Reflections on Remembrance Sunday
Delving into Baptist history helped one church to reframe its remembering in broader ways to include all who have suffered from the consequences of war. It was also a reminder that the victory of Jesus is won not through violence, but cross and resurrection. By Andy Goodliff
There are several services a minister can spend a lot of time trying to get right, and worrying about ahead of the day in question – Christmas, Easter, perhaps Pentecost, and always Remembrance Sunday.
With Christmas, Easter and Pentecost it’s about trying to bring out a new way of hearing a familiar story. In the case of Remembrance Sunday what is often at stake is a means of trying to reframe our remembrance in ways that don’t compromise personal gospel-convictions about peace and reconciliation.
Remembrance Sunday remains one of the few examples of civic religion in the UK, and the church minister can often feel constrained by the expectations and demands of upholding the traditions associated with this particular Sunday. Woe betide the minister who chooses not to wear a poppy, or only a white one! As one fellow minister tweeted after this year: ‘It went really well, but I am always glad when the Remembrance service is done.’
In seeking to reframe the service I led this year, I found some stories about Baptists. So our church heard the account by Ian Randall of John Clifford and James Henry Rushbrooke’s attendance at a church peace conference on 2 August 1914, and how when it was cancelled after just one day they had to attempt a quick return to the UK.
In the case of Rushbrooke it wasn’t clear that he would be able to return, and he send a resignation letter to his church in Hampstead which included these powerful words to his church: ‘Love your land as true Englishmen: but do not forget to be Christians. Have room in your hearts for those who are called your “enemies”, many of whom serve the same Lord.’ (Rushbrooke did end up returning to the UK in October with his family, which included his German wife Dora. See Ian Randall’s chapter in Step into Your Place: The First World and Baptist Life and Thought
We read a poem by William Shakespeare called The Refugees
. This Shakespeare was an army doctor, and son of the Baptist Union’s General Secretary John Howard Shakespeare. This poem tells of a solider helping refugees from Ypres, and we found that it resonated strongly with the current exodus of refugees into Europe. (Paul Fiddes offers interesting reflections on this and other poems in his contribution to Step into Your Place
The third story was from Bernard Green
(Baptist Union General Secretary in the 1980s) of his own account of turning 18 in 1944, registering as a conscientious objector, and having to face a tribunal.
When Green offered his willingness to service in the medical corps, the chairman of the tribunal (who Green later discovered to be a Baptist), said, ‘Well, you’ll kill germs won’t you. What’s the difference between germs and Germans?’
Green’s response was ‘Well Germans happen to be people.’ (This story can be found in Green’s little booklet Towards a Theology and Practice of Peacemaking
In different ways these stories helped us to reframe our remembering in broader ways, and not at the exclusion of those who died. As stories from Baptists, they also helped us to see our remembering as a Christian remembering, a reminder that we are disciples of Jesus, members of his church, before we are citizens of Great Britain.
Alongside the stories we read scripture, this year from Matthew 5.1-12 and Psalm 91, and we sang hymns. Our remembrance was helped by two new hymns (to us): Honour the dead
and What shall we pray
which both identified the range of persons that are part of any remembrance Sunday – those who died on the battlefield, those who mourn for the ones who never return, those unable to forgive, those for whom the war is merely history, those who refused to fight on grounds of conscience.
While it can feel sometimes that we are co-opted into only a particular remembrance of the fallen soldier, it is the church’s call, as gospel people, to ensure that our remembrance includes all those who suffered the consequences of our nation at war.
Remembrance Sunday falls on the Sunday nearest the 11th November when the first world war ended in 1918. In this way it is also after the church has celebrated and proclaimed the story of Jesus in Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Ascension and Pentecost. This is appropriate, for it is the story of Jesus that provides the church the context in which it remembers.
The story of Jesus is the story that gives shape to the life of the church. As Christians, our remembering and our living is determined by Jesus, and the victory of Jesus is won not through violence, not through war, but through cross and resurrection. Victory, peace, and reconciliation are not achieved through war, but through the dying and rising of Jesus. Our remembering must incorporate a sorrow at those who thought and still think otherwise.
Think of G. A. Studdert Kennedy’s poem Waste
. War is waste he says, in a nation that proclaims unreservedly the ‘sacrifice’ of those who fought and died.
The world, and perhaps much of the church, believes that the life and death of Jesus was waste, and a church that followed him would be irresponsible and inactive in the face of war.
And so the way we are encouraged to remember on Remembrance Sunday is to continue the cycle of war and sacrifice. I suggest the church needs to hear the call of Jesus again and again; a call not to take up your sword or your gun, but to ‘take up your cross and follow me’. This is the way we remember, and this is the way we honour those who died.
The Revd Andy Goodliff is minister of Belle Vue Baptist Church, Southend-on-Sea