St Francis, Terriers - 2 Before Advent - Remembrance (13.11.2016)
Tony Dickinson

At eleven o’clock there will be silence. Perhaps that is the only proper response to the enormity which we remember today. Young men (and women) slaughtered in their thousands, whole nations bled white, on the Somme, at Verdun, or Caporetto, or Tannenberg. Then, twenty years later, an even greater disaster. Twenty-six million dead in Russia alone; another twenty million in China; seven million in the German Reich; three million in Japan: and three and a half million from Britain and the Commonwealth – by far the largest number (about 2/3) coming from India.

Those are massive figures. Equivalent, in Russia’s case, to the population of London wiped out three times over. Unimaginable numbers of dead. Each one of them someone’s parent, or partner, or child. So much grief and anger. So much desolation and loss. There are no words.

And yet something must be said. Something must be said because unless something is said there will be no remembering, there can be no remembering, once the survivors from the generation that fought have died – as those who came back from the First World War, the Great War, have already died. Something must be said because we owe it to their memory and to the memory of all who perished in conflict, whether on the Western Front or in the Warsaw ghetto, in the South Pacific or Salonika or Stalingrad. Something must be said: and it must be said as honestly and as fearlessly as we can – especially in a time when the demons of competitive nationalism appear to be returning to haunt Europe and the Americas.

In such a time those words of Jesus which we heard in this morning’s gospel take on a sharper relevance. The monuments we have built, the peace and prosperity which we have come to take for granted, will not last for ever. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues…” In both the cities where I lived as a child and a young adult there is a memorial to the victims of war. In each case it is a bombed-out church, silent, blackened and roofless. St Luke’s in Liverpool, Holy Rood in Southampton. No doubt people admired the beautiful stones with which they were adorned.

And no doubt people admired the church of St Alban in Liverpool’s twin city, Cologne, which fulfils the same role. Unlike Great St Martin’s or Holy Apostles, which also suffered devastating wartime damage, “Old St Alban’s” was not restored to its former glory. A new building was erected for the worshipping community, but the old church was simply made safe, to stand as a silent reminder of war’s destructiveness. At its heart there is a life-size copy of the sculpture “Grieving Parents”, which the artist Käthe Kollwitz made in memory of her son Peter, barely past his eighteenth birthday when he was killed in the autumn of 1914.

Christians are called to bear witness to the possibility of peace: peace with God and peace among human beings; to testify as Francis our patron did when he spoke out against the horror and cruelty of war while accompanying a crusader army in Egypt in 1219. The prayer which has been associated with him for nearly a century, and which we shall sing at the Communion this morning, prays that we may be made instruments, “channels” of God’s peace, and bears witness to the cost of that peace.

A similar thought is expressed by the contemporary priest-poet Malcolm Guite in his sonnet for Remembrance Sunday:

“November pierces with its bleak remembrance

Of all the bitterness and waste of war;

Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance

Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for,

Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers

And all the restless rumour of new wars,

For shells are falling all around our vespers,

No moment is unscarred, there is no pause.

In every instant bloodied innocence

Falls to the weary earth, and whilst we stand

Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,

And Abel’s blood still cries from every land.

One silence only might redeem that blood;

Only the silence of a dying God.”