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
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
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
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
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
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).