Archbishop's Remembrance Service at Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, HM Tower of London
Sunday 9th November 2008A Sermon preached by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, on Remembrance Sunday.
Each year there is so much to remind us that our active remembrance is a legacy of the First World War. And on this ninetieth anniversary of the Armistice at the end of that conflict it's inevitable that many people should be reflecting on the fact that the generation for whom that was first-hand experience has almost entirely passed away. Does that make a difference? Why should the legacy of that particular conflict still be so significant for us? (I pass over for now the remarkable fact of the revival of public interest, of enthusiasm of the act of remembrance, in the last couple of decades – a striking testimony to the need in our society for common acts of looking beyond our immediate concerns).
But I want to reflect briefly on what it is about the First World War, and the experience of those who fought in it, which still has something uniquely significant about it for us as we reflect on war and peace, conflict and struggle, in our own generation. Why is it that that conflict remains, in the imagination of so many – a definitive moment?
Two things were central to the experience of those involved in the First World War. The first of these was the bitter awareness of the gulf between the reality of modern war and the rhetoric and metaphor used very often by people comfortably at home. Those returning from the trenches on leave found themselves almost incapable of talking about what they had seen and endured because the language used by politicians and the press in this country, the language of chivalry and swords and knighthoods, bore so little relation to what was actually happening. It was a gap which obliged so many people to think again about what real heroism might be. The almost legendary language of swords and chivalry that was so often used presupposed that glory in war was a wonderful, straight forward, righteous affair. But those who fought in the trenches understood that glory, real heroism, had a great deal more to do with endurance, loyalty, and the daily struggle to retain integrity and humanity in the midst of unspeakably awful conditions. Glory, it seemed had to be redefined, had to become more prosaic – more to do with that daily giving up of fantasy and illusion for the sake of one another and a common cause.
The second thing that was central to the experience of so many was an understanding of how the nature of war itself had changed. Not only was the First World War the first major war fought with modern technology (so that long distance destruction could be assured), it was also a war whose effects reached out into almost every household in the land. This was not war as a campaign far away, fought by heroes and knights. This was a war where everybody was vulnerable. The very means of long distance destruction, that came with modern warfare, technological warfare guaranteed that the slaughter would be of unprecedented levels; it guaranteed that traditional levels of protection and defence would not be adequate. Everyone was involved.
And those two discoveries in the trenches shaped so much of the twentieth century's understanding of war, its risks and its challenges. It was that kind of legacy which, when the Second World War began, saved at least some people in this country from making extravagant, self-righteous claims, part of what made them speak in sober terms of reluctantly taking up their duty.
Archbishop William Temple [Archbishop of Canterbury, 1942-44], my great predecessor, wrote in November 1939 to a friend of how he was wholly committed to the decision that had been taken to go to war, and yet he said, "We recognise that this is all to do with the sin in which we're all implicated so that the best thing we can do is still a bad thing". That sober recognition of a duty undertaken in the knowledge that it might be the best thing to do in an imperfect world, that refusal of high pressure, high temperature rhetoric about heroism and chivalry, was part of what made the experience of the second war so very different from that of the first for many, many people: a duty, a solemn and sober duty; the least bad thing to be done because "War in itself", said Archbishop Temple, "never produces a positive good, though it can restrain worse evils".
And something of that legacy has remained very firmly with us. A very proper, very humble wariness about turning up the temperature, about empty talk, about heroism when set against the realities that people have to endure. And because in the last decade the experience of war has come closer to us yet again, it is important that that legacy is still alive. The memory of what was discovered in the trenches of the First World War about the nature of modern war; the awareness of the gap between rhetoric and reality; the awareness that we are all in some sense involved: that is still important. Those now serving in our armed forces know a great deal about the heroism of trying to preserve humanity, loyalty, generosity and integrity in situations that place them under almost unbearable pressure. And all of us know something about how modern conflict has us all involved, even if it's only through our awareness of the terrorist threat that is part of the shadow which surrounds modern conflict.
We know, in other words what may be perhaps a more adult approach to violence and conflict than we once did as a culture. We still (on the whole) recognise that there are circumstances where it may be a way of restraining worse evils. We know that people actually serving will be in situations where their integrity and their humanity are under strain, are compromised, confused, an intensely pressurised environment. We know that there is nowhere we can hide from the consequences of conflict.
And perhaps in our awareness of these things we are brought back to two fundamental Christian realisations. The first is to do with glory. From the very beginning of the Christian faith, glory has been re-defined. Instead of being a reputation won by aggression and success, glory has been understood as that radiance of truth that can shine out in the middle of suffering and even of failure. Glory has been understood to be bound up with the integrity of God, and God's human creatures. Because glory is supremely for the Christian shown in the cross of Jesus Christ where the integrity of unconditional love blazes out in the midst of a situation as horrific as that of the trenches in the First War. And those who spoke most sense from the Christian point of view about the experience of the trenches were those who understood that somehow in that experience something of the cross was appearing to them and through them.
"The glory of God" said one of the earliest Christian theologians, "is a human being fully alive", and that is a very different definition of glory from the reputation won by being a successful aggressor or even a successful defender. Glory is life, integrity, humanity and wholeness. And if we're aware of that then in both peace and in war - glory will be something deeper and more complex, but more lasting and more true than some of the definitions of glory that those who love war would like us to cling to.
But also from the very beginnings of Christian faith, believers have been conscious of their interdependence. No one can hide from the consequences of humanity's suffering. No one can protect themselves forever from the consequences of the lack of peace. We learned in this country in the most painful dramatic ways possible during the twentieth century, how war could not be contained somewhere else. We learned through the long-distance slaughter that flattened some of our towns and cities, the slaughter which was inflicted on towns and cities on the continent of Europe. We learned that war could be brought to our doorstep, and that we could not hide.
The Christian would say that that is a way of discovering a terrible and tragic way of discovering - the truth that the gospel has always insisted on: that is that the good of one and the good of all are inseparable. In John Donne's words, "Every man's death diminishes me". And positively speaking, that means that the vision nurtured and strengthened through the terrible experience of war is bound to be a vision of interdependence and mutual service. It's not an accident that out of both the First and the Second World Wars came renewed and deepened commitment to justice and equality in our own society. People had discovered how profoundly they were bound to one another and how deeply the wounds of others wounded them.
Glory and mutuality, glory as the integrity of compassion; mutuality as the most significant thing human beings will ever experience. These realities are also part of the legacy of what was discovered in those dreadful years in the second decade of the twentieth century, and which so marks our annual commemorations.
As we remember the ninetieth anniversary of the Armistice, we should remember also the discoveries of those years in the crucible of the trenches, discoveries that we forget at our peril, discoveries that have to do not only with our understanding, our experience and our attitude to armed conflict, but bear upon the whole sense of our humanity and our human society.
In giving thanks for the courage and the self-giving of so many who have stepped into the breach and risked their lives for the sake of others, for the sake of justice, for the sake of liberty, we remember a world into which we are called by those discoveries: a world where indeed the glory of God is a human being fully alive, so that our duty and our call is to help people come alive to God's glory, in a world where we fully recognise the suffering of one and the sufferings of all cannot be separated.
May God give us the strength and the clarity to work for those things as the best way of honouring those whose sacrifice we commemorate today. Amen.