This is the sermon I delivered today at Putney Methodist Church. Today is Remembrance Sunday and, of course, the hundredth anniversary of the end of World War One. The set texts were: Micah 4:1-7 and John 15:9-17.
As a church here in Putney, we should be very grateful to one of our members for his hard work in ‘breathing life back into our war memorial’. He has spent a huge amount of time and effort researching the 22 names on our war memorial, and shedding new light on their lives and their service for this country. The results are fascinating, and you will have a chance to see the fruits of his labour after the service in the exhibition he has mounted. I commend it to you.
Earlier this week, I spent an afternoon taking David’s hard work and putting it onto our church website, making it a resource for a much wider audience. (See here.) I found the experience of reading through the stories of these young men – the vast majority of whom died in the first world war – a profoundly moving one. I was amazed at how our little war memorial here was at one and the same time so local and yet so global. The men came from houses that are mostly still standing today and in streets that are largely a few minutes’ walk from here – Oakhill Road, the Upper Richmond Road, Fanthorpe Street, Hotham Road (literally a few hundred feet from where I am standing now). They walked along the roads we shall take as we leave church today, with their packs on their back, waving goodbye to loved ones perhaps as they left, probably heading to Putney Railway Station, which most of us know so well, to begin their journey to the war. Yet they served across the world: by land, by sea and by air. They died in the mud of the Western Front, the deserts of Mesopotamia, the icy cold depths of the North Sea. They served in battles whose names we know so well – Ypres, Gallipoli, Jutland – alongside some of the most famous names of their day – General Allenby, Lawrence of Arabia, Admiral Jellico. Their service covered the entire length of the war, with one, Gerald Chick, dying a few months after Britain entered the war in November 1914, and another, John Rogers, dying just 17 days before the armistice was signed, in October, 1918.
Inevitably, individual stories stand out. The youngest casualty on our memorial: Henry Gee, who died aged just 17, along with his entire ship’s company of 900 men, at the Battle of Jutland, and who has no grave but the North Sea. The families who lost not one but two sons to the conflict: the Chicks and the Heaths. Ernest Heath’s body was actually retrieved from no man’s land during the Battle of Loos by two other members of this church, we believe: men who had enlisted together, like so many “pals’ divisions”. A particularly poignant story for me is that of the first name on our list, Captain Thomas Austin, the son of the then minister of this church, Rev’d George Beesly Austin. He died in one of the greatest military disasters of a disastrous war, the siege of Kut in what is now Iraq. I can only imagine how his father and mother must have felt as the messenger, bringing the fateful telegram that so many families received, stopped outside the manse.
As I said, a deeply moving experience, and a deeply poignant snapshot of a global conflict. A moving experience that stands alongside so many moving experiences associated with this time of commemoration, as the focus of our remembrance focuses, rightly, on that terrible ‘war to end all wars’.
For some of us, it have been personal research projects on members of our own family who served in the war, and I am sure that many of us will have seen numerous stories about research projects like David’s across the nation. For others, it may have been engaging with some of the numerous events, talks and television programmes over the last four years. Perhaps we watched the Festival of Remembrance last night from the Albert Hall, or plan to go to the special concert this afternoon at St Simon’s. We may have visited the Tower of London, either a few years ago, with the ceramic poppies marking each casualty of the war, or this year, with the sound and light display: ‘Beyond the deepening shadow’. We may even have witnessed one of the numerous local displays about today’s anniversary, like this one at Etherley Methodist Church in Bishop Aukland, where members decorated 2,000 plastic bottles to make this stunning poppy display (right). All moving displays of personal commitment to remember the events of a hundred years previously, and the sacrifices made.
For me, my most moving remembrance experience took place a few years ago, when I went with a number of other clergy in training to tour the battlefield and cemeteries around Ypres in Belgium. The tour was organised by the successor of the Toc H movement, which some of you may be familiar with, and aimed to help ministers reflect upon the themes of peace and reconciliation. Any of you who have travelled to the sites of the old Western Front will know that you cannot help but be moved by what you see and experience there. As you come across the cemeteries dotted around the Belgian countryside and the seemingly endless rows of neatly-arranged graves, it brings home – as nothing else can do – the huge number of casualties experienced by both sides in the war. So often, they bring home the futility of it all too. Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth war cemetery on the Western Front, contains graves from both the opening months of the war and its last, reflecting how little the front lines moved over the entire four years of the conflict.
All of us on that trip were deeply moved by what we saw and experienced but we also were changed by it. All of us had at least some of our preconceptions, and perhaps even prejudices, challenged by what we encountered. We all noted how Christians crosses on the tombstones, mingle with Stars of David, Muslim crescents and other religious symbols, reminding us of the vast multinational and multi-religious effort involved in the war. We noted the age of so many of the war dead, so often not even seeing their 21st birthdays. We visited the place of execution for so-called cowards, and stood in the condemned cell, where they had spent their last night. We noted how even in death, divisions of race and ethnicity still seemed to prevail. In the corner of many cemeteries, you will find graves like this one (above, left): a Chinese ‘coolie’, brought across the world to fetch and carry. And perhaps most striking of all the distinction between the Commonwealth and German war cemeteries. The former being immaculately laid out with as much space as was needed for each body: the land made as a perpetual gift to the dead. The latter being buried in mass graves, containing up to 10,000 dead.
Crucially, though, we were not just emotionally moved by what we saw. By moving in time and space, by undertaking this pilgrimage, we also moved our viewpoint upon war, conflict and the world. We were different people from those who had begun the journey together from Cambridge. Our opinions, attitudes, even beliefs were not quite the same because of that shared experience. Because we had come face to face with the reality of war and its consequences. And that is the journey that all of us are called upon to take this day, and each Remembrance Sunday, if we are to create the vital space necessary for peace and reconciliation in our world. It cannot just be an emotional response – just to be moved for a moment and then carry on as if nothing had changed – Christ calls us to move, to shift our viewpoint and be changed by what we have experienced.
Sadly, that transformative journey is one that too few people seemed, or seem, willing to take. Four years ago, as we marked the centenary of the outbreak of war, I read this fascinating tome: The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to war in 1914 by Christopher Clark. In incredible detail, it sets out how Europe slid into war without seemingly intending to. It goes beyond the old clichés about Prussian militarism and British heroism. It sets out how the leaders of Europe placed concepts like national honour, economic gain and territorial ambition, over the interests of their own flesh and blood. It reminds us how demagogues and newspapers were able to exploit and enflame racist stereotypes and ethnic divisions to justify conflict and hatred. It points the finger of blame for the deaths of the young men listed on our war memorial firmly at all the nations of Europe and their leaders.
This year, as we prepared for the centenary of the armistice, I took up another book that I would heartily recommend to you all: Peacemakers by Margaret Macmillan. It describes the bizarre world of the Paris peace talks in 1918-19, which culminated with the signing of the disastrous Treaty of Versailles. What is utterly depressing, is how seemingly nothing had changed between these two dates. We meet different leaders, and we encounter some half-hearted idealism, but there seems to have been no recognition that anything was different. We find the same unbridled nationalism and imperialism, the same racist prejudices and stereotypes, the same belief that an elite group of white men in Paris could draw lines in the map of the world and claim ownership of peoples they have never even heard of. The same ignorance, the same justifications for war and domination. There seemed to be no self-awareness nor even the slightest desire to move perspectives and opinions. No desire to reflect meaningfully upon the terror that had been unleashed upon the world. Little wonder that so many of the problems we face today – from Israel and Palestine to unrest in the Balkans – can be traced back to this war to end all wars. What makes it even more distressing is that neither book, in describing the ‘golden age’ of Christian Europe, when our churches were full and nearly everyone was nominally a Christian, indicate that faith in the risen Christ affected our leaders and their actions one jot!
Too often, as people over the ages, and today, gather to remember conflict they make the same mistake. They may say prayers, and hear words from holy books, but they move not one inch from the prejudices and opinions that launched the conflicts in the first place. The fact that this week we celebrate not only the 100th anniversary of the end of World War One but the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht should teach us something.
By contrast, I hold up the example of ‘Woodbine Willie’, a man known by reputation to many of you, I am sure. Properly titled the Rev’d Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, he was one of the numerous clergy who volunteered for the army chaplains’ department during the war. He soon became a familiar sight at the front line and elsewhere, dispensing Bibles from one haversack pocket and Woodbine cigarettes from another, hence the nickname Woodbine Willie. Like too many clergy, Studdert-Kennedy embraced the war with enthusiasm in 1914. He wrote in his parish magazine in Worcester:
I cannot say too strongly that I believe every able-bodied man ought to volunteer for service anywhere. There ought to be no shirking of that duty.
(Quoted from Woodbine Willie: An unsung hero of World War One – Bob Holman (2013), 31.)
If we are honest, Christians like Studdert-Kennedy had not done enough to speak out about the horrors of war and Christ’s call for peace and reconciliation in the years before 1914, and too many effectively became recruiting sergeants once war had broken out. People remembered this fact in the years after the war, and it is little wonder that many commentators trace the beginnings of the decline in church attendance in this country to 1918.
Studdert-Kennedy followed his own advice, though, and served throughout the conflict, as close to the front line as possible. Unlike the politicians at Versailles, though, he was a changed man by 1918. He had not only been deeply moved by the horrific suffering and senseless slaughter he had encountered but his whole outlook on the world had moved. One of his most famous poems sums up the change in his perspective since his days in Worcester:
Waste Waste of muscle, waste of brain, Waste of patience, waste of pain, Waste of manhood, waste of health, Waste of beauty, waste of wealth, Waste of blood and waste of tears, Waste of youth’s most precious years, Waste of ways the saints have trod, Waste of glory, Waste of God. War!
Like so many of those who served in that war, and wars ever since, he had been moved in a way that went far beyond a mere emotional response. He was not just moved; he had moved.
And that is what is required of us today, if we are serious about a belief in peace in our world. If we wish truly to turn our backs on the lies and half-truths that created the conditions for the conflict that took those 21 men from their families in this church a hundred years, and indeed most conflicts. We must be moved – not just emotionally but mentally. We must undertake a journey, whereby we see the world from a different perspective. As we look at the history of peace-making in our world, and think about the end of conflicts such as that in Northern Ireland, we see that peace does not come about when the warring sides think and act in exactly the same manner as when the trouble began. Real peace comes about because those involved have been changed by the conflict, and have begun shift their perspective and perhaps just begun to glimpse the world from the viewpoint of their sworn enemies. As one of the canons of Coventry Cathedral, Sarah Hills, wrote recently – a place which has chosen to become a centre for reconciliation – it is a long journey that is so often required. A journey involving “truth, acknowledgement, remembering, story-telling, lament, repentance, forgiveness, justice” and restitution.
As I bring my remarks today to a close, I should like to return briefly to our own list of war dead here in Putney and to one name in particular: Private Clifford Marels, who died in November, 1917. He served with General Allenby and T E Lawrence in the Palestinian Campaign against the Ottoman Empire, a campaign made famous by the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. He died during the first British attack on Jerusalem, trying to seize a hill that at the time was of enormous tactical importance but which is now just a hill outside Jerusalem. When I Googled an image of his last resting place, I discovered this photo. It shows the usual immaculately-kept Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery but this time in the blazing heat of Israel, and with an incredible view over the Old City of Jerusalem. From here, I think you could glimpse the sites for many of the mast famous incidents from the life of Jesus Christ, not least the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. I wonder how a local lad from Putney would have reacted to that view.
As Christians, we are invited to share Private Marels’ perspective on the world. To see the world through the vision of the life, death and resurrection of our Jesus. To reflect upon the magnitude of Christ’s suffering; to recognise the magnitude of what God has done for each one us through Jesus’ voluntary sacrifice; and, most importantly, to be changed by that experience. If we come here to worship today, if we encounter Jesus in our reading of scripture, if we meet him at the communion table, and are not changed by that experience, then it means nothing. Just as if we come to our war memorial with the same prejudices and hatred and ignorance then it means very little. The invitation this Sunday, and indeed every Sunday, is not just to be moved emotionally by what we have seen and heard: to have a form of sensory experience that temporarily moves us to tears or uplifts us to joy. It is to be transformed heart and soul: to be moved in our whole being – our thoughts, our opinions, our hopes and joys. To see the world from the perspective of Christ’s cross, and to open our arms wide in embracing all of God’s creation, just as Jesus did.
This Remembrance Sunday, let us not just be moved by what we have seen and heard. Let us be transformed through the power of Christ’s love and resurrection, offering hope and the possibility of reconciliation and renewal to a world that so desperately needs to hear good news this day. Be moved today but move as well, and see this world through the eyes of Christ, the prince of peace and God of love.
Heavenly Father, whose heart is selfless love,
Take pity on our divided world
And grant that we may follow in the steps of your Son
In giving ourselves to the service of others
And reaching out to the marginalised and despised,
That peace and justice may triumph
And your kingdom come on earth.
In Christ’s name we pray.