What I said this Sunday – Remembrance Day

Big service as always – well over three hundred in church. And here’s what I said.

This year saw an important seventieth anniversary. Yes – seventy years ago, this year, the BBC broadcast the very first episode of Desert Island Discs. It’s possible that some of you remember it, though most of us don’t. The guest, on that very first edition, introduced by Roy Plomley, was none other than Vic Oliver.

I can see a lot of blank faces. No, I have no idea who Vic Oliver was either, though I’m sure some of you will remember him. In fact it’s not until the tenth episode of Desert Island Discs that there’s a guest I’ve actually heard of – Arthur Askey. For those of you who don’t know, Vic Oliver was an actor, radio comedian and conductor and – given his popularity and the fact he was Jewish – was listed on a Nazi blacklist of people to be arrested and killed immediately upon a successful invasion of Britain. A salutary reminder of why we were at war with Hitler’s Germany. Some of you remember him – others of us need to be told.

Seventy years ago – 1942. Halfway through a conflict that engulfed the whole world, though at that point it must have seemed never-ending. And back to the BBC. Imagine it’s the end of the year, and imagine that BBC Television – if they had actually been broadcasting, which they weren’t, and you’d had a television, which you almost certainly hadn’t – imagine that BBC Television had been broadcasting their News Review of the year, something that these days we are so used to. What would we have learned about the year’s events in addition to the beginning of Desert Island Discs? Well, the war of course, dominated the headlines – and we would have been reminded not just that many combatants had died, but that so many innocents perished too. Just a few of the main news headlines from the BBC News Review 1942, reminding us of just how awful it was.

  • 1942 saw the last German air raid on Liverpool destroy the home of none other than William Hitler, the nephew of Adolph Hitler. William Hitler actually joined the United States Navy to fight against his uncle.
  • Three years into the war, the first US troops finally arrive in the UK.
  • 2,300 allied sailors die in the Battle of the Java Sea. The year also sees the first and second Battles of El Alamein, and the capture of Tobruk by British forces.
  • The German extermination camp at Treblinka is opened in Poland. Over the next year over 850,000 people die there.
  • In response to the killing of a Nazi official the Gestapo massacres 173 male residents of the Czech village of Lidice.
  • Malta is awarded the George Cross by King George VI, who said “To honour her brave people I award the George Cross to the Island Fortress of Malta, to bear witness to a heroism and a devotion that will long be famous in history.”

Other news:

  • Anne Frank, on her 13th birthday, makes the first entry in her diary.
  • Princess Elizabeth registers for war service.
  • There is a new Archbishop of Canterbury – William Temple.

And in the lighter side of the news this year, along with the first broadcast of Desert Island Discs.:

  • Walt Disney’s new animated film “Bambi” is released and has its world premiere in the UK.

I began with Vic Oliver – some of you remember him, most of us don’t. Much about the war is the same. For some of you there’s no need to remind you of the news headlines of 1942 – you remember them, all too well. Events 70 years in the past that may seem all too clear still today. Others of us had our childhood years in the fifties and sixties, and our parents still talked about the war. For some of us, these are events 70 years in the past that are things we learn about in history at school. Some of us today remember all too well, others of us need to be told of those memories.

And yet, whether we were there or not we gather together today to remember. To remember those from our family, or our friends, whose lives were changed or ended by war. To remember years of war and strife that we were involved in, or that our parents, our grandparents were involved in. Wars near and far – just across the channel or around the other side of the world. And as if we needed reminding of the awfulness of war we are still faced with headlines today from around the world, and we still see our forces coming face to face with death every day. When we see the BBC News Review at the end of this year, war and suffering will play a major part in the headlines. We come together to remember – and in some cases come face to face with painful memories. So why do we do it?

Remembrance Day began, of course, after the Great War – so many millions had died and so many suffered that people recognised the need for an annual national act of remembrance. And here we are, nearly a century later, still remembering. Because Remembrance is not just about looking back, it’s about the present. We associate Remembrance Day primarily with the two World Wars – and it all seems so much further away these days, especially to those of us who are too young to have any memory of those dark and dreadful days.

And yet the importance of remembering is just as strong, and just as necessary. Earlier this year the Queen unveiled the new Bomber Command memorial in Green Park, a memorial to the over 55,000 men who died during the Second World War. 6,000 veterans and families of those who died were there to remember. I’ve always wondered why Caterham Valley doesn’t have its own public war memorial, to help us all remember as we go about our daily lives, and to help us honour those who have served and who still serve. Perhaps, as a community, we are called to rectify that even now.

For we are only too aware that British Forces are still called upon to engage in combat. They are deployed around the world – most notably of course in Afghanistan but also in many other places – sometimes representing British interests, but often these days involved in peace-keeping activities. We still live in a world where sometimes conflict becomes inevitable and that, work as we must for peace, sometimes that peace can only be achieved through military action. Peace and freedom, justice and democracy, are not always achieved easily or defended easily. And so we come together today to remember those who, in our struggle to defend those values in our own country and in other countries, have been called upon risk so much, and sometimes to give their lives. We remember because all of us here today enjoy the relative freedom and peace that we have as a result of people in the past (and in the present) who have been prepared to risk, and sometimes give, their lives for their country.

But, of course, remembering is not just about looking back – and thinking of the present – it’s about looking forward too. It’s about using our experience of the past, our memories of the pain and the hurt we ourselves may have experienced, our sense of loss because friends and relatives never came home, to spur us on to create a better world for our children – a world where people can live at peace with one another, a world where people can live in freedom – freedom not just from war, but from hunger, from disease, from oppression – freedom to be the people God created them to be. We owe it to those who never came home not just to remember them, but to help create the peace and the freedom for which they fought and died. That is why a part of our remembrance service each year is about pledging ourselves to work together for a world that we all want to live in – a world where everyone can live in peace, knowing justice, and freed from suffering.

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 ask God to be with those who serve today, 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.