Saturday 7 November 2015

Re Remembrance

Every time Christians celebrate the Eucharist - their principal act of worship because ordained by the Lord himself - they engage in an act of remembrance. The Eucharistic Prayer, the prayer of consecration, sometimes called the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving, includes these words: 

And so, Father, calling to mind his death on the cross,
his perfect sacrifice made once for the sins of the whole world;
rejoicing in his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension,
and looking for his coming in glory,
we celebrate this memorial of our redemption.*

This passage is what's technically called the anamnesis. It's related to the word amnesia - loss of memory - except it means the opposite: it means the very act of remembering. "Calling to mind" that Jesus died, rose again and ascended to his Father. Why do we call to mind, remember, this almost every time we worship?  Because it defines us, reminds us of who we are, who God has called us to be.  We need to hear it over and over again, particularly every time we do what he told us to do, lest we forget why, and so forget who we are.  This is our story, this is our song.  We retell it, re-sing it, relive it.  We are a people for whom remembrance is a defining act.  Do this in remembrance of me.

There are those who believe we should stop remembering the dead of the last century, especially those of the two world wars. They say that our remembering glorifies war. They say it's time to stop it.  We don't actively remember the dead of Agincourt, Waterloo or the Boer War: why, after so long, do we need to remember the dead of Passchendaele or the Battle of Britain?  I suggest because the two world wars and some of those that have followed them finally brought home to us the true cost of war.  Unlike those which preceded them, these were not wars that solely concerned individuals fighting in faraway places in pursuit of honour, territory and glory.  These were wars that directly affected every person on this island: rich and poor, male and female, young and old.  They were wars that formed us - defined us, if you like - in some sense made us who we are. My father fought the Japanese in the jungle swamps of Burma; my mother's family home in east London was destroyed in the Blitz. They, I, we are different people from those we would have been if those conflicts had not taken place. You and I need to remember who we are, where we have come from, and how we got to where we are now. 

Among the condolence cards I've received in the last couple of weeks is one from a priest friend, and on the front of it is a picture I would guess painted in about 1920, in the aftermath of the First World War. It shows a priest celebrating the Eucharist in the traditional way: at the high altar with six candles, his back to the people, the deacon at his right hand (both in black vestments), a server kneeling on the altar step, the subdeacon and thurifer at the side, and a cloud of incense above them all. (Well, this was close to the apogee of Anglo-Catholicism.) But, in the picture, above the living, are the recently dead. Alongside the statues of the warrior saints, like St George, can be seen the spirits of the war-dead: soldiers, sailors, nurses, even clergy.  Nearly all young and all in uniform. They are both obscured and revealed by the incense, their ethereal forms taking on the neutral colour of the church wall, ghost-like. But they are there.  That is the point.  They too stand before the altar of God, and worship as we do.  In Holy Communion we draw as close to Him, and to them, as it's possible to get in this life.

We Christians are never cut off from the departed: they are the Church Above, as we are the Church Below.  Though separated by the narrow stream of death, we worship as one. One Church, one faith, one Lord.  On this day especially we honour them because without their sacrifice we would not have our freedom.  Our freedom to live and love and worship as we do now.  Their deaths helped to form us, helped make us the people we are before God.  And because we are Christians, we are bound to remember them.

* Common Worship: Eucharistic Prayer B

"The Place of Meeting (at Holy Communion)" by Thomas Noyes-Lewis (1862-1946)
(c) The Martlet Bookbinding

Wednesday 15 April 2015

Patriotic Games

I remember a TV interview with writer Alan Bennett in which he discussed his 1983 film about the Cambridge spy, Guy Burgess, (An Englishman Abroad), In it, he said this: 

"For the Englishman, to be sceptical about his inheritance is part of that inheritance."  

This was, I think, in a context less of wanting to exonerate Burgess's treason than to explain it: viz that Burgess was ironically too English not to betray his country. Perhaps the kernel of truth I recognised in it then explains why I remember the comment 30 years on. I recalled it when I heard David Cameron describe himself as "a patriot" (pronounced with a short a - why do I say paytriot?) at the launch of the Conservative party manifesto for the 2015 UK General Election.  I reflected that such a sentiment would be entirely normal, indeed probably expected, in an American and perhaps a French election; but that in Britain, it will have undoubtedly made some people wince.  I have no doubt that it was partly aimed at those flirting with voting for UKIP as the only truly patriotic party in England; but I think it was genuine.  Rather like his neither-hot-nor-cold Christian faith and his promise that we will have seen the back of him by 2020, the wonder is not the fact that this is how he feels, but rather that he doesn't mind saying so.

For it is a truth universally acknowledged that the English (I do not include the Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish in this) are embarrassed by overt expressions of patriotism.  We regard it as in slightly poor taste, somehow, to appear to extol the virtues of our own country, perhaps for fear it suggest they might in some way exceed those of any other. We don't mind patriotic feelings; we don't even mind singing Jerusalem along with the Last Night of the Proms, but we'd rather not sing it in church, thank you very much.  Harmless flag-waving is fine for festive national occasions, especially those associated with the monarchy; but most us wouldn't dream of flying a Union Jack or a flag of St George in front of our houses.  Those who do are dismissed as ignorant, nationalistic bigots.  How different from the USA and Scotland (and even, I've noticed, Sweden).  The English are allowed to be patriotic if they wish, as long as they keep it to themselves.

Yet having a love for one's country seems to be a natural enough instinct.  I can love my country while remaining realistic about it - indeed critical of it (rather as I am with my Church, and even certain, well, persons) and I would never claim that it is better than another.  I just have a special feeling for it. I think it is beautiful. Love is like that.

Over the past century, Britain has been in the front line of two world wars, one of which robbed it of half a generation of its young men, the second of which devastated its cities and left it bankrupt. It has lost a vast empire, and almost its entire heavy industrial base.  It has lost its former confidence, self-esteem and religious moorings, and many of the institutions which bound it communally.  It is divided within itself and uncertain about its place in the family of nations. It does not know who it wants to govern it. 

And yet. This morning (15 April 2015) the IMF announced that Britain now has the second largest economy in Europe, and the fifth largest in the world. Geographically, it is the size of one US state (Nevada). As we might say these days: "How is that even possible?"

Saturday 14 March 2015

Waterloo Sunset

Some concern has been expressed about a service held in an Anglican church in London which included Muslim prayers. You can read about it here.

I am not outraged by this, partly perhaps because I am not a "conservative evangelical" out of sympathy with my "liberal catholic" diocesan bishop and those who share his ecclesiological outlook; but also because I accept that it was done with the nicest possible (and thoroughly Christian) motives, including hospitality, reconciliation and love of neighbour.  Yet the outcome is yet another occasion on which the Church has made itself look rather silly, not least because it does not appear to have occurred to the vicar of the church in question that the service would be seen as in any sense controversial (if I did not dislike the expression so much, I would be tempted to exclaim, softly but patronisingly: "Ah, bless!")

But the Church is now rather an old hand at making itself look silly; and there are perhaps deeper reasons why this service (at which I should emphasise I was not present) should not have taken place.  These do not turn on its alleged illegality (so often the first port of call for outraged Anglo-Presbyterians) nor even of a possible - I would say more worrying if nonetheless commonplace - technical breach of canonical oaths. They refer to the principle that nothing must be proclaimed or preached within one of our churches which the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church does not believe to be True.  The claim that the Quran is the literal word of God whose last prophet is Mohammed is one which I understand and respect. But I do not believe it to be true, and neither does the Church.  The Church's belief ("uniquely revealed in Holy Scripture and set forth in the Catholic Creeds") is that Jesus Christ is the incarnate God who died for our sins, rose from the dead, sits at the right hand of the Father to intercede for us, and will come again as our Judge.  This is the Absolute Truth as far as it is concerned, and nothing that is incompatible with that can with integrity be proclaimed by or in it.

Another point, which I know has been made many times before, is this. While I have no doubt that the Muslims who attended the service were both grateful for and touched by it, I suspect such sentiment is fleeting.  A true and lasting meeting of hearts and minds takes place when those of (sometimes profoundly) differing creeds find brotherhood without needing to dilute or mingle their beliefs. Seriously religious human beings can look their differences in the eye without loss of integrity or (please God) love.