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A sermon at a Service to mark the Passing of the World War One Generation

The Archbishop at Westminster Abbey

Wednesday 11th November 2009

A sermon given by the Archbishop of Canterbury in Westminster Abbey on Armistice Day 2009, following the deaths of the last remaining UK veterans of World War One.

The service marked the passing not only of the veterans of that conflict, but also the whole generation whose lives spanned the twentieth century.

Read a transcript of the Archbishop's sermon below, or click download on the right to listen [12Mb]

The memorials in every town and village still bring it starkly home to each one of us. The First World War was a huge collective bereavement. The generation that lived through the War was a generation both literally depleted by mass slaughter and depleted or diminished in another way by the loss of so much confidence and aspiration. All around were the signs of absent contemporaries; and for many, the continuing trauma of having seen friends butchered hideously in huge numbers in front of their eyes. There were absent sons and daughters, parents, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, lovers, colleagues, neighbours: a routine intensity of loss.

But beyond that, many believed that the greatest loss in the war was the conviction of human purpose and human meaning. The brilliant glow of the Edwardian autumn, about which so much has been written and imagined, gave way to the cruellest winter conceivable. Not for nothing is the best recent anthology of First War poetry entitled The Winter of the World. An automatic belief in national righteousness, governmental wisdom, the trustworthiness of official communication and popular media alike – all these were shaken apparently beyond repair. The generation that discovered this had to find their way forward into the twentieth century with maps and landmarks damaged almost unrecognisably.

What is extraordinary is that for so many of them some features of the map survived. It is not true, if you look at the rest of the century, that all conviction about the moral responsibilities of society were lost in the trenches along with the millions of young lives. The century that this generation lived through was a century of renewed awareness of poverty and injustice in Britain, of recklessly brave resistance to tyranny and bigotry in another war, of the struggle to build what we might now call a sustainable society in the wake of that war – through the Welfare State in Britain and through new patterns of political stability and co-operation in Europe. On the world stage, it was the generation that transformed Empire into Commonwealth. It is a story of some real heroism – the survivors of one massive military slaughter becoming, so often, the civilian heroes (and in some cases the victims) of other great struggles. What we are doing today is not just marking a chronological moment but acknowledging the achievement of a generation who managed to recreate at a deeper level some of that shattered idealism – to recreate it without the easy optimism and the bland confidence in progress.

For many of those who actually lived through the nightmares of the First War, the iron that entered their souls helped them face the century with a depth of vision and courage that still arrests us. To read Peter Parker's fine book on Harry Patch, The Last Veteran, is to see something of what the experience of the war created in one man; to see a kind of depth and human solidity shaped by the tragedy. Many of us will have memories of neighbours and family members who showed the same solidity. This does not justify, explain or excuse that tragedy, but it is simply part of the picture. The war shattered so many illusions for those who suffered in the trenches and further afield, as well as on the Home Front. But it also sorted out the wheat from the chaff, and built some powerful moral clarities. And some, at least, of those who tried to make sense of where God had been in all this realised that losing the safe, problem-solving God who protected nations and empires might itself be a gift, a moment of truth that brought the reality of God closer, recognised or not.

Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, the charismatic military chaplain universally known as 'Woodbine Willie', was one of those who tried to make sense of this. What he wrote can still shock and challenge in deep ways. One of his meditations on 'God and Prayer' begins by evoking a scene in the trenches: 'I wish that chap would chuck his praying. It turns me sick. I'd much rather he swore like the sergeant.' So is prayer useless? Is God truly absent and powerless? Studdert-Kennedy simply answers that prayer won't save us from suffering any more than it saved Christ from his cross. But it is the only thing that makes us able to fight against evil in the only way that will actually transform the situation as Christ did – by selfless compassion, with all the risk that carries.

In all his work, in his sermons, his meditations, his astonishing poems, so many of them cast in the voice of the ordinary soldier in the trenches, full of protest and apparent blasphemy, Studdert-Kennedy argues against the bland problem-solving God. His commitment is to the God who is discovered in the heart of your own endurance and pain – not a solution, not a Father Christmas or a fairy godmother, but simply the one who holds your deepest self and makes it possible for you to look out on the world without loathing and despair.

Shocking and stark as it was, the way Studdert-Kennedy talked and wrote was pretty well the only religious response that was at all credible to those who were living through the daily nightmare. And this may explain just a little how those who did come through were able to find some deep foundation for surviving the rest of the century with courage and a kind of faith. In the heart of the terror and butchery, they had found that they were still there – they were real to themselves and each other; and if there was any God, he was what helped them be real in that darkness. Maybe the simple fact of being real was what kept that generation faithful and more than faithful, creative and brave in a century of yet more darkness.

And perhaps what made the spreading effect of the war so lethal and corrosive, what helped the rising tide of scepticism and the sense of the absence of value and meaning throughout the century, was that the sort of question Studdert-Kennedy asked was rapidly forgotten. Too many religious people went back to a comfortable God. Too many people in general dusted off the clichés of the pre-war period – and too many simply reacted with anger and contempt against all of that. The sad standoff between despairing selfishness and superficiality on the one hand and inhuman new political philosophies on the other (communism and fascism) was fostered by a readiness to forget the hard lessons learned by those who'd been on the front line. In the darkest places, you discover you are real to yourself and one another. And if you're not called – mercifully – to such places, you will need disciplines of thinking and imagination to keep yourself real: to fight off easy answers, false gods, stifling systems. Prayer is one such discipline, essential and focal for people of faith; but there are others. We can still choose honesty or dishonesty. We can still choose what Chesterton called the 'easy speeches that comfort cruel men'; or we can choose to face how vulnerable we all are and how much we need to fight against our fear of one other if trust and hope and love are to prevail when all is done. The challenge is how we stay awake to how the world is – and to how it can yet be changed.

The last word goes to another survivor of the trenches, the painter and poet David Jones, who served with the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. In his great poetic evocation of the trenches, In Parenthesis, he describes the survivors of one action getting ready for the next push –

'But how intolerably bright the morning is where we who are alive and remain, walk lifted up, carried forward by an effective word'.

The generation that has passed walked forward with vision and bravery and held together the bonds of our society, our continent, our Commonwealth through a terrible century. May we learn the lessons they learned; and God save us from learning them in the way they had to.

© Rowan Williams 2009

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