We do not often commemorate the outbreak of a war. Even at
Westminster Abbey, where the marking of memories and anniversaries
takes on a liturgical character, it is unusual to focus so much on
the beginning of a conflict.
We can struggle to find what to say as we mark the beginning of
any war without resorting to sound-bites, blame, or circling the
philosophically problematic question whether a subsequent
generation can genuinely apologise for the actions of previous
generations. What is clear is that this "Winter of the world", as
Wilfred Owen put it, which closed in with such "perishing great
darkness" in August 1914 demands time for careful, patient, and
prayerful theological reflection.
On the evening of 4 August, precisely 100 years after the
outbreak of the Great War, Westminster Abbey will hold an elongated
moment of solemn reflection - a vigil, in which we metaphorically
press the "pause" button on those moments just before Britain
declared war on Germany.
The vigil will be televised live on BBC. Over the course of the
hour from 10 to 11 p.m., the light will fall away, and people's
candles will be extinguished, echoing the famous comment attributed
to Sir Edward Grey, as he looked out from his window in the Foreign
Office over St James's Park, that "the lamps are going out all over
Etymologically, the concept of "vigil" encourages us to stay
awake as the light falls away - to watch, and not to flee as we
mark that last hour of peace, conscious with the benefit of
hindsight of the alarming enormity of the looming mechanised
slaughter of the next four years.
We need to be honest about the horror of all this, without
rushing to adopt particular narratives or apportion blame. Rather,
our penitence will be for the human frailty that leads to
inexorable cycles of violence, feeds our need to find scapegoats,
and rushes to sort out disagreements by annihilating the other.
We hope that churches and other faith and community groups will
join us in this reflection, and make use of some of the resources
on the Abbey website.
Even the most fleeting glance at contemporary material from
August and September 1914 reveals varied and complex emotions.
Alongside the real fear of carnage - and the ominous realisation
that they were standing on the brink of something from which it
would be very hard to pull back - stood confidence, hope,
camaraderie, bravado, naïvety, and humour.
The vigil will try to capture something of this complex picture,
holding it all before God in prayer and stillness, with music and
readings. It hinges around pairings of scripture and poetry from
1914, carefully chosen in a way that potentially allows one to
illuminate the other, and open up the depth of each text.
At the heart of our planning has been the belief that we have
the resources deep within the Christian story to deal with the
complex realities of false hope, betrayal, broken bodies, and
communities, and of a sacrificial love and commitment that is
ultimately stronger than death.
Throughout the vigil, the lights will fall away from the east
end of the abbey, until we reach the Grave of the Unknown Warrior,
where one remaining flame will burn. At 11 p.m., this single lamp
will be extinguished, as we mark the moment at which war was
This commemoration is not a premature marking of armistice,nor a
rush to tie up the loose ends. We must resist the temptation toget
ahead of ourselves. In a society that frequently suffers from
collective amnesia, how we remember is closely linked to
why we remember.
Moving from light to darkness might appear counterintuitive to
some Christians - we are more used to it the other way round - but
this is an opportunity to recall, at the beginning of these four
years, this fundamental theological truth: that, for God, even the
darkness"is no darkness with thee" (Psalm 139.11), and that the
light of the crucified Christ shines most intensely at the heart of
The Revd Dr James Hawkey is Precentor of Westminster
Resources for services to mark the centenary of the First
World War are available at