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Memories of war and dissent

07 November 2014

The church historian Alan Wilkinson recalls the influences of growing up in a staunchly pacifist household


I HAVE written four books that could be said to contain a common theme. Two of them were on the Church and the wars, and the others were a centenary history of the Community of the Resurrrection (1992) and a study of Christian Socialism (1998).

The link is the title of my second book, Dissent or Conform (1986, 2010). I have been asking: "What is distinctive about the Church? How and why should it resist pressures to conform to the norms of society around it?"

It is easy for some Christians to become uncreative dissenters, who criticise those in power, but who have no experience of exercising power, and neither the wish nor the ability to do so.

By contrast, creative dissenters know what it is to exercise power, what compromises and patient negotiations are needed to produce change, and where the levers of power are to be found. They are ready to be critical of political policies and social mores in order to be true to the subversive character of Jeremiah, the Magnificat, Jesus crucified outside the gate.

This common theme comes from my childhood. As a (Primitive) Methodist minister and pacifist, my father felt marginal to society. He was torn throughout his life. On the one hand, he saw Jesus as an outsider, from manger to cross. But he felt drawn to art, literature, history, and certain aspects of the Church of England.

Nonconformists were divided about the First World War. The majority passionately longed to demonstrate their patriotism. They had long thought of themselves as suffering from the big, bullying Church of England; so they naturally identified themselves with "little Belgium". Others asked simply: "How could I possibly ask Jesus to help me fire a gun?"

IN THE 1930s, my father organised written protests by his chapel people against rearmament. Even more vividly, I recall the song we sang in the school playground in 1936: "Hark the herald angels sing, Mrs Simpson's pinched our King."

My father continued to have unlimited faith in Neville Chamberlain; so, at the beginning of August 1939, we confidently went on a month's holiday to west Wales. There were newly built concrete pillboxes along the coast, but we had neither radio nor newspapers.

On Friday 1 September, we visited Cardigan and heard that Germany had invaded Poland. A loudspeaker outside instructed us how to prepare for air raids. We packed the car and headed home, where my mother and sister made blackout curtains.

On Sunday morning, a chapel steward stayed at home to listen to the Prime Minister's broadcast. I can still see him stealing up the pulpit steps to tell my father that war had been declared.

A few Sundays later, at Harvest Festival, my father preached on "Whatsoever a man sows, that shall he reap." He blamed the war almost entirely on the Allies' treatment of Germany after the First World War, and called Hitler "the son of Clemenceau".

The villagers were infuriated by the sermon. Our gate was taken off its hinges, and a patriotic cartoon was pinned to it. My father seemed indifferent, but I never heard him preach another pacifist sermon.

HE COULD not escape small ethical dilemmas in everyday life. I always took sixpence a week to school for National Savings. When we had special war-savings campaigns, other boys would arrive with £1 or £2, but all I could offer was my usual sixpence.

I first became aware of the First World War in the early 1940s, when we lived in Scarborough. A First World War army captain came to occupy our spare bedroom. During raids, when we huddled under the stairs, he paced his bedroom in terror.

My father did not persuade any of his three children to become pacifists. But he made me critical of unquestioning patriotism. I had no problem in doing my two years' National Service with the Royal Air Force. Later, I read and admired Reinhold Niebuhr, who made me think more deeply about political ethics.

The First World War began to have a huge impact on me in the 1960s. I remember my first Remembrance Sunday in my country parish. I had never seen those ex- servicemen in church before, but I had already been moved by conversations with them about their war experiences.

In church, they sat in rows, in their best suits, their medals clink-ing against the pew in front as they crouched to pray: bringing all that baffling mass of experiences to God.

In the 1960s, the nation rediscovered the First World War, 50 years after its outbreak. The poetry of Wilfred Owen appeared for the first time in the A-level syllabus. In 1962, Benjamin Britten combined poetry by Owen with the Latin liturgy in his War Requiem for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral.

The musical satire Oh! What a Lovely War, in 1963, fed the anti-war mood, expressed in CND and the Aldermaston marches. That satire fixed in many people's minds the belief that the First World War was "futile"; a tragedy of "lions led by donkeys". The 26 episodes of the BBC series The Great War in 1964-65 seemed to convey a similar message. Since the 1980s, revisionist historians have challenged this.

The Falklands War, in 1982, showed how enduring was the imagery and patriotism of the First World War. The Sun reprinted Rupert Brooke's poem "If I should die", and Margaret Thatcher chose the 1919 hymn "O valiant hearts" for Songs of Praise.

By contrast, Archbishop Runcie, in his sermon at the Falklands Service, said: "War has always been detestable . . . a sign of human failure." Although he had been decorated for bravery in 1945, his sermon was denounced by some on the Right. "The Boss was livid," Denis Thatcher reported after the service.

THE centenary of the outbreak of the First World War forces us to ask many questions. Professor Christopher Clark entitled his recent reassessment The Sleepwalkers. He shows how the nations stumbled into war. Although all the antagonists shared responsibility in different degrees, it was Germany that invaded Belgium and France, fulfilling plans dating back to 1905. If Germany had won, it might have extinguished freedom on both sides of the Channel.

The myth that the First World War was uniquely horrible still endures. In fact, the Second World War was much worse: more than three times as many were killed; and it included obliteration bombing, the Holocaust, Stalingrad, and the atomic bomb.

If the First World War had ended with the harmonious incorporation of a peaceful Germany into a prosperous Europe, people would have celebrated that war as we do the main outcomes of the Second World War. But, whatever happened, we must not forget the human cost.

The Unknown Warrior buried in Westminster Abbey in 1920 was deliberately anonymous. Someone wrote: "We were burying every boy's father, and every woman's lover, and every mother's child."

Canon Alan Wilkinson is the author of The Church of England and the First World War (Lutterworth, 2014).

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