THIS Sunday, Remembrance Sunday, many parish churches around
Britain welcome members of the Royal British Legion and the local
community's uniformed organisations. Regular churchgoers will adapt
their usual Sunday worship to include the two-minute silence, the
Last Post, and all the traditional rituals that honour those who
have died as members of the armed services. Although it is not
found in the liturgical calendar, it comes at the time of year when
the Church commemorates All Souls and All Saints.
Many aspects of these acts of
remembrance are implicitly religious, but not explicitly Christian.
Sometimes, the parish church provides the context and location for
these acts without the incumbent's endorsing all the underlying
sentiments. On the other hand, at a national level, the Established
Church plays a supporting part at the Cenotaph, and during the
annual Festival of Remembrance, which sanctifies the
At the core of Remembrance are words
and actions that deliberately exclude any reference to faith. This
enables people of all backgrounds to participate. When the country
falls silent at 11 a.m., people are offered an open-ended
invitation to pray, meditate, contemplate, remember, or imagine.
Nothing is prescribed. Even in the suggestions made for thoughts
and prayers during the silence, in the Cenotaph order of service,
there is no mention of God.
When the Last Post is sounded, it is
not a reference to the "last trump", but derives from a military
tradition. The poem "For the Fallen", from which the lines "They
shall grow not old" are declaimed, is not Christian. It hints that
those killed in battle survive in some state of perpetual youth,
while their comrades grow weary with age.
THE most popular of the Remembrance
hymns, "O valiant hearts who to your glory came", harks back to
days long before the industrialised slaughter of the Somme, when
young men could test themselves in battles, which were fought
according to the code of chivalry: "Tranquil you lie, your knightly
After the First World War, chivalric
references were commonly made throughout Europe. A crusader's sword
was placed on the coffin that contains the Unknown Warrior, buried
in Westminster Abbey. The British and Germans needed a sense of
historical continuity and meaning, in the shadow of an
unprecedented human tragedy. In both countries, the survivors
pictured the conflict as the last crusade, and sought consolation
in imagery that connected the soldiers of the age of total war with
the knights of the Middle Ages.
Later in the hymn, the sacrifices of
war are, however, likened to the supreme sacrifice of Christ on the
cross. "Christ, our Redeemer, passed the self same way," says one
line, and, later:
Still, through the veil, the
Victor's pitying eyes
Look down to bless our lesser
Is this an appropriate comparison? It
certainly raises some theological questions.
LEAVING aside the part played by the
Church during the First World War, in its aftermath the Church had
an important pastoral part to play. Many parish clergy focused,
where they could, on bringing practical comfort to the
The nation was in mourning. The
excited, expectant spirit of 1914 had long vanished. By 1918, the
grim reality of trench warfare, and of industrialised slaughter,
and the ultimate purposelessness of the conflict were apparent.
Rudyard Kipling wrote:
If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers
Yet, understandably, the families of
the men whose shattered remains lay in distant graveyards found it
hard to think of their deaths as utterly valueless. If only the
Great War could be seen as the war to end all wars - a last crusade
- then their men had not died in vain.
So the first Remembrance Days became
both a focus of grief, and a national rededication to peace. Yet
there was a tension between these two intents: a rededication to
peace required the recollections of the horrors of war to remain
vivid. If the memories were too sanitised, future generations might
not get the message. On the other hand, to recall the conflict in
gory and senseless detail would bring no comfort to those in
The balance was found in ritual and
poetry. The rituals of wearing the Flanders poppy, of going to the
Cenotaph or a war memorial, and of placing a cross in the ground,
helped the survivors. The poetry was poignant and sentimental:
At the going down of the sun
and in the morning
We will remember them.
PUTTING its pastoral task first, the
Church made theological compromises. In the years after the First
World War, the local parson was often involved in planning,
erecting, and dedicating the war memorial. It brought comfort to
the bereaved to see the names of husbands and brothers etched in
stone. Yet the designs of the memorials often drew on mythology,
not Christianity, for the imagery: idealised soldiers; stylised
battle scenes; classical pillars; patriotic symbols.
When the Cenotaph was first designed,
by Sir Edward Lutyens, the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, was
asked when "the article known as the Cenotaph will be removed from
Whitehall; and whether a Christian design will be adopted in
national memorials for our fallen soldiers?"
Interestingly, the Cenotaph was
originally built as a temporary structure for a national victory
celebration. It was the public's response to it that recreated it
as a symbol of Remembrance.
Two minutes' silence was hastily added
to the Remembrance, or Armistice Day, programme in November 1919,
despite the misgivings of several politicians. So at least two of
the familiar acts of Remembrance which are now ingrained in British
culture were improvisations that were established by popular
Both politicians and the public
expressed a preference for the poets who evoked a sentimental and
sanitised image of war over the war poets of harsh truth. What
comfort would Wilfred Owen offer?
What passing-bells for these
who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of
THE peace agreement negotiated in 1919
created conditions in Europe which allowed Hitler to emerge. In the
1930s, some looked with alarm across the North Sea to Germany, and
noted how their Remembrance had been hijacked by Nazism.
In Germany in 1934, the day became a
commemoration of heroes, shifting from sorrowful recollection to
hero-worship - in particular, the glorification of those who had
died for the Fatherland in the First World War.
In Britain, in the '30s, there was
some disquiet at the military tone of Remembrance. Canon Dick
Sheppard's Peace Pledge Union offered a white poppy as an
alternative to the red poppy, in order to place greater emphasis on
the peace element. But the idea did not gain a wide following. By
and large, Remembrance, or Armistice Day, continued almost
unchanged until the Second World War.
No official Remembrance Day was held
during the Second World War. Cabinet papers reveal that in 1945 the
Home Office was lobbied by religious leaders - the Bishop of
Winchester representing the Church of England - calling for
Remembrance Day to be resumed, but as a combined day, to mark the
First and Second World Wars together.
Although there had been debate about
tactics, the Second World War had caused fewer moral qualms. Many
who had doubted that the first conflict met the criteria of a "just
war" were assured that the second had genuinely been fought to
Since 1945, British troops have been
employed in many smaller conflicts - sometimes as peacekeepers. At
other times, they have been committed by governments to
conflicts whose legality has occasionally been open to question.
Accordingly, Remembrance has shifted in emphasis.
TODAY, the Royal British Legion's
poppy appeal raises money to finance its welfare work, helping a
new generation of young people damaged by war. It emphasises its
links with serving troops, standing "shoulder to shoulder" with
The Legion also teaches young people,
through its educational programme, that Remembrance is about
gratitude to those who gave, and continue to give, their lives so
that "we might be free." This creates a new tension at
Remembrancetide. What if those troops currently risking their lives
are involved in conflicts that have nothing to do with freedom but
are politically or economically motivated?
Masking this debate is another one -
the way in which the wearing of the poppy has become a symbol of
patriotic pride. Politicians are accused of wearing their poppies
too ostentatiously. Television presenters who neglect to wear one
are, by implication, seen as disloyal. The Channel 4 broadcaster
Jon Snow said that being compelled to wear the emblem was a form of
And, while the Legion has a duty to
generate income, it is also the custodian of the dignity of
Remembrance. The questions have been raised how dignified it is to
launch the poppy appeal with a showbiz razzmatazz; and whether it
is right to sell poppy "souvenirs", such as jewellery or golf
umbrellas, or to sign deals with commercial companies to enable
them to link the poppy "brand"to their products.
As the annual poppy-fest moves further
and further away from its origins, it leaves clerics with difficult
choices. Making a parish church available to war veterans is one
thing; associating the Church with the ethos of the current poppy
appeal is another.
THERE is also a new cult of the hero
emerging in popular culture which deserves a serious critique. All
those damaged by war should be helped, but are all who don a
uniform necessarily "heroes"? War is intrinsically evil, and it
sanctions the crossing of ethical boundaries by service personnel.
Some go too far, and even British troops, under pressure, can
commit inexcusable deeds.
In this climate, perhaps the Church
might consider extending its pastoral approach. For veterans,
Remembrance is not just about recalling lost comrades: it is also
Many ex-servicemen admit that memories
of killing another human linger in the conscience longer than any
other memories of war. Some veterans are burdened through life with
unresolved guilt, and recollections of the consequences of their
mistakes. The tears in the eyes of veterans during the annual two
minutes' silence may not be for those whose names are etched on the
memorial, but for those whose names they never knew.
While exploring this pastoral
approach, the Church has to remain vigilant about the dangers of
allowing Remembrance to sanitise, trivialise, or glorify war.
Siegfried Sassoon wrote a savage poem,
in which he imagines the Prince of Darkness paying his respects at
the Cenotaph. He offers up his prayer:
Make them forget, O Lord, what
Means; their discredited ideas
Breed new belief that War is
Proof of the pride and power
of being alive.
It is also worth remembering that not
all ex-service personnel feel comfortable marching with their
medals on. As the service veteran and contemporary poet Bill Mitton
I watch these old men march
bereted and badged
as I was in years long gone.
Though I understand
and will honour their need.
I will never join them.
I need no marching or medals
to do honour to comrades dead
the metal would lie heavy
upon my ageing chest.
He wrote the poem after he had watched
young men carry the coffins of their comrades, and "once again I
feel the weight on my shoulders as I remember doing the self same
For the Church, Remembrance is a fine
balancing act. Circumstances have changed since the First World
War, but the Church's dual task remains essentially the same - to
offer pastoral care, and to preach the gospel of peace
simultaneously. It is one that inevitably implies
Ted Harrison is the author of
Remembrance Today: Grief and heroism, published by Reaktion
Books at £20 (CT
Bookshop £18); 978-1-78023-044-3.