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Time of trial in the trenches

30 November 2011

This chaplain’s story may not be atypical, says Alan Wilkinson

To War with God: The army chaplain who lost his faith
Peter Fiennes

Mainstream Publishing £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.20

TO WAR WITH GOD is moving and poignant. Originally, all that the author knew about his grandfather’s war experiences was that Monty Guilford had been an army chap­lain, had been awarded the MC, had sat up all night with a deserter awaiting execution, and had lost his faith. When Fiennes’s son was study­ing the First World War, he dis­covered his old maps, cuttings, letters, and photos in a battered suitcase.

Fiennes presents lengthy extracts from Guilford’s laconic diary, which rarely recorded his reactions, let alone theological reflections, but mostly listed meal and service times, journeys, and sermon titles. Sadly, it goes up only to January 1917.

Fiennes supplements the diary with regimental and other histories. But the central conundrum re­mains: did Guilford lose his faith? The book jacket suggests that this is the central theme of the book: The army chaplain who lost his faith, the front cover declares. “A young army chaplain goes to war and has his faith in a loving God shattered,” says the back cover.

Certainly, Guilford, like other chaplains, wanted a changed Church. But the record shows that, from 1919, he served in three short-term clerical posts without a break; and then, from 1926 to 1948, he served as a country rector and RAF chaplain.

It is a pity that the author did not make the period from 1919 into an explanatory epilogue. Perhaps Guil­ford did not “lose” his faith, but, like others, he urgently needed time to rethink it.

The book portrays not only some of the horrors, but also the humor­ous japes, and the football matches, and bizarre events — such as when Guilford’s surplice caught fire at a service before a big attack. One incident speaks volumes. His wife copied out a passage into his diary about how those with faith would be protected by guardian angels, but someone (he?) tore it out.

Canon Alan Wilkinson is an honorary priest at Portsmouth Cathedral. His recent novel, One Foot in Eden, is available from Mirfield Publications WF14 0BN.

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