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Acknowledging the presence of the past

04 July 2014

James Steven looks at issues that arise in compiling centenary services locally

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 commemoration.

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 emotionally.

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 places.

Like all ritual, liturgy is designed to foster community. This is most obvious in the regular sharing of the Peace.

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 today."

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.


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