Today is, of course, the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War. As always the church was full for our Remembrance Service at St John’s. Here is my sermon for today.
A hundred years seems such a long time. And yet – the century that has passed since the end of the Great War is so much shorter than we sometimes imagine.
In family terms for many of us it’s not that long ago at all. My grandparents were all caught up the events of the Great War, and that will be true of many of you here. My grandfathers both served through the war – one in France, one in Egypt. For some perhaps it’s now great or even great-great-grandparents who are the nearest generation to have a connection. For me, I’m distanced from the time of the Great War by just one generation – my father was born just after Christmas in December 1914 at the point when it had dawned on people that it wasn’t all going to be over by Christmas! I’ve often wondered how his parents – my grand-parents – felt about the state of the world as my father entered it. Continue reading
1917 was a significant year – for the music industry at least, and jazz in particular.
I don’t know how many of you here are jazz fans – but 1917 was the year that the first commercially available jazz record was released, by the Original Dixieland Jass Band who, in an early attempt at trying to be cool, spelled their name with a double s. It was also the year of birth of some great singers and musical performers. Some of you will remember them, while to others they may be unheard of – Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, Dizzie Gillespie, Lena Horne, Thelonius Monk – but perhaps most notably, Dame Vera Lynn. Dame Vera turned 100 in March this year and as well as being such a great icon, her songs forever connected in our minds with the Second World War, she amazingly provides us with a living connection with the Great War and specifically with 1917, a year which was in many ways not just a turning point in the Great War but in world history. To most of us 1917 and the Great War may seem like history, but there are still those like Dame Vera Lynn whose lives connect with it, and many whose parents lived through it. My own father was born the year the war broke out. It’s not that long ago.
What was it like to live during that conflict, for people in general? Let’s go back in our minds a hundred years and try and imagine we are in Caterham in 1917. Continue reading
Yesterday was Remembrance Sunday in the United Kingdom. At St John’s we have a special Service of Remembrance culminating in the two minutes’ silence at the war memorial. Here’s what I said.
As any general will tell you, the last thing you want is a soldier who won’t obey orders. When you’re engaged in warfare, discipline is vital. Which is why the Christmas Truce of 1914 caused the generals of both sides such a headache. During the week leading up to Christmas, groups of German soldiers on the one hand and mainly British soldiers on the other began to sing Christmas carols across the trenches. In places the trenches were only yards apart. As Christmas Day approached, soldiers of both sides started to climb out of their trenches, walking across no-man’s land. They talked with each other and exchanged gifts. Joint burial ceremonies took place, and meetings often ended with carol-singing. And on Christmas Day, most famously perhaps, games of football took place between the opposing sides – those who days earlier had been engaged in the most awful conflict.
Perhaps it was the football that was taking things too far. Continue reading
This week was Remembrance Sunday in the UK, when we remember all those who have fought and died for their country in war. At St John’s it’s always a big service. We have lots of extra people in the congregation, and all our young people’s uniformed groups – scouts, guides and so on – are on parade.We have the Service of Remembrance culminating in the two minute silence at 11am. Here’s what I said.
This year saw an important seventieth anniversary to celebrate for many. Yes, 1945 was a good year for rock and pop music. It’s the year Rod Stewart – who sang at the Festival of Remembrance last night – was born, along with Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend, Rita Coolidge and Carly Simon, Bette Midler and Don McLean, Bryan Ferry and Van Morrison – and even Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA fame… what a list! Familiar names to anyone of my age who started listening to music in the late sixties and the seventies.
But 1945 is also, of course, a somewhat more significant seventieth anniversary, as I’m sure you all know. Continue reading
The priest I lived with was taking the service at Sts. Peter and Paul, Chaldon – it’s one of the other churches in our team ministry. Since Remembrance Sunday a number of people who were there have asked for a copy of her sermon, so I’m posting it here.
This year on Remembrance Sunday, and again on Armistice Day on Tuesday, our thoughts will go back to the anniversary of the First World War, which started on 4th August 1914 and by this time a hundred years ago had already cost many lives. The first battle of Ypres raged through October and November. In those two months there were some 54,000 British casualties, 80,000 German casualties, around 86,000 French casualties and the Belgium army was virtually obliterated. These losses are just so great that we find it hard now to imagine the impact or understand why such massive loss of young lives was tolerated. Continue reading
If I should die, think only this of me:
that there’s some corner of a foreign field
that is for ever England.
The opening lines of The Soldier, the poem by Rupert Brooke, one of the Great War poets, and perhaps the most famous lines from the great and moving body of poetry that they gave us.
If I should die, think only this of me:
that there’s some corner of a foreign field
that is for ever England.
This year has brought us to, as we all know, the centenary of the outbreak of World War One – a war which was to dwarf all wars which had preceded it, a war which became known as The Great War, the war to end all wars, and which left an indelible mark upon the consciousness of a generation, and a mark that we still feel today. And as we reflect and remember this morning I just want to tell the story of one particular corner of a foreign field – but whether it is for ever England we shall see. And as well as being the story of a foreign field, it is also the story of two men who died during the Great War. The whole of the war separated the deaths of these two particular men. We begin with John Parr. Continue reading
Here’s my sermon for Remembrance Sunday.
Peace is an emotive word. It’s a word that conjures up all kinds of feelings within us. It is something that we all seek in life. We look around our world and see so many places, so many people, that need peace. And yet it seems so elusive. Having now passed the twelfth anniversary of the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, it is, I am sure, something that we all pray and hope for. And yet the reality of our world is that peace is so elusive. Even when not involved in our own conflicts British forces have been involved so much in peace-keeping duties around the world and will continue to be called upon in that role.
Next year we reach the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of The Great War. This year we might think of as the 100th anniversary of the end of peace – the end of a world that had yet to be confronted with the reality of modern warfare.The end of a world in which no-one really could imagine the horrors that the world would face in two world wars and so many other conflicts. And over that 100 years so many have lost their lives – both those who have fought, and so many innocents. And we gather here again to remember those from our own nation who have given their lives, and to commit ourselves to continue to work for the peace for which they fought.
The great paradox of peace is that it is often only achieved as a result of conflict. And since the year 1900 there has only been one year when no-one from the British services died in action – 1968. And today we remember those who achieved the peace we enjoy at the cost of their own lives, those who have given everything for their country, and we pray for those who still mourn for relatives and friends who never returned. And we pray for those who still struggle to come to terms with their experience of war. For the casualties of war include not just those who die, but often those who survive but who have witnessed, or endured themselves, great suffering.
The poppy that we wear is a powerful symbol of our feelings on this day, associated as it is with the fields where so many died in the First World War, growing as such a simple and yet powerful symbol of life and self-sacrifice in a place where so much destruction had been wrought. It is a symbol with a double meaning – it reminds us of those who never returned from the conflicts in which our country has been involved. As such it looks to the past. But the poppy also looks to the future – it is a symbol of hope – for it reminds us that we must all continue to strive for that peace that so many gained for us with their lives. It reminds us that today is a day of both looking backwards and looking forwards. And yet it has been hard not to notice, as I have walked about Caterham this week, that so many people don’t wear a poppy.
I remember as a child almost everyone wearing one. You were unusual if you didn’t. Because most adults, when I was a young child, still remembered the Second World War vividly. They all knew people who had fought and suffered and died. And their parents and my grandparents were the generation who had lived and fought and died in the Great War. So they wore a poppy. Today, those of my age group and younger don’t have the same experience. And so for many remembrance doesn’t seem so important, and those who wear a poppy today stand out. So many people today – in spite of the accessibility of news through television and the newspapers – have no direct experience of war, either as a combatant or as a civilian or as a relative or friend of someone serving.
I said earlier that today is a day both of looking backwards and looking forwards. As you came to church this morning you will have heard our bells ringing. And our bells themselves are a symbol of both mourning and of hope. As always they are rung on this day half-muffled. That means that the bell clapper, the part that strikes the bell, is covered on one side so that it makes that softer, rather sombre sound, every second time the bells ring. So the bells alternate between a rather mournful sounding ring, so appropriate to today and so expressive of our feelings, with a brighter and more joyful sounding ring.
But there is one thing about our bells that you can’t see or hear. The bells originally hung in the church of St Mary at Lambeth, just by the entrance to Lambeth Palace, the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury in central London by the river Thames. They were brought here in 1975 after St Mary at Lambeth was made redundant. The church is now a garden centre museum. Each bell, in the traditional manner, bears an inscription of some kind. The fifth bell is inscribed with this:
14.8.1914 – 11.11.1918.
Silent I hung in war, I sang the hour of peace.
O England, evermore pray thou that wars may cease.
And on Armistice Day, the day that war ended, the 11th November 1918, that bell that now hangs in our tower, that had hung silently for four years, rang out across London as it sang the hour of peace.
Today is a day of both of looking backwards and of looking forwards. And it is in Jesus Christ that we can find a sense of hope for the future as we remember today those who died as a result of war and conflict. And we find it in the cross upon which he died. The cross reminds us that Christ himself undertook the supreme sacrifice. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends said Jesus, before he did just that for each and every one of us. Laying down his life for us on the cross, only to rise again on the third day to show us the way to eternal life.
Today we remember all who have died as a result of war – and give thanks too for all those who risked their lives but came home. And as we remember today those who have made that sacrifice of life itself – of giving their lives in the service of their countries and of their families and communities – we can give thanks for them, know the assurance that Christ gives us that they are at rest with him for eternity, and dedicate our lives to the service of the communities for which they died. We must always remember – for it is only when you look back and remember and reflect on the past, that you can look forward and know what you need to work towards in the future. And remembrance really means something when it looks not only back to the past, but spurs us on into the future to continue to work for the peace for which those we remember today died.
Which brings me back to the poppy. There is a famous poem called In Flanders Field by Major, later Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae of the Canadian Army, a surgeon attached to the 1st Field Artillery Brigade. It begins:
In Flanders Field the poppies blow
between the crosses, row on row
that mark our place…
It gave rise to the association of poppies with those who had died and to the custom of wearing poppies for Remembrance. He wrote it in the spring of 1915 after the terrible battle at Ypres. He had just buried a friend, Lieutenant Alex Helmer, who had been killed by a shell. He had carried out the burial service himself since there was no chaplain available. Poppies were growing in the ditches around the cemetery and were blowing in the gentle east wind as McCrae wrote the poem. In fact, McCrae actually threw the poem away, but luckily it was rescued by a fellow officer and sent to Punch magazine which published it the same year. McCrae himself died in 1918.
The poem finishes with a call not to break faith with those who have died.
To you, from failing hands, we throw
the torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
we shall not sleep, though poppies grow
in Flanders Field.
We keep faith with those who died by continuing to commit ourselves to working for peace and justice and reconciliation in our world and in our nation and in our community – those ideals for which so many have fought and died. And for which God gave his Son to die upon a cross.
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. Continue reading
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.