Questions of life
FORTY-FOUR years ago, I was approaching my first Remembrance Sunday as an ordained minister. It made very little impact, then, on the council estate parish in Peterborough where I was serving my title.
Shortly beforehand, I attended my first deanery chapter of clergy. I doubt whether too many priests remember, decades later, their first chapter meeting, but I vividly recall mine. It was not a cheerful gathering. There was a discussion about the future of Remembrance Sunday. All the senior clergy in the Peterborough Deanery Chapter in October 1975 agreed unanimously that it was in terminal decline. Attendances were falling.
They said that it was only the First World War veterans who were devoted to the commemorations, and they were dying off rapidly. Those who served in the Second World War seemed much less attached. How could Remembrance Sunday be brought to a seemly end? The clergy present all believed that it had outlived its usefulness.
The thought that, more than four decades on — and 100 years after the first Armistice Day, and the first keeping of a two-minute silence — Remembrance Sunday would draw some of the largest congregations of the year never occurred to anyone, me included. The deaths of those serving in our armed forces in many recent conflicts are one sobering reason for the change. In a society with fewer service families, there seems also a deepened appreciation of those who do risk life and limb for our nation. Perhaps people find value in Remembrance Sunday because it doesn’t have all the answers, and its rituals give them a chance to explore the most complex questions in life and death.
The memory of that first deanery chapter lingers. It has long convinced me that the clergy are no better placed than anyone else to predict the future patterns of religious observance in our country. Who knows what will surprise us a further four decades from now? What old way of being church will then become the freshest thing around?
LAST month, I baptised a child who was given the same name as an illustrious ancestor of his who had been born in 1510. The fact that there was an effigy of that distinguished forbear in the chapel where the baptism took place charged the whole occasion with a deep sense of continuity.
I realised that I knew surprisingly little of my own family history. The fact that my mother’s maiden name was the same as my father’s surname (two James families came together) seems to add to the challenges of investigation. I was puzzled, as a child, that my friends had grandparents called by a different name.
The television programme Who Do You Think You Are? always seems to discover exciting stories in the family history of celebrities, although I’m told that some programmes never get made since the story is just too dull. I doubt that there’s any family history without some colour in it, though it may be unrecoverable.
My forebears include tin-miners, market gardeners, and at least one sailor, as well as publicans and tradesmen. Their life experience isn’t likely to be written down anywhere, though I’ll bet it was rich. They are hidden contributors to what has made me the person I am.
At that baptism last month, it wasn’t just family history that was important, but the fact that the Church of God exists across space and time, and we are all linked one to another. Everyone’s sense of what we owed to previous generations was tangible.
Pas la recherche
FIFTY years ago, I was in my first term at university. The University of Lancaster was then in its infancy. It’s grown a lot since.
Some friends have been in touch, since a weekend reunion is planned on the campus — much of which wasn’t even there in 1969. I cannot go, and I’ve been wondering why I anyway feel a bit ambivalent about it. I’m keen on remembrance of all kinds — “do this in remembrance of me” has been an almost daily reality in my life for five decades — but trying to recapture the past is frequently a disappointment.
Even so, there is something to be cherished in lifelong friendships. My closest friend from my early teenage years has kept in touch. We met recently, and what’s intriguing is that, even though we’ve sometimes gone as much as a decade without seeing each other, our friendship is contemporary rather than locked into the distant experience of our schooldays.
Perhaps that’s also a clue to why Remembrance Sunday works. While its origins lie in two world wars, it isn’t in any way limited to them.
I’VE BEEN enjoying Tom Holland’s latest book, Dominion (Little, Brown) (Books, 13 September; Features, 27 September). It’s a rattling good read, and the range of his knowledge is breathtaking. He illustrates how much the secular Western mind owes to Christianity and past generations of Christian thinking. It must be irritating for humanists to be told that their ability to question doctrine or identify hypocrisy — and even to disbelieve entirely — is a legacy of the way in which Christians have always interrogated and reformed their own religion.
It seems obvious that liberal secular values did not come from nowhere; but Dominion has made me realise just how much the thinking of our age is still so deeply rooted in all that’s gone before. Acknowledging that should help to keep us humble. Perhaps that’s why remembrance must never be allowed to fall out of fashion.
The Rt Revd Graham James was Bishop of Norwich from 1999 to 2019.