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When the nation needs a shared sense of sacrifice

by
26 September 2014

War memorials have been made more Christian, but this has blurred distinctions between faith and patriotism, says John Wolffe

IN THE aftermath of the First World War, the familiar national conventions for commemorating those who had died took their current form. Initial plans for these had reflected a primarily secular nationalism, but they acquired a more Christian tone as a result of interventions by church leaders. The long-term legacy, however, has been an abiding confusion between the Christian and the national.

Few people nowadays would feel comfortable with the assertion of the then Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, that the war dead were "martyrs, as really as St Stephen was a martyr".

Nevertheless, the circumstances surrounding the creation of the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission and the burial of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey merged Christian and patriotic inspiration to produce an abiding confusion between death for one's faith and death in the service of the nation. This is encapsulated in the familiar phrase on many war memorials: "For God, for King and Country".


LOCAL war memorials are enormously diverse: some are entirely secular, with perhaps a figure of a soldier, and an inscription with no Christian reference; others, especially in churches and churchyards, have an explicitly Christian character, which might be expressed in an inscription that includes biblical texts, or in a crucifixion image. In between is a wide spectrum of sub-Christian religiosity.

National memorials, however, had to reflect a national consensus if they were to achieve the desired healing purpose rather than become a source of fresh division.

The initial instincts of many of the planners favoured a secular approach, in the hope of avoiding religious controversy. Thus the architect Edwin Lutyens conceived the stone of remembrance, which was to form the centrepiece of all the war cemeteries, as a symbol that was religiously neutral. The Churches, however, lobbied successfully for a more explicitly Christian symbol, with the consequence that the cemeteries all also include the "Cross of Sacrifice" with its - to present-day eyes - disconcerting linking of the central Christian symbol to the sword contained within it.

A similar process occurred in the arrangements for the Unknown Warrior's burial. The Government initially envisaged an entirely secular ceremony to mark the completion of the Cenotaph, but churchmen - led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, and the Dean of Westminster, Herbert Ryle - put forward the Unknown Warrior proposal with an accompanying funeral service in Westminster Abbey.

Again, they were successful in asserting the Christian dimension of national mourning, but at the price of confirming the blurring of faith and patriotism.


THE long-term implications are with us still, especially as the Church seeks to find an appropriate language to mark more recent conflicts.

In 1982, the Falklands commemoration service in St Paul's Cathedral exposed a sharp divergence between the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, on the one hand, and, on the other, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, and the Dean of St Paul's, Alan Webster.

Whereas Mrs Thatcher reportedly wanted a triumphalist celebration of victory, Dean Webster and Archbishop Runcie designed a service that gave prominence to pacifist and ecumenical perspectives.

In his sermon, the Archbishop denounced nationalism as a "most dangerous . . . God substitute". A Conservative MP, Sir John Biggs-Davison, wrote to The Times to complain that "It was revolting for cringeing clergy to misuse St Paul's to throw doubt upon the sacrifices of our fighting men."

Churchmen in the 1980s might have wanted to distance themselves from a militaristic nationalism that uncritically sacralised deaths in war, but they could not easily escape the expectations aroused by their predecessors.

More recently, it is sobering that the tendency of radical Muslims to see no disjunction between their faith and political and nationalistic causes is something of a mirror-image of similar historic tendencies in Christianity.

In this context, the perception among many Muslims that they need to defend themselves against neo-Crusading tendencies in Christianity is understandable.

Some younger British Muslims perceive national commemoration of past conflicts as irrelevant to them, and dwell rather on the sufferings of the ummah, the international community of Muslims that they see as oppressed in Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

Hence it is particularly important in commemorating the First World War to emphasise the substantial numbers of casualties who were Muslims, Jews, or adherents of other faiths. Such recognition was very much on the early agenda of the Imperial War Graves Commission.


MY OWN ongoing research on present-day attitudes* suggests that most Christians in the UK are now cautious about using the language of martyrdom and sacrifice, even in a religious context, and certainly in a political or national one.

In the view of most here, true martyrs are rare individuals of integrity and religious conviction, who have suffered because of their commitment to peace and justice. Examples given include Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King.

There is, nevertheless, a consensus that the centenary of the First World War should be marked in a spirit of learning the lessons of history; of mourning the loss of so many lives; and of seeking continuing reconciliation rather than the glorification of patriotic sacrifice.

An alternative approach was suggested as early as 1927 by the magnificent Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle, which highlights a secular view of war, for example in the bronze frieze that depicts a procession of soldiers and sailors, but draws on Christian imagery of resurrection and apocalypse to point to the ultimate triumph of peace rather than of the nation.

Herein, perhaps, lies inspiration for all the peoples of the United Kingdom - Christian, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh - to develop a shared language of commemoration that recognises the historic sacrifices of all their communities.

John Wolffe is Professor of Religious History at the Open University and a Research Councils UK Global Uncertainties Leadership Fellow.

Some of these themes will be explored in a symposium at Westminster Abbey on Saturday 4 October: for information visit www.scotthollandtrust.org.uk/. For other events in the Abbey Institute's Going to War programme, visit www.westminster-abbey.org/institute.

*www.open.ac.uk/arts/research/religion-martyrdom-global-uncertainties/

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