The Ambiguity of Remembrance

Remembrance Sunday provokes mixed reactions.

For some, it is one of the most important days in the year. It is, at least, one of the few days in the year when our civic institutions look to the church to provide a spiritual and liturgical expression of our national life. We are called upon to set ‘our island story’ in a religious context. There is, I’m confident, no other day in our calendar where church and state come together in quite the same way with quite the same purpose.

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Last year, though, when we welcomed a cohort of ordinands from the Lincoln School of Theology to our Remembrance Sunday service, I was struck by how many of them wondered whether we really ought to be doing this at all. For those soon-to-be ordained folk, Remembrance Sunday could not be observed without falling into the trap of glorifying violence, or worse, of suggesting that God honours human military activity.

These differing reactions reflect, it seems to me, the profound moral ambiguity of a day like Remembrance Sunday. On the one hand, no Christian person can easily escape or ignore the teaching of Christ, nor the fact that if that teaching were universally obeyed there would be no wars, ever, anywhere. The danger of enlisting our religion in our warlike actions is clear throughout our history. But, as Bob Dylan once sang, ‘if God’s on our side then he’ll stop the next war’.

On the other hand, there are the people, the named individuals, the women and men who fought and died to defend us, to defend the world, against tyranny and evil. Our Lord also taught that a person who lays down their life willingly in service of others displays great love, the greatest love of all.

Your feelings about Remembrance Sunday probably relate to which of these two ‘hands’ you find more persuasive and compelling. For me, it’s important to hold the two in tension. It’s uncomfortable, but that’s the point. War displays the very best and very worst of human nature entangled, often even within the same individual. It shows us who we are, where the seemingly harmless impulse to address our problems by seeking greater power over others ultimately leads, but also what courage and sacrifice we are capable of when pushed to the extremes.

This year we are prevented from gathering together in church on Remembrance Sunday. We will each sit in our own home and perhaps watch the video that has been produced for our own parish, or maybe the televised national events. We will be reminded even more forcibly than usual at this time of year how frail and fragile we are.

My prayer is that this will lead us individually and as a nation to turn back to God and to pray earnestly for God’s mercy.

May God bless you all,