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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

An Unimaginable Disaster

I wonder what we think we are doing, commemorating the outbreak of the Great War a century ago? Many things. Some are obvious, but no less important for that: remembering all who would fall in the war, trying to understand why Europe slept-walked into war in the first place, maybe draw tentative lessons about conflict, patriotism, national politics and how we construct a better world order than the one that crashed to the ground in August 1914. But it is just as important to try to reflect spiritually on our history, offer it to God, hold in our hearts peoples broken by the conflicts of today, pray for peace in our world. Let me offer these thoughts today.

My first reflection is about history. My predecessor Hensley Henson was dean of Durham a century ago. His sermons and writings give us a glimpse of both how well and how badly the Church of England responded to the unexpected crisis of summer 1914. ‘When the stroke actually fell’ he wrote, ‘it seemed to have the benumbing shock of an almost unimaginable disaster. The nation… was reluctant to admit the possibility of war between nations so closely linked by ties of interest, culture and tradition’. He did not fall for the easy recruiting slogans of some of the war’s more fervent supporters; yet he never wavered in his belief that England had a duty to engage with the war. Its causes were unbelievably complex, the ambitions of European empires, their unstable alliances, the vicissitudes of trade, the hubris of flawed leaders, and the simmering tensions in the unruly but far-off Balkans (about which people in England knew little and cared even less). Even now it isn’t easy to unravel an intricate history, but aspects of it may look clearer a century later than historians of the last generation found it to be. In some ways the events of June 1914 strike us as surprisingly modern: the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo was a familiar mix of radicalised young men wielding the terrorists’ guns and grenades, and all in a city-centre with heavy traffic and a baffling one-way system.

What brought Britain into the war was the German invasion of neutral Belgium. It was this that appalled the nation, precipitated the declaration of war and galvanised most of the church into supporting the war effort. To stand in solidarity with the victim is honourable for people and for nations, and it’s important to remember this when we might easily conclude, viewing it through the lens of the disastrous Battle of the Somme, that this conflict was avoidable. I doubt it was more avoidable than the Second World War once Germany had decided on its course of action. I dwell on this because it is important, in remembering those who went to war on both sides, that most were not starry-eyed dupes dazzled by the rhetoric of dulce et decorum est. Thoughtful people believed it was the right thing to do to defend a downtrodden nation. They asked what Christian obligation should be amid the messiness of actual historical circumstances. Ethics is never straightforward in extreme situations like war. But we should pay tribute to those who went to war a hundred years ago believing it was their moral and spiritual duty. We must try to read the history with a critical yet sympathetic insight.

My second reflection is about memory. It was the Great War that bequeathed to every church, town centre and village green a war memorial. They existed earlier: both Sheffield and Durham have memorials from before the First World War. In Durham Cathedral, the Durham Light Infantry (pals as well as officers) is commemorated for campaigns going back to Crimea, the Sudan and the Boer War. But it was the terrible attrition of the First World War that brought loss to every community and almost every family in the land that gave nationwide impetus to the need to remember. If anything, this instinct has accelerated in our own lifetimes and spread out from war memorials to roadside shrines in memory of accident victims and other symbols that record loss and grief. The Great War also gave us rituals to remember with: the Cenotaph in Whitehall, and local observances of Armistice Day around every war memorial look back to the same watershed. And again, if Durham is anything to go by, we have seen a huge increase in attendance at these commemorations in the past decade especially – and this interests me in particular - among the young. Perhaps this is because war and the pity of war is relentlessly on public view nowadays through television and social media; but perhaps it is also that the public has a better awareness of the covenant between the armed forces and the nation than it did in past generations. 

How we remember is a rich theme in the scriptures. It lies at the heart of this eucharist as we remember in bread and wine the one whose body was broken and blood shed through an act of cruel violence. We do this in memory of him for many other reasons, but his victimhood is not the least of them. I believe that the eucharist gives us important clues about how we should remember before God. One of them is good remembering is always an occasion for thanksgiving. It’s what eucharist means. These next four years will present opportunities for us all to remember thankfully those who fought and fell not just in the Great War but all the conflicts of more recent times. Another is that we must remember in ways that connect the past to our own day. Anamnesis means allowing the past to become actual to us, telling the story so that we can inhabit it and let it shape our lives now and in the future. If we don’t do this, we shall not only fail to emulate all that ennobled so many who served, but we shall also risk falling into the half-truths, brutalised rhetoric and cant that war so easily fosters. And then, remembering at the eucharist is linked to offering: Christ’s offering for us, our own self-offering in him and, I want to say, bringing all humanity, all the world into the offering of the eucharistic prayer to God, pleading in Christ that like the bread and the wine, our broken, spilt lives, wrecked by conflict and hatred, may be transformed and the new creation heralded.

My final reflection is about where understanding, memory and prayer might lead us. Alan Ecclestone, a much-admired priest in Sheffield in the 1960s said: ‘what matters for prayer is what we do next’. That is to say, to give ourselves to reflection in the ways I’ve suggested must always lead to action of some kind, something we do. This ‘doing’ is about expressing Christian discipleship in ordinary life, making some difference to the world in which we live, to others whose lives we share, to ourselves. So we need to be changed by how we think, how we remember, how we pray. The key word here is ‘we’ as the church that celebrates this eucharist. It may sound grand to speak about being the conscience of the nation, though together, the faith communities can wield inestimable influence in the shaping of a better order in our society and in the wider world. They can bring people together, create dialogue, help bring about reconciliation. In a world so divided by radicalised dysfunctional religion, we shouldn’t underestimate how people of healthy faith can bring understanding and wisdom.

In one way especially, the church has a special vocation. This is to be a witness in every generation that the church is a worldwide society that transcends the divisions between peoples, nations and continents. Christianity, said Hensley Henson, ‘is not a national religion and can never tolerate any national limits to its message’. Peace-making is inspired by a larger vision of human beings living together in the spirit of reconciliation and friendship, which in the gospels is how the kingdom of God is depicted. When Jesus fed the crowd in our gospel reading today, he meant it as a powerful enacted symbol of how we were created to be one people, sitting down as one human company, literally, ‘bread-sharers’ who distribute to all the resources that God out of his abundant generosity has endowed us with. War is always a terrible denial of that fundamental truth about humanity. So a worldwide fellowship of faith, the church, can help recover the vision by living out what it means to be a human family of grace and justice, truth, peace and freedom.

We should use the commemorations of these four coming years to ask ourselves what this means in practice, and commit ourselves not only to praying for it but to helping bring it about. It is one way of both praying and living the petition we say at every act of worship: ‘give us this day our daily bread’, our bread for today, our bread for tomorrow, the bread that the victims of war and conflict hunger for. What matters for prayer is what we do next. As we reflect, as we remember, as we pray, we do not forget what we could do to make a difference in our own time. And maybe, just maybe, this unique centenary that has fallen in our lifetime will give us a new resolve to do it.

Sheffield Cathedral, 3 August 2014.
To commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, August 1914
Matthew 14.14-21

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