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Novel approach to First World War commemorations

07 March 2014


ON THE eve of the commemoration of the death of the Revd Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, the military chaplain better known as "Woodbine Willie", the Church of England's Liturgical Commission has published resources to help churches mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

Music, art, and literature, in addition to prayers and readings, make up the package, which includes material for use in a requiem eucharist, and an outline for a service beside a war memorial.

Among the novels and poetry suggested as sources for extracts are Pat Barker's Regeneration triology, and works by D. H. Lawrence, Sebastian Faulks, and Siegfried Sassoon.

"And did those feet in ancient time" and "I vow to thee my country" are included in the list of suggested hymns and songs. The Commission has also compiled a selection of music written during the First World War or deemed evocative of that period. It highlights poems from A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Housman, set to music.

Artists listed include Paul Nash, Jacob Epstein, and Stanley Spencer, whose creations for the Sandham Memorial Chapel were recently exhibited at Somerset House (Reviews, 17 January).

Prayers remember "those whose stories were unspoken and untold . . . those whose minds were darkened and disturbed by memories of war . . . those who suffered in silence, and those bodies were disfigured by injury and pain."

The chairman of the Commission, the Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Stephen Platten, said that the  package was "a mixture that is potent in trying to help people reach to the heart of God and, at the same time, reach to the heart of their humanity".

Bishop Platten suggested that the  Church of England had an "essential role" to play in commemorating the Great War: "Whether people like it or not, certainly in the First World War, it was the Church of England, still very much in an older sense the Established Church, that was the holder of the national conscience at that point. But we still retain a crucial role as the Church for all English people. I don't mean in an exclusive way. We are very happy to share that with other churches. But, ultimately, if people aren't identifying with any other tradition then we are assuming that they are within our care."

He spoke of the military chaplains that continue to serve in places of conflict, including Afghanistan which was "as nasty as anywhere that has been involved in a war". During the First World War, chaplains had done "heroic work. . . People often thought it was the posh dealing with the less posh, but quite often there was great respect shown in both directions."

In addition to local events, national services are planned, including a vigil service in Westminster Abbey on the evening of Monday 4 August, marking the 100th anniversary of Germany's declaration of war against Russia.

Woodbine Willie is remembered in the Anglican calendar on 8 March each year. He was an Anglican priest and poet who distributed cigarettes and spiritual succour to injured and dying soldiers during the First World War. In 1917, he was awarded the Military Cross at after entering No Man's Land to help the wounded. His citation noted: "His cheerfulness and endurance had a splendid effect upon all ranks in the front-line trenches, which he constantly visited."

The resource pack is available at http://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-worship/worship/latest-updates/world-war-one-liturgy.aspx

Andrew Studdert-Kennedy, Woodbine Willie's grandson, is in conversation at the Church Times Bloxham Festival on 31 May. Tickets and information: www.bloxhamfaithandliterature.co.uk


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