Trinity 23 BCP
11 November 2007 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece
Remembrance Sunday was always seriously observed at my old school. Hundreds of old boys who died in two world wars had their names carved into the sandstone walls approaching the chapel. It would have been almost impossible to have avoided some sort of exposure to the poetry of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon or Rupert Brooke and the other War Poets. But it is through the music of Britten’s War Requiem that some of Wilfrid Owen’s words most haunt me. Especially in the middle 3rd section – the Offertory which quotes from The parable of the old man and young (which is a reworking of the story of Abraham and Isaac):
‘Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
And builded parapets and trenched there,
And strechèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.
But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.’
Benjamin Britten was himself of course a pacifist, but nobody need follow his line in order to agree about the horrors and the violence, the waste and the meaninglessness of war. As the German proverb puts it, ‘a great war leaves a country with three armies – an army of cripples, an army of mourners, and an army of thieves.’ We can never afford to forget. It is very encouraging that more young people seem to be wearing poppies – maybe because increasingly we all have friends or family involved in Iraq or Afghanistan – but perhaps also thanks to the impressive work of the Royal British Legion and new imaginative ways of getting the message across. I met Poppy Man – the statue made out of poppies last Monday, and like many others have seen him on television as well.
We perhaps forget that this country has a long history of sending soldiers and sailors to war…think of the Napoleonic Wars, the Crimea the Boer War and so forth. There was no Remembrance Sunday for them – rather it arose in 1921 after the horrors of a whole nation being involved in the machinery of war. There followed a second World War, but, since 1945 (just as in the 19thC) there has been no national war. Rather we have sent…men, and women, to fight and die: in Korea, in Malaya (where my father was an army pilot) in Cyprus (he fought there too), Aden, Borneo, Northern Ireland the Falklands, Bosnia and Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq…twice. In all these conflicts we have sent our armed forces, but it was not the whole nation that fought. With modern communications technology the world has changed dramatically and these days any war is far more thoroughly debated in public before, during and after the conflict, and far more fully reported as it is going on, than would have been possible during the first or second world wars. It is therefore not surprising that opinion is more divided. Add on the fact that recent wars have not been to defend an enemy literally at our borders…they have not been fought by a country under siege…but rather by our professional servicemen and women.
For members of our armed services, and especially those sent to war, such as those still being fought in Afghanistan and Iraq, there have been calls for more understanding, support and valuing of their tremendous hardships and sacrifices – and surely we remember and pray not only for the fallen (including the 254 in recent years), but for the wounded and maimed, and for all who have, and continue, bravely to put themselves in harm’s way for the benefit of their fellows. We remember the unreported heroism of contemporary daily survival, and the cost on families too. And all our remembrance is undertaken in the context of, and under girded by, the Christian hope. The Victory of Christ is certain – over the sin of the world, and over death.
On Remembrance Sunday we remember the worst we can do to each other, and we give thanks for the best that was laid down on our behalf. But there is little point in observing it, unless we are all prepared to be changed into people who are more faithful, forgiving, and following in the way of Christ.
My predecessor Fr. John Slater was very proud of his association with the King’s Troop of the RHA in St. John’s Wood where he was chaplain, and I would like to end with words he himself preached here exactly 5 years ago.
‘How are we to live to be worthy of those who died and equally worthy of a glorious resurrection? The blueprint is fairly clear, I think - bequeathed to us by those who died. We must honour what they honoured and value what they valued - Queen and country, home and family, friends and neighbours, a decent life which is never selfish but rather sacrificial, a proper pride in our national freedom and democratic traditions.
That is, at least, a good start for a good life - though I’m sure that as we think of those who paid the supreme sacrifice, we are uncomfortably aware that they did more than has yet been asked of us. May God give us strength to be truly faithful to their example on the day when more is asked of us.’