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Sermon to Commemorate the Outbreak of the First World War

Posted By : June Osborne Sunday 29th June 2014

Sermon for a Civic Service Commemorating the Outbreak of the First World War 

by the Dean of Salisbury, The Very Reverend June Osborne DL

on Sunday 29 June 2014

Genesis 4 v 8-15; Luke 6 v 20-31

As you might imagine we commemorate a lot of anniversaries of one sort or another here in the Cathedral. They all tend to happen in a single moment and provide a good excuse for a party, a sense of things achieved and of congratulations deserved. Yet this weekend we mark the beginning of a commemorative experience which won’t be a celebration and which will last for four if not five years.

This afternoon we’re not going to try to encapsulate the whole experience of the ‘Great War’. There will be future occasions when we remember Jutland and the Somme and Passchendaele. And beyond the Western Front, Gallipoli and Mesopotamia, skirmishes in Africa and battles on the high seas, of War Horse and the invention of tanks, of letters written and loves lost.

Yet on this Armed Forces weekend we stand at the beginning of all that. If we think ourselves into a hundred years ago, for the young men and women who came from the parishes of Wiltshire and Dorset in June 1914, hopes were high, principles were certain, and patriotism was a badge worn with pride. The predominant mood as the ‘Great War’ began was one of excitement and adventure, and the expectation that the troops would all be back by Christmas or shortly thereafter.

We know better. But I guess our question is whether it still matters. In the past year I’ve met only one person who was prepared to say that we shouldn’t be marking this anniversary at all. And his reason was that it mattered too much to us, it has too great a hold on us, he wanted us to let it go.

Well, I offer you three reasons why this centenary is important, why its hold on us is worth acknowledging.

Firstly, all of us carry a sense of the scale of the sacrifices which were made.

The figures are gruesome. No-one can be precisely sure how many people’s lives were scarred by this conflict. Someone who’s made a study of it tells me that there were probably 20 million deaths and around another 20 million casualties, people who survived but who bore the physical and mental scars for the rest of their life. 

Of course it isn’t the figures alone which tell the story of the sacrifice. What has been passed on from that generation to ours is not just how many people lost their lives but the manner of their dying. Two features strike me as particularly painful:

·       It’s a fact that unlike previous warfare more of the combatants in the ‘Great War’ actually died on the field of battle than of disease. My clergy colleague Sarah Mullally who once ran the nursing profession in this country, would probably want us to see the triumph of that: that death rates were contained by nurses making their own sacrifices to be close to the Front, dealing with the wounded in a way which prevented disease. But what it means is that most of those 20 million men met their end in the heat of battle.

·       Even more difficult is the fact that half of all the fatalities were of our family members who were simply lost in those battles. So at least 6 million families in this country sent their sons to war and never discovered what had happened to them. All we have is that resonant phrase suggested by the Poet Laureate Rudyard Kipling and carved on so many graves: “Known to God”. The names we present today as part of our worship, names which come from the memorials in our churches could not be more significant. These were our flesh and blood who we waved off, our young in whom we put our hopes, and not only did they lay down their life for their country but we never knew their final hours or their resting place. So we keep their names alive and vivid in our communities because we keep faith with them, wherever and however they died, honouring their sacrifice.

Secondly, it was a conflict which changed our world so dramatically that it is worth understanding what happened to us.

I’m sure the Chalke Valley History Festival which is drawing to a close today would testify there are no shortage of World War One historians publishing and broadcasting their material at present, helping our work of self-education. It’s fascinating to me that even something as recent as the start of the 20th century you cannot get a consensus about the causes, the course and the consequences of the ‘Great War’.

However, I suspect they’re all agreed that the world we experience was shaped by the ‘Great War’. From the beginning of modern, all-arms warfare to the social expectations around women’s role, and the collapse of the assumptions of empire the world moved swiftly forward to what we now know.

Yet it isn’t only about social advances. There are deep questions about nationhood, about the appropriate use of military intervention, about what duty a country asks of its citizens and when does national loyalty have to give way to higher laws – all of which seems extraordinarily relevant to the conflicts of our current world.

To illustrate such heart-searching we have included towards the end of the service all three verses of Cecil Spring-Rice’s hymn ‘I vow to thee my country’. The missing middle verse which is hardly ever sung tempers the arch patriotism of the first verse and leads us to look beyond the battlefield to, in the last verse, God’s kingdom where love and not power reigns supreme.

And then thirdly, let this anniversary be to us a lesson in peace-making and peace-keeping.

You’ll remember that our first reading was of Cain and Abel. These aren’t just two brothers who’ve fallen out. We’re told in Genesis that Cain was a tiller of the ground whilst his brother Abel was a keeper of sheep. This murder is the product of conflicting world views, warning us that human kind doesn’t live together peaceably by default. Cain is angry at a perceived injustice, and just before he slays his brother God warns him:

“sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you but you must master it”

If you like, sin is our congenital inability to build ways of gentleness and paths of peace, the inability we have to disagree well, to tolerate difference and to resist making enemies of those unlike us.

Alongside that sobering narrative of the conflict-prone human spirit we then heard the start of the Sermon given by Jesus; the ideal code by which we’re called to live. It puts before us a way of behaving where the merciful obtain mercy, peacemakers are called children of God, and the meek inherit the earth.

Let us be very clear. This is a way of perfection and we will not simply fall into it naturally. Jesus is putting before us the best we can possibly be as individuals and as a global community not because he thinks we are naturally able to achieve it but because he wishes us to aspire to it, in politics as much as domestic life. He of all people knew that a sense of perceived injustice followed by violent responses will be our pattern unless we are vigilant in our peace-making.

On the 4th August this Cathedral church and I hope many of the parishes of the diocese will stay open throughout the day – and in our case here until 11pm when war was actually declared. We’ll be offering a space for reflection and prayer in the face of all our profound memories. May I invite you to join us somewhere in the diocese as we go on remembering with solemn gratitude the ‘Great War’ and pray for enduring peace in our time? For Jesus said:

‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you, turn the other cheek… do to others as you would have them do to you.’