Address given at the Funeral of Tony Benn
27 March 2014 at 11:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
In the Guardian a few days ago, Peter Wilby wrote of the religious roots of Tony Benn’s political passion. ‘The dissenting religion was deeply embedded in the Benn family history. His mother read him Bible stories – struggles between Old Testament kings and prophets in which the Benns were naturally on the side of the latter – and at nights they prayed together. At Westminster School, divinity was his best subject. The young Benn went to church and said of himself that he took very seriously the obligations of Holy Communion after he was confirmed.’ Wilby went on to say that Tony Benn ‘drifted away from religion but not from Christian principles.’
In Westminster Abbey in 2012 in a service marking the 350th anniversary of the publication of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, which imposed conformity in religion and effectively excluded Congregationalists from the Church of England, Rowan Williams said of the Congregationalist tradition that nurtured Tony Benn, ‘its cosmic vision, shot through with incarnational and passional faith, shows itself in constant commitment to political freedoms and political maturity.’
Tony Benn himself spoke in 2003 on ABC radio to John Cleary about his religious upbringing and his faith. ‘My roots come from the dissenting tradition in religion. You do not need a Bishop to help you. Everybody has a hotline to the Almighty and that of course was a tremendously revolutionary idea. My Great-grandfather was a Congregational Minister and my Mother was a Bible scholar, and I was brought up on the Bible, that the story of the Bible was conflict between the kings who had power, and the prophets who preached righteousness. And I was taught to believe in the prophets, got me into a lot of trouble. And my Dad said to me when I was young, ‘Dare to be a Daniel, Dare to stand alone, Dare to have a purpose firm, Dare to make it known.’’ I understand that those words hung on the wall of Tony Benn’s office.
He also said, ‘I always ask people about their religion. I met somebody the other day and I said, ‘What are you?’ And he said, ‘I’m a lapsed atheist’. And I loved that. It is to the spiritual element that the teachings of Jesus appeal, and the rituals of Christianity and all religions are terribly important.’
Prophets stir up controversy; they are admired and abjured; they are heeded and hated. Sometimes they are persecuted. Tony Benn avoided the worst of the fates of some of the biblical prophets. Of his life, as he spoke of his family, he said to John Cleary, ‘I’m just a very, very happy man.’ He also quoted his mother as saying, ‘Death is God’s last and greatest gift to the living.’
As we give thanks to God for all his precious gifts, we commend Tony Benn to a merciful judgement and we ask for him the ultimate gift of eternal peace and happiness in the company of all whom he loves.