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A Service of Remembrance for Iraq, St Paul’s Cathedral

Friday 10th October 2003

The Archbishop delivered the following sermon at a Service of Remembrance for Iraq at St Paul's Cathedral.

The service was attended by relatives of the 51 British personnel killed in the conflict. They were joined by senior members of the Royal Family, including the Queen and Prince Charles. Government ministers including Tony Blair, leaders of the armed forces, and leaders of world faith organisations were also amongst the 2000 people present. 

A transcript of the Archbishop's address follows.  

Not long before the First World War, a French poet, who was to be one of the earliest casualties of that conflict, wrote that ‘everything begins with mysticism and ends with politics’. People have argued a good deal over what he meant. Is he saying that every human story starts with vision and hope and love and deteriorates into conflicts and compromises? Or that you have to move on from fine words and ideals and make things change for the better in the ‘real’ world?

Quite likely he meant a bit of both; and both meanings are sure to be around in our thoughts whenever we think about war and its aftermath. When wars begin, it’s often said that it’s no good raising abstract objections: if you care about justice and security, you have a duty to do all you can to advance or protect them by any legitimate means – to be ready to pay the price of your fine words. Then, as wars develop and when wars end, it’s often said that what happens shows how bright ideals get tarnished as the fight against injustice breeds its own new problems.

Certainly, those of you who watched and waited here, in agonies of anxiety over loved ones serving abroad, will have known something of the conflicting emotions that all this involves – fierce loyalty to those actually putting their lives on the line, pride in their personal commitment, courage and skill, anger at those who seem to undermine them as they face the terrible risks of war; but also pain and bewilderment at the confusions of war itself, the shocking photographs of the innocent dead, the media experts with their daily questioning of how things are being run. And for some – for many here today – the final and awful reality of a tragedy involving a son or daughter, a spouse, a parent. No amount of talking about ideals makes this easier; you know the cost in a unique way.

In this service today, we are bound to face these contradictory feelings, and we shouldn’t be afraid to do so. Those who defended the action in Iraq rightly reminded us that while we talk people are suffering appallingly; while we try to keep our hands clean, atrocity and oppression reign unchecked. Whatever the different judgements about the decision to go to war, we have to recognise the moral seriousness of this, and the dedication of those who carry out the decision.

But as we look out at a still uncertain and dangerous landscape, as we recall the soldiers and civilians killed since the direct military campaign ended, as we think of the United Nations personnel and the relief workers who have died, we have to acknowledge that moral vision is harder to convert into reality than we should like. We never know in advance quite what price will have to be paid in human lives, civilian and military, local and foreign, young and old.

And there are two responses that won’t do. We can’t just say, ‘We have no responsibilities, we’ll stick to the mysticism and let the politics look after itself’. It is worth working at what changes the world into a less unbearable place. But equally, we can’t say, ‘Spare us the mysticism’. We have to go back and test what has happened in the light of the original vision; we have to find out what we have learned, what now looks different, where our integrity has been stretched or challenged. We don’t just put this complicated and tragic history aside without asking if our values and commitments are still intact.

Today our main task is simply to pause in the presence of God. We give thanks for many lives of skill and bravery and patience – the lives of the servicemen and women whom we mourn together on this occasion; and the lives too of peacemakers and community builders of all kinds; and those who bore the cost without choosing or volunteering, those swept up in the unplanned death and terror that all conflict brings.

But we can use this pause in God’s presence to think a little about what it means to turn vision into reality. This is part of what we owe to the dead, part of the honour we give to those who struggled and sacrificed. We pray for all those who, as we meet here, are working to renew a ravaged country – our own servicemen and women, all those who are labouring to bring together the Iraqi people in new political projects for restoring common life, the countless ordinary Iraqis who contribute to the restoration of order and justice simply by getting on with their lives, patiently doing those ordinary things without which no society flourishes, ordinary things which became so difficult and extraordinary in a climate of tyranny and oppression.

And we should pray too for those who have to keep on at the task of rebuilding when the dramas of conflict have faded – for our leaders, here and in the United States, whose commitment to remaking a deeply traumatised nation has been clearly and repeatedly expressed. Today is an opportunity for leaders and people alike to renew their promises about this; we have made ourselves accountable for peace and justice in Iraq, leaders and people alike will be called to account for it.

The beautiful and sombre words of St Paul in today’s second lesson tell us what can be expected by those who keep their eyes on justice and do their work for God with faith and steady patience. They are not promised safety or peace, they are not promised an easy conscience or a comfortably limited horizon. What they are promised is an anchorage in the living Truth in person, Jesus Christ. Nothing can break this; there may be terrible risk and suffering; there may be the sense of failure; there may be immense personal grief and loss – but the relationship remains, silently feeding us so that we are able to go on putting one foot in front of the other, finding what needs to be done and doing it. What we are given isn’t confidence in our own purity of motive, not even unquestioning faith in what people tell us is the righteousness of our cause, but confidence in a God who is able to use whatever we do and whatever suffer in good faith.

So as we bring ourselves before God quietly, thoughtfully, hopefully, we give what we say and do now, as well as all that has been said and done over these months into God’s hands. We give our memories of risk and pain to him, we give our anxieties and bereavements to him; and we ask that he will use them all to bring reconciliation and renewal for us and for all the nations of the earth.

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