THERE is no shortage of information on the centenary of the
First World War. A browse of websites reveals a busy calendar of
events. Resources for churches are similarly plentiful, ranging
from the Liturgical Commission's online resource pack to material
from the Quakers.
Planning a liturgy to mark the centenary, however, presents
dilemmas that are not resolved by accumulating ideas. We need first
to ask what we expect the liturgy to do.
In formulating a response, I am offering a way of thinking about
the process of commemoration by highlighting the dynamics of
liturgical celebration. Let us suppose that we have been asked to
plan an event for the local community at the war memorial.
The liturgy has always been the prime means by which the Church
tells the story of God's ways in the world. So, for example, the
reading of scripture locates the hearers in the story of the
community of faith, and eucharistic prayers recall and celebrate
the creating and saving work of God in history.
Choosing a storyline for a commemorative event is a tricky
business, not least because there are many to be told: the
political events leading to the outbreak of war, the impact of the
war, local involvement (such as names on a memorial), and the story
of our present-day commemoration. The challenge for organisers is
to identify andthen weave these stories into a tapestry.
A preface to a service order is the most natural place to give
an account of the gathering, discounting false storylines ("We are
not glorifying war") and articulating worthy storylines (such as
the courage of those who fought). This sifting of narratives leads
us to what is perhaps the most important decision of all, the
selection of Bible readings in the service. We need to decide what
scriptural narrative is to be retold in the context of a
IN ITS daily prayer, weekly Sunday gathering, and seasonal
calendar, the liturgy marks time. In so doing, it generates a
particular experience of time, and of its significance. In an essay
published in 1920, T. S. Eliot wrote about the need to cultivate a
proper historical sense, describing it as "a perception, not only
of the pastness of the past, but of its presence". Liturgy knits
our time with the events of salvation, and, in so doing, provides
us with a fullness of time.
This historical sense is most important for the language and
stance we take in a confession of sin, which any commemoration
would be hard-pressed to ignore. Acknowledging the distance between
ourselves and the events of 1914 is vital for an honest approach to
confession. For example, a confession that burdens us with the
moral responsibility for the wrongs that were done 100 years ago
wrongly positions us.
The "presence of the past", however, does need to be
acknowledged: the impact of the Great War on our national and local
life, the wounds that remain unattended, the cries for forgiveness
that remain unanswered. In the words of one example of confession,
at the heart of our prayer is a cry for God to "heal all memories,
speak a word of peace, and bring us his healing". In so doing,
events separated by years can lie side by side, imaginatively and
IT IS one of the central beliefs of Christianity that God is the
good Creator, and that the goodnessof creation is not ultimately to
be thwarted by tragedy. The sacramental dimensions of worship alert
us to this essential goodness of the created world; materials can
be set apart for holy use, bringing God's peace to a
shattered world. Water, bread, wine, and oil are blessed, and, in
so doing, become agents of blessing.
The rededication of a war memorial provides a
community with an act that has blessing at its heart. Lives are
remembered most particularly for being laid down in sacrificial
service. The memorial stands as a reminder that the qualities of
society that we most prize, such as the protection of the weak and
the promotion of peaceful relations, are invariably built on
selfless acts of service.
Alternative ways of marking the centenary can
similarly be included in blessing, such as the planting of a tree,
symbolising both memorial and fruitful hope; or the launch
of a project to recover the story of local events and
people during the war.
Intercession brings unredeemed life to God, seeking a
better way. It is an indispensable partner to blessing, because it
saves a commemoration from being overwhelmed by nostalgia.
Intercession, like blessing, is informed by a deep commitment to
the goodness of God's creation, but, instead, voices a protest at
the desecration of the world; it is saying to God: "This should not
be happening in your world."
The events of the First World War give us plenty of
material for reflection about how we might intercede for our
contemporary world. Events that appear out of control, ingrained
patterns of violence that need breaking, societies torn apart by
brooding resentment form the horizon of intercessory prayer - all
within the compass of the God who brings new life to barren
Like all ritual, liturgy is designed to foster
community. This is most obvious in the regular sharing of the
Particular bonds of community can be created at a
commemoration. So an event at a war memorial will bring into focus
our bonds with the dead: those who say to us, in words born of a
later 20th-century conflict: "For your tomorrow, we gave our
It also gathers together a community of which the
church is a part, a community that crosses generations and, in
some places, races, faiths, and nations. A communal pledge that
voices an intent to "live as good neighbours . . . and to live at
peace among ourselves and with all people" would be one way in
which liturgy could harness the desire to work together.
The Revd Dr James Steven is the Director of
Liturgy and Worship at Sarum College.