On Friday I had the honour of taking part in the reading of the names of the 1,180 men and one woman from this city who were killed during the First World War. This has been taking place on the steps of the Guild Hall over the past two days – it takes that long to read them with details of their address, place of death, age and burial place – if known. What stood out for me, in the brief section I was involved with, was the ages. So many, far too many, were either in their teens or early 20s. And the list just kept going on. The cost was enormous and so today, with its anniversary of relief that the guns fell silent, is a sobering day when we pause to take stock of all that had been and just what this had meant. One hundred years on, this is history, but it was moving to hear people reading the names of their relatives and therefore the direct personal link that this is our history, our ancestry, our heritage.
There have been a lot of programmes and column inches given over to stories about the First World War, analysis of its causes and what came from it. Some of these have pointed to the hidden stories. One of these was on BBC TV News last Sunday evening (4th November 2018). It told of servicemen’s bibles, given to them and often taken out and held by them as they lay dying. I have taken many funerals over the years of ex-servicemen who treasured their service issue bible and read it every day. They didn’t come to church, but there was a connection through these books to their sense that ultimately their hope lay in God. When you have faced the guns, the shells and the mud, the mind is focused on a higher purpose beyond the smoke of battle and cries of the dying. It is a moment of being completely exposed and beyond any rescue in this life.
There has been quite a bit of research into the role of army chaplains in the trenches. A long way from the poet Robert Graves slur in his biography ‘Goodbye to all that’, that chaplains were lazy and ineffective cowards, hiding away from the front line, so many stories have emerged of them being alongside their men. There are the famous ones like Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy, affectionately known as Woodbine Willie for giving out that popular brand of cigarette to the men in the trenches, and many more. Some died along with their men either being hit by shells or snipers’ bullets or, like Revd Wilfred Harding, who died at Passchendaele whilst retrieving wounded soldiers from ‘no man’s land’ in 1917. In personal letters, collected by his granddaughter, under the title ‘The Half-shilling Curate’, Methodist chaplain Revd Herbert Cowl talks with matter of fact underplayed honesty of the dangers he was in. He describes conducting burials as shells landed near by and removing his clerical collar because it made him a target for the snipers. He was injured when a shell landed on the building he was in and very nearly died. On the way home his ship hit a mine 4 miles from Dover, in the same incident that sank the Lusitania as it went to their aid. It was his bravery in ensuring others found safety that won him the Military Cross.
In the summer, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe, we went to a performance of a play about Woodbine Willie by Searchlight Theatre Company. It told a very human account of his conversations about life, faith, fear and trust in God, in the mud and poor sanitation of a trench. He set up a ‘vicarage’ sign to show that he could be found there, brewed tea and gave out his characteristic Woodbines. We saw him discussing men’s hopes and love for their girls back home, their fear of going over the top, his comfort as a young man lay dying in his arms. Studdert Kennedy was also awarded the Military Cross for bravery in searching out the wounded while under heavy fire and helping them to the dressing station.
After the war, Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy wrote a book called ‘The Hardest Part’. In this he ponders on where God was in those trenches. As an experienced priest he knew of squalor and urban poverty. And so some aspects found a ready place for him to assimilate – squalor in trenches and squalor in slums are different contexts but both bring suffering and despair. On the battlefield, though, the issues were more starkly drawn in the speed of life and death. The starkness of the horrid unblinkable vision into the depths of human destructiveness brought his thoughts to the fore. For him it was the cross of Christ that was the key to the heart of God in human suffering. God who is not willing in Jesus Christ to remain impassive and distant, but shares in our suffering and pain. It brings with it an invitation to live in a particular way. So for Studdert Kennedy, Christianity was not so much a collection of religious ideas as a ‘way’: a way of being as well as a way of living. Ahead of us lies the image of the New Jerusalem, the celestial city to which we travel and with that vision the bible ends – I spoke a bit about that last week. Now we live with the imperfection and at times horror of the evil humanity is capable of. Between these two, imperfection and heavenly city, stands the cross of Christ – holding, redeeming, opening the gateway to the heart, love and salvation of God. This is because God loves the world to the end.
And so the title of his collection of poems and reflections, ‘The Hardest Part’, is taken from his rhyme ‘The Sorrow of God’, written in dialect:
The sorrows o’ God must be ‘ard to bear
If ‘E really ‘as Love in ‘Is ‘eart,
And the ‘ardest part i’ the world to play
Must surely be God’s part. (quoted pxxxii)
For Studdert Kennedy only the cross can survive the battlefield. This is a theme that was picked up by the great 20th century German theologian Jürgen Moltmann. Reflecting on God in the trenches can only be done ‘within the earshot of the dying Jesus’ (pxxxiii). And he quoted Studdert Kennedy: “It’s always the Cross in the end – God, not Almighty, but God the Father, with a Father’s sorrow and a Father’s weakness, which is the strength of love. God splendid, suffering, crucified – Christ.” We need God as Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – to hold the horror of the mud and guns and dying of the trenches. Anything else is just not present and therefore irrelevant.
We come then to our Gospel reading, this morning from Mark (1:14-20). This gave us Jesus proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom and the call to repent and believe in it. This is followed by calling fishermen along the seashore to follow him. Jesus goes to where they are, in this case at work by their fishing boats, but in Studdert Kenney and Herbert Cowl’s cases, and all the other chaplains, where the men were in the mud of the trenches. They are called with doctrine and faith – the Kingdom has come near – God in Christ is present with them, but also with a call to follow a way, his way. To be and not just believe.
On Remembrance Sunday our remembering is not just a roll call of death and loss. It is a sober pausing to reflect on what happens when we stray from the kingdom of justice and peace and travel a road that leads to so much destruction and death. It is a call to the ways of peace, to build social relationships where all are honoured and oppression is ended. That pause and call is as real and necessary today as it has ever been. When we have disagreements – and there are many not least with the mess we are in over Brexit and with how we care for the poorest in our society, welcome the stranger in need and protect from those who wish us harm in terms of organized crime and exploitation – when we disagree it is important to remember that those on the other side are our neighbours and fellow siblings in Christ. Battles destroy lives, but also the bonds that connect and build.
We pause and remember because God does not remain aloof, but calls as he comes close to us in his Son Jesus Christ, even into the darkest, most desperate places. It is the cross of Christ that gives the call the credibility and ultimately hope in the trenches, in urban destitution, when confronted with our mortality.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Remembrance Sunday 11th November 2018