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Sunday Sermon

Remembering WWI at Salisbury Cathedral
Posted By : June Osborne Sunday 20th October 2013

Sermon by the Very Reverend June Osborne DL


2 Timothy 3: 14- 4: 5

Luke 18: 1-8


We’re people who just love stereotypes and in order to make an important point about prayer and faith we’ve just heard Jesus using some humorous stereotypes. Two thousand years later we still recognise the stereotype of the heartless judge and the nagging woman.  But it makes us ask – what are stereotypes for, because we all know judges aren’t without compassion and women don’t nag.

I’ve been thinking about the way stereotypes work in another context this week as I’ve been to several events looking forward to the centenary of the First World War. Some of you may know that I’m on the Government’s Advisory Panel for the commemoration of that anniversary and although it won’t begin properly until next summer the forward planning is very much happening now.

And so it was that on Wednesday that I was at Broadcasting House for the launch of the BBC’s schedule which has been devised to explore some of the many different aspects of the Great War.

At the same time the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has just published the findings of some research which says that we are all likely to have high expectations and be emotionally invested in this commemoration but we have a very low level of knowledge. And when expectations and ignorance combine anywhere in life we tend to retreat into stereotypes. Think of some of the stereotypes we’ve already got used to depending on for what happened between 1914 and 1918.

  • There’s the bravery of British soldiers set alongside the perceived ineptness of British Generals. This is summarised in the phrase which pre-dated the First World War - “lions led by donkeys”.  It became the sentiment behind Alan Clark’s history of the conflict in the 1960’s, which he called ‘The Donkeys’ and still remains the popular stereotype of the British military command. The German officers, who operated pretty much the same as their British counterparts, inherited no such lampooning.
  • Then there are the stereotypes which convey whether the war should have happened at all. The television series ‘Blackadder goes to War’ must surely be our most memorable expression that the war was ‘a sustained exercise in futility’. Throughout the four years we’ll hear people like Max Hastings arguing that we were fighting a just and necessary war.
  • As far as the Church is concerned it has to combat its own collection of stereotypes including the idea that the First World War led to a massive loss of faith in the Christian message and that the ‘tragic incompetence’ theory extended also to the performance of the Church. Seen as out of touch with the men at the front, believed to be lamentably slow to adapt to the conditions of war, it is often thought that the Church of England especially struggled to articulate any meaningful response to what was happening.  The evidence simply doesn’t bear this out. Church attendance didn’t fall after the war, Chaplains won the Victoria Cross for their bravery, and Christianity could be described as ‘the mental furniture of the men in the trenches’.
  • And I suppose the strongest stereotype of all is that the First World War was simply about carnage. Horror dominates our images and we’ll find it challenging to relive the anniversary of battles such as the Somme. Yet it’s a fact that 88% of those who fought in that war came home. Maybe wounded and mentally scarred but they went on to become our fathers and grandfathers.

One of the BBC’s favourite historians, Professor David Reynolds says that he thinks that mentally we’re stuck in the trenches, our view of 1914-18 is caricature on a grand scale, and not necessarily a caricature that serves us well.

So here’s two things to consider.

Firstly, if we’re going to do justice to what our nation, communities and families actually experienced during this centenary we’re going to have to work hard to get past the stereotypes.

And secondly, our love of stereotypes are fine but they’re never the whole truth. They’re there to capture our attention.

Jesus used some stereotypes because he wanted to capture our attention on the subject of prayer, and especially how we keep faith in God when we’re facing things which look as if they’re unlikely to change.

‘A judge who neither fears God nor has respect for people’ is Jesus’ caricature. So we’re instantly told that the widow who seeks redress is unlikely to get any joy. She asks knowing that her cause is falling on unsympathetic, possibly deaf, ears. And he compares that with God’s response.

It seems to me that it’s relatively easy for us to pray when we’re in the midst of a crisis and need help ourselves, or when something is making us profoundly grateful. One of our congregation here this morning became a grandmother this week and I’m sure she finds a prayer of thanksgiving entirely natural today. Yet Jesus would’ve known how hard we find it to persevere in prayer and in faith when our own needs aren’t immediately involved, or the resolution isn’t so instant.

  • How do we persist in our praying for the Middle East or South Sudan when the conflicts are so intractable and the needs so overwhelming?
  • How do you find the will to go on praying in the face of own families’ problems, some of which we can’t influence? 
  • How did people pray as they went about their ‘home front’ life during the years of the First World War, and when it became very clear that it wouldn’t be ‘over by Christmas’?

It goes on being our task to be persistent as we pray, not just for ourselves and those we love, but for the obstinate realities of our current world.  Jesus describes those of us in the Church who pray as ‘the chosen ones who cry out to God day and night’ and he promises God’s sure response in granting justice. God does not have deaf ears.

Prayer isn’t primarily instrumental. Our praying will not always change a situation but it is part of what brings good into the world. And it always does us good because it opens us up, and reassures us of God’s deepest and eternal purposes.

Whatever else is achieved by the commemoration of the First World War it will remind us that some of our recent forebears faced unbearable experiences and found in themselves immense bravery and loyalty and resilience. Prayer would have been a central part of what enabled most of them to get through with their sanity, and their belief in God and humanity intact.

Jesus says that the only way to face up to our unbearable realities, to cope with our worst of times, and to find the deepest understanding and truth, is to hold tight to God’s wisdom and patiently seek where true glory lies.

We do that through persistent prayer, and so he says to us ‘Pray always and do not lose heart’.