accounts, an exceptionally hard-worker, night and day, often leading others who tried in vain to match her mastery of detail and analytic insight.
Our second hymn, however, a Charles Wesley Methodist hymn addressed directly to Jesus, will be more challenging for most of us. It reminds us of what a former Times religious correspondent noted some years ago that [in Margaret Thatcher we had] ‘the most theologically-minded Prime Minister’ [of the twentieth] century.
And as for the final hymn – let’s save a glance at our final hymn until later and turn instead to the Bible reading of her choice.
‘Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God …’. Those who observed Baroness Thatcher over the long years of her public life might well smile to themselves and not be too surprised to spot a reference in this reading to what one should ‘put on’, what one should wear for the occasion. Even when, in early 1983, Mrs Thatcher made her memorable visit by Hercules aircraft to these windswept Islands she was always elegantly and immaculately turned out. But, for her, what one wore for an occasion could be much more than a simple fashion statement.
Rex Hunt, as Civil Commissioner of these Islands at the time, recalled how during that visit, whilst on West Falkland, he wore wellington boots to splash from helicopter to settlement hut and back again and suggested the Prime Minister might do the same when they stopped to pay their respects at Port Howard cemetery. Mrs Thatcher became indignant, ‘I’m not wearing wellingtons to Captain Hamilton’s grave’ she replied, and promptly donned her best shoes to walk through the mud and lay her wreath in memory of that brave officer who served with the SAS, and was killed there in 1982. Sir Rex later wondered whether a male Prime Minister would have been so sensitive.
In fact, the words of St Paul in our Bible reading develop the metaphor of a soldier’s ‘armour’ to explain the need of spiritual weapons for spiritual warfare, in a Christian’s ‘struggle’ against darkness and evil. When in 1988 Mrs Thatcher addressed the Assembly of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh (to give what journalists later called her ‘Sermon on the Mound’) she began by speaking ‘personally as a Christian, as well as a politician’, about the way she saw things and about what she regarded as the distinctive marks of her faith. She included among them the fundamental God-given right of human beings to choose between good and evil; and also that if we open our hearts to God, He has promised to work within us.
Here, it seems to me, we touch a main spring of Baroness Thatcher’s inner life, inspired and guided chiefly by the example of her father and by the decisive influence of her closest Christian friends, people like the late courageous Airey Neave. Perhaps it was they who showed her in practice how necessary it was to wear the whole armour of God – truth, righteousness, peace, faith and prayer – in political life as in all other spheres of life.
‘But when all is said and done’, she concluded in Scotland, (and here we now take a glance at this afternoon’s closing hymn), ‘when all is said and done the politician's role is a humble one and the whole debate about the Church and the State has never yielded anything comparable in insight to one particular and beautiful hymn.’
‘It begins’, (she noted) ‘with a triumphant assertion of what might be described as secular patriotism, a noble thing indeed in a country like ours: I vow to thee my country all earthly things above; entire, whole and perfect the service of my love. But it goes on to speak of another country whose King can't be seen and whose armies can't be counted, but soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase’. ‘Not group by group, or party by party’ she insisted, ‘or even church by church—but soul by soul—and each one counts. I leave you with that earnest hope’, was her parting word to members of the Assembly, ‘that we may all come nearer to that other country whose “ways are ways of gentleness and all her paths are peace.”’
That was all quite some time ago. For now, and the foreseeable future, the arguments will continue; opinions will divide as to what her legacy is and about the significance and value of what Baroness Thatcher contributed to the UK’s national life and on the world’s stage. Be that as it may. She no longer needs her armour now.
Neither does the people of the Falkland Islands need any persuading that this soldier of truth, liberty and democracy, and this dear friend of these Islands, deserves, and has, and will always be given their whole-hearted respect, admiration, gratitude and affection.
By the grace God gave her, in a time of great need, with immense personal courage and inner fortitude, she earnestly ‘desired the right’ leading others at their own great personal cost, to do the same. And as she did, throughout her long life, we too, today may confidently entrust ourselves, and generations of Falkland Islanders to come, to the mercy and goodness of that same God.
Margaret Hilda Thatcher. May she rest in peace and rise in the glory of God’s New Creation.