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Liturgy of lamps going out

04 July 2014

James Hawkey reflects on the Westminster Abbey vigil next month

picture partnership/andrew dunsmore

Into darkness: the Grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey

Into darkness: the Grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey

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 Europe."

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 declared.

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 that darkness.

The Revd Dr James Hawkey is Precentor of Westminster Abbey.

Resources for services to mark the centenary of the First World War are available at www.westminster-abbey.org/worship/first-world-war-vigil-liturgy.

Forthcoming Events

15 May 2021
Send My Roots Rain: a poetry retreat
With Pádraig Ó Tuama, Malcolm Guite, Rachel Mann and others.

18 May 2021
Lift Up Your Voices, Lift Up Your Hearts
Speakers include John Bell, Noel Tredinnick and Helen Bent.

More events

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