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08 November 2019

AT THE risk of seeming like an extension of the 100 Years Ago column below, here is how the Church Times described the first Armistice Day in 1919: “The manner of observing the anniversary of Armistice Day with a silence of two minutes which was kept throughout the length and breadth of the Empire, was without a parallel in the world’s history. . . Probably in no two minutes since the world began were so many and so fervent prayers for the dead uttered by men’s hearts and lips.” After the deafening thunder of the war in France, the noise of which reached the south coast of England, the choice of silence to remember the millions whose lives had been lost was inspired. To this day, it has been supplanted only by its sister emblem, the red poppy. At 11 o’clock on Sunday morning, at the start or in the midst of Remembrance Sunday services, and again the next day, Remembrance Day itself, silence will be kept in schools, offices, even some shopping centres. Contrary to the predictions of weary clergy in 1975 (recounted in Bishop Graham James’s Diary), the commemoration continues to have meaning. It now covers those killed in all conflicts and, without any formal planning, has acted to extend All Souls’ Day into a super-octave of mourning, at least for those not wholly distracted by the commercialisation of All Hallows’ Eve.

In 1919, our predecessor went on to speak of the “wonderful unanimity of Armistice Day”: “What strikes us as so amazing is that at one moment the nation yields to one common emotion, and at another is torn with conflicting passions and social animosities.” The same sentiments could be expressed now. This weekend’s ceremonies, which will include the appearance of all the party leaders at the Cenotaph in Whitehall, coming shortly after the good-humoured scenes in the Commons on Monday when a new Speaker was chosen, provide small reminders of how politics might once again be conducted. The recollection of bloody world conflicts puts current differences into a true perspective — but also serves as a warning of what can happen when international bonds are neglected.

The same issue of the Church Times noted that nearly 3000 men “of all ranks” had put themselves forward for ordination to the priesthood. After remarking on the cost of training such a cohort (£600,000, or more than £30 million at today’s value), and assuming, with some accuracy, that a proportion of these would withdraw, the paper considered that “the enlistment of ex-service men, with their late wonderful experiences, is likely to strengthen greatly the personnel of the English priesthood. They would come to the cure of souls with a first-hand knowledge of every type of man and of the standards of thinking and living which prevail in the various classes of society.” Complaints can still be made about the representativeness of the clergy. But if that was progress in 1919, the Church has come far.

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