THE centenary commemorations of the First World War, which begin
this year, offer every parish church a unique opportunity to engage
with members of the community, young and old, in ways that perhaps
only parish churches can. We should seize the moment. If clergy and
congregations have not already thought about possibilities, there
Each of the next four years can provide a distinctive focus,
from the outbreak of war to the peace of Versailles, by way of
evocative campaigns and battles; we need only to set our
imaginations working. As an example, let me recount a project from
a church where I was once parish priest, and then offer a
suggestion for the future.
Our inner-city church had within it a war memorial. It was first
dedicated in the 1920s, and commemorated by name the (mainly) young
men of the parish who had lost their lives. A second and shorter
list of names was added after the Second World War. Many churches
have such memorials inside or outside the building.
The idea for the project began when the head of history at a
local secondary school asked whether she could bring pupils into
the church to look at the memorials. The pupils were studying the
First World War, and she wanted to make this more real through a
THAT was the starting point for a project that subsequently
involved a local history group, two subject areas at the school,
the church's uniformed organisations, the British Legion, members
of the congregation, and people in the parish.
We recruited the history group to research some of the names on
the 1914-18 memorial and to liaise with the school. They came back
with a wealth of information: who the men were, their occupations
before the war, their military history, their families, and how and
where they died. Many fell in a single campaign - the Somme, in
They found some family members still living locally, and soon
had sepia-coloured photos to put beside the names, many of which
were also found in the church's baptism records. There were
poignant stories of young lives lost.
Some descendants were interviewed, and a rich archive of
stories, photos, and memorabilia was built up. The history group
and the young people prepared an exhibition of what they had found,
which was displayed in church.
In addition, the school's art department was invited to produce
pictures and collages for display in church, reflecting on war
using themes suggested by the Stations of the Cross - betrayal,
cowardice, abuse of power, fear, love, the vocation of mothers,
cruelty, evil, hope - and more. This was probably the first time
that some students had engaged closely with the Passion story or
any New Testament text.
Activities culminated in the weeks before and after Remembrance
Sunday. Many young people made repeated visits to the church with
friends and family. The Remembrance Sunday service included a brief
account of the life and death of one of those named on the
memorial, and young people read lessons they thought
COMMEMORATING the First World War should not be left to
cathedrals, or involve only civic dignitaries and the armed forces.
Churches can respond in many ways: let me suggest one.
The Great War was hugely significant: it led to the collapse of
empires, and the re-drawing of boundaries. It changed the balance
of power between Europe and the United States. It contributed
towards the emancipation of women. It also led to soul-searching
about war, not least among Christians. Rediscovering something of
this history can help people to be more thoughtful about conflict
Memorials to the Great War illustrate one way in which our
predecessors made sense of it. On the whole, war was not glorified,
although the death of those who fought was understood as a
laying-down of life for the sake of others, in the way Jesus laid
down his. What was remembered after the war was sacrifice, not
victory; the national annual commemoration is held at a cenotaph,
not an Arc de Triomphe.
That interpretation helped people to deal with the pain of loss:
death was not a waste, but a sacrifice. This has remained the
language through which those who lose loved ones in today's
conflicts also find solace. There are few better ways of
understanding that emotion than singing and reflecting on the hymn
"O valiant hearts".
THIS was not, however, the only Christian reaction. Faith was
challenged by the Great War. Some lost their faith; others found it
again by understanding God's relationship to humanity differently.
The rough and, at times, raw rhymes of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy (a
decorated military chaplain who became a pacifist) capture this
change (Faith, 23 May). He thrust aside older traditions of the
impassibility of God - a God who remained above the suffering - and
found instead a "Comrade God" (the title of one of his poems): a
suffering God, a crucified God. Although it caused controversy at
the time, it was a theology that reshaped all subsequent Christian
In our day, young lives have again been shattered in conflict.
People are again thoughtful about war. A valuable service can be
performed by the parish church if it can help that reflection. It
can be done in the context of an exhibition or a service, if the
contrasting responses in the Christian community after the Great
War are held together: "O Valiant Hearts" and "The Comrade
In this way, the church finds and fulfils its vocation of
ministering even to those who are not present every week, and who
are not all of one opinion.
Canon Billings's book The Dove, the Fig Leaf and the
Sword: Why Christianity changes its mind about war, is
published by SPCK.