What I said on Sunday

Here’s my sermon preached at our Remembrance Service.

On Thursday 31st August, 2006, the BBC released an unexpected piece on news on its website. Peter Jackson, the director of the Lord of the Rings films and King Kong, was intending to make a new film. In fact, a remake of a film first made in 1955. Jackson says he first saw the film as a child and “really loved it”.

“There’s that wonderful mentality of the British during the war – that heads-down, persevering, keep-on-plugging-away mentality which is the spirit of Dambusters,” he said. For that, of course, is the film in question. The film is based on the true story of the raids on the dams in the Ruhr Valley in Germany in 1943, and will have a script written by Stephen Fry and has as executive producer Sir David Frost. Filming was due to begin, said Jackson, in 2007. As things stand, I gather filming hasn’t yet started – it will probably now be 2011.  By the time the film is released the length of the production process will have been as long as the war itself. Amazing, isn’t it, that it can take so long to produce a film of a historical event.

The original film, of course, has achieved almost iconic status in this country. It’s scenes of the Lancasters flying in along over the reservoirs, the pilots having to aim carefully as they lined up their bomb sights with the turrets on the dams before releasing the now famous bouncing bombs, was copied almost exactly for the final scenes of the attack on the Death Star in the original Star Wars film. Just as iconic is the famous Dambusters March, written by the composer Eric Coates, also famous for writing the theme tune to “Desert Island Discs”. Instantly recognisable, it’s even sung at England football matches. But it was over 65 years ago – so one cannot but wonder why Peter Jackson wants to make another film about the event.

Well, perhaps an answer is given to us by another piece of film – this time from the BBC. Last weekend the BBC show a programme called “The First World War from Above”. What was significant about this film was that it showed recently discovered footage of the devastation Western Front shot from the air in 1919, as well as aerial photographs taken by pilots during the war. You can see the sheer devastation that resulted from the trench warfare of the First World War. Towns and villages completely devastated. Today, of course, that devastation is gone. The countryside has recovered and former places of conflict have been built over, and except where parts of the trench system have been preserved, you probably wouldn’t notice today anything to show that such dreadful conflict and loss of life had taken place. Until you look from the air. And you can see the massive shell-holes left where the British exploded mines beneath the enemy lines. The scars of war still clearly visible. The film was shot from an airship piloted by a frenchman, Jacques Trolley de Prévaux, and he is seen in the film. At the end of the programme his daughter is shown the newly discovered film for the first time. She has never seen her father. He and his wife were shot as spies by the Germans in the Second World War shortly after she was born in 1943. The scene where she sees him, in this film shot at the end of the First World War, is quite moving. And it reminds you that the effects, the scars, of war, are still felt nearly a hundred years later.

I remember that, even though my primary school years were around 20 years after the end of the Second World War it stilled seemed so close – its shadow still hanging over the world in which I grew up.  But the First World War still affected the lives of those we knew. There were still thousands around who had fought in the Great War – I remember my grandfather proudly showing me a photograph I still have – of him in the uniform of the 1st Royal Dragoons, sitting on his horse after he joined up at the beginning of the war. And yet, other than that, he never said a word about his experiences – and he wasn’t one to keep quiet about the past. He was my grandmother’s second husband. They were married in 1919, her first husband having died in the war. She never spoke about that – I only found out when researching my family tree. There’s a part of my grandparent’s lives that is closed to me because they couldn’t talk about it – and sometimes even now I wonder about what they experienced, and how it affected them throughout their lives. Were they different people because of what they had gone through? So, though the First World War may have been over years before I was born, it is still relevant to me today. The scars of war last long after the events themselves have passed.

Which brings me back to the Dambusters. I can still remember vividly the excitement surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Royal Air Force, founded originally, of course, as the Royal Flying Corps during the Great War. My local cinema, caught up in the celebrations, showed a special double bill that we all eagerly went to see. The two films showing were “Reach for the Sky”, the story of Douglas Bader, and “The Dambusters”, Guy Gibson who led the Dambusters raid was awarded the Victoria Cross, and he wrote a book about it and his time with 617 Squadron called “Enemy Coast Ahead”, a book I read as a teenager. It was republished a few years ago but retitled: Enemy Coast Ahead – Uncensored. It seems that when Gibson first wrote the book it was heavily censored by the authorities. Gibson never survived the war – he was shot down and killed in 1944 – and his book was never published with the full story as he wrote it. Only now, we are told on the back cover, can the full story be told. Peter Jackson has said that he intends, in the new film, to tell the full story. Even when the original film was made much was still classified – even the shape of the bombs was changed for the film.

In a way, Gibson’s original story – with all the bits missing as a result of the censor’s black pen – reflected the experience of so many caught up in war. There is so much that people have experienced, lived through, suffered – and yet like my grandparents it is simply not possible to talk about or share with others. Things experienced in combat or at home, at the front or in hospital, losses of family members, friends and comrades. Experiences often too difficult to put into words. Many of those who fought in the trenches in the Great War were never able to talk about their experiences when they came home – they were just too dreadful. Everyone who is caught up in war – whether combatant or civilian – has their own story to tell, and often a story that – just to cope – has to be censored. In Gibson’s republished book, and in Peter Jackson’s remade film, the full story can be told. And yet for ordinary people caught up in war, for their families, for their descendants, the full story may never be told, or is still only unfolding as in the case of the aerial film made by Jacques Trolley de Prévaux – and the scars of war continue to affect us.

So, today we remember. Because difficult though past experiences may be, by coming together each year as a nation we can remember together. We come together to honour the memory of those who never returned and who still do not return, and share with those who mourn them. We pray for and with those who still have difficult and painful memories. And we can join together in pledging ourselves to work for a better world, a better present and a better future for everyone – a world where peace reigns and war becomes a distant memory.

We remember too that British Forces are still called upon to engage in combat – families across the country today, as well as in other countries, anxiously watch for news, worried that it is their son or daughter who won’t be coming home. And just as the full stories of those in our own lives – our parents, our grandparents, our brothers and sisters, our friends – may never be told, so we are conscious that the same is true of those involved in war and conflict today. Even when peace comes, the effects change people’s lives – and the lives of those around them – with the scars of war reaching out into the future for years to come.

This is why remembering is not just about looking back – and thinking of the present – it spurs us on to look forward too, to look forward and to ask ourselves what contribution we might make to the future. To ask ourselves what we can do to make our world a better place. To ask – in 20, 50, 100 years time how will we be remembered – will our children and their children still have to deal with the scars of war or enjoy a world of peace? To ask ourselves what we can do to help and support our armed forces and their families – no matter what our own individual beliefs about the rights or wrongs of any particular conflict.

The Christian message is that God sent his son Jesus, the Prince of Peace, to bring the good news of salvation to a world that is in so much need. We all still need to hear that message, to know the love and peace that only Jesus can give in our own lives, and to share that love and peace will all around us. So, as today we remember, as we offer prayers and thanksgivings for all those – combatants and civilians – who have given their lives in war, as we honour the memory of all who have given and still give their lives to protect our way of life, we commit ourselves anew to the service of God and humanity. And we pray that God will use us to bring the peace to our world for which so many in all kinds of ways have striven, and for which so many have sacrificed their lives.