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At thy right hand stands the Queen

14 November 2014

Taking pot-shots at religious ceremonies is not good enough, says Paul Vallely

WE SHOULD strip the Remembrance Service at the Cenotaph of all its religious aspects in order to make it more inclusive and "relevant", the British Humanist Association announced as its contribution to the national tribute to the fallen last weekend. This seems to me a bad idea, even for those who do not believe in God.

There is clearly something that the British value in established religion even when they are not churchgoers. The recent funeral of the murdered schoolgirl Alice Gross was conducted by a humanist celebrant. And yet such events are still rare enough for the media to feel the need to remark upon them. Far more typical was the funeral of the murdered taxi-driver aid worker Alan Hennings, when locals packed the parish church announcing that they did not normally attend church but wanted to be there that day. Local disasters very often provoke exactly this reaction.

The British Humanist Association's chief executive, Andrew Copson, at first suggested that prayers should be replaced by "reflections" from democratically elected leaders. Then, realising that this meant that a Prime Minister who had sent troops off to die would be given a public platform for self-justification, he switched to arguing that the Bishop of London should be replaced by "commentators, thinkers, people who have thought about the ethical content of war".

But there is much more needed than reflection. There is an emotional and psychological complexity in our prayers for the fallen which honour, lament, regret, and show a purpose of amendment all at once. There is consolation in the collective, as well as a commitment to try again, and to try harder next time.

Remembrance is more than remembering. It is rooted in the institution of the eucharist and Jesus's words "Do this in remembrance of me." The New Testament Greek for the word Jesus used is one that means far more than recalling the past. It is about how we make a person from the past mystically alive to us in the present. Time stops momentarily, and "then" and "now" become the same.

There can be secular equivalents of this sacramentality. Those who flocked to the Tower of London to see the moat full of poppies intuitively understood that. Each poppy represented a member of service personnel who had been killed, and in doing so brought the person behind the flower back into our present. But the breadth of the wider function of prayer is harder to replicate in some secular equivalent.

Atheist commemoration must also wrestle with the problem of accountability. Our tradition is rooted in the notion that even the Sovereign is answerable to God. You can get rid of monarch and deity, but you are left with the conundrum of to whom, or to what, the Government or the State is accountable.

Democracy is not a sufficient answer. Democracies, as history shows, can become dictatorships of the majority. There is in the commemoration of the fallen an element of dedication to a wider good and a more noble aspiration. Secular atheists must offer an alternative as rich. Sniping at religion is not enough.

Paul Vallely is author of Pope Francis: Untying the knots.

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