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There is one common experience that unites all normal people in the British Isles today: memory. At the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918 the First World War ended. Scarcely a family in these lands was untouched by the shocking experience of four years of massacre on what is called The Western Front. Many of us here will have driven through those areas of Belgium and Northern France where the vast (and tiny) carefully cultivated cemeteries contain the bodies of the countless combatants who died in that dreadful war. Add to that the slaughter of the Second World War and the millions of innocent civilians affected, then the sorrow is almost unbearable. And to think that these two wars at the beginning were entirely European “That Europe was a disturbing force in the world between, say, 1450 and 1914 is obvious. But they brought with them ideas as well as naval guns and merchants. The Europeans did not always act in the tropics as if they were fit representatives of the ideas of Christianity and the Rule of Law. But at least they brought those ideas within the reach of the entire population of the globe” ( Hugh Thomas, An Unfinished History of the World, Hamish Hamilton, London, 1979, p.242).
The Church and War
What a story there is to tell since Constantine became a Christian in the fourth century. How was it possible that believers brought up on the Sermon on the Mount could not turn the other cheek? At first Christians would not even serve in the army. “But some bishops took up a different position, for example: By far the most controversial aspect of Winnington-Ingram’s (The bishop of London) episcopate was his tireless (and never modified) public advocacy of Britain’s cause during the First World War. He saw the war as a ‘great crusade to defend the weak against the strong’, and accepted uncritically stories of atrocities perpetrated by German troops. In 1915 he toured the western front, in 1916 the Grand Fleet at Rosyth and Scapa Flow, and in 1918 Salonica. His skill at public speaking made him a successful recruiter of volunteers early in the war, and he took great delight in his position as chaplain to the London rifle brigade; later in the war he encouraged his own younger clergy to enlist as combatants. He had an unquestioning trust in the civilizing mission of the British empire.
The leading Lutheran theologians were not different. The war was a German defence and of the civilisation it stood for (J.C.O’Neill, Adolf von Harnack and the entry of the German state into war , July -August 1914, SJT 55 (2002)),pp.1-18) ). But some Christians not only rejected conscription that would involve killing, but paid with their lives for their stance, like the Austrian Catholic Franz Jaegerstaetter. There is much to remember on Remembrance Sunday!
Today especially, collectively, we remember with gratitude those who gave their lives that we might live in freedom, that freedom so necessary for the common good. Of the Vimy Ridge battle in the Nord-Pas- de -Calais the Canadians who fought there are remembered by Rudyard Kipling:
“From little towns in a far land we came,
To save our honour and a world aflame,
By little towns in a far land we sleep;
And trust that world we won for you to keep.”
We recall other sad and beautiful poetry in a similar vein, like Rupert Brook’s The Soldier on the fated Dardanelles expedition
If I should die think only this of me- thinking of the far corner of a foreign field that would contain that “richer dust…whom England bore,
Shaped, made aware,
Gave once her flowers to love, her ways to roam”.
Or the lines of the Quaker Laurence Binyon, who lived just up the road from here in Merlewood:
“They shall grow not old as we who are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”
Hope born of grief is expressed in the lines of Maurice Baring on the death of Julian Grenfell:
“Because of you we will be glad and gay,
Remembering you we will be brave and strong.”
We come back to Our Lord:“Nobody takes my life from me: I lay it down of my own accord” (Jn 10:18). “I came that you may have life and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10:10). But to save one’s life one must lose it (Jn 12:25). ”God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that all who believed in him might have eternal life” (3:16). Writing to the Philippians St. Paul illustrates what all this looks like in practice: “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think of these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do; and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil 3:8-9). This was Paul in prison, a prison from which he would never emerge, because he too would die a martyr in Rome. What consoling words, so different from the sad lines written by Kipling on the fate of the wasted on the western front- so achingly evoked in O What a Lovely War:
If any question why we died, “Tell them, because our fathers lied”.
We may wonder if people today wearing poppies know why specifically it is poppies that are being worn. The First War was only in its relatively early stages (1915) when John McCrae wrote that poem;
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
In our time the crosses are being replaced with something less identifiably Christian. Requiescat in pace (RIP) will identify the Catholic grave in the public cemetery. May they rest in peace is a lovely prayer. And let that prayer be on our lips today as we recall all the dead whose sacrifice has made our lives possible. Nor can we be indifferent to those ‘on the other side’ whose lives were taken from them too- ‘As we forgive those who trespass against us’- we recite this together in the Lord’s Prayer later in our Mass. Amen.
Rev Richard J. Taylor
Boarbank Hall, Cumbria, UK