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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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