In the midst of Remembrancetide, it is worth taking a moment to look past the politics and ills of war and focus on those who pursue peace, sometimes with the ultimate cost - so argues Revd Vic Van Den Bergh, honourary chaplain at the National Memorial Arboretum.
"Having attended a service marking the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the battle of the Somme at the National Memorial Arboretum (NMA) recently I found myself engaged in conversation by someone who wondered why we did it. After all, they said, Theres nothing to celebrate, is there? Not only that, they continued, But theres nothing glorious about war so why do you continue to impose your jingoism on the rest of us?
"I think it was at this point that I must have smiled (in what I hoped was a kindly manner) as suddenly the tone changed and they informed me that, This was no smiling matter. How could I, a man of God, support glorifying war, when surely I should be supporting peace!
"The season now known as Remembrancetide begins with All Saints Day and ends with Armistice Day or Remembrance Sunday (depending which is the latter of the two commemorations). I often hear that this is essentially an Anglican thing and that is it the established church leading the nation in some awful hegemonic act of misplaced pride and former global dominance.
"First and foremost we need to set the record straight and say that whilst we might speak of our funeral services as a celebration of a life, it is more generally correct to see as a commemoration that which we do when it comes to those dates marked by poppies, bugles and a military presence. It is never a celebration of death - not that of our own, or those against whom we contended for though we use the term to speak of those in glory, glorifying war is neither the intent nor the reality.
"So what is it we do when we engage with Armistice, Remembrance Sunday or any of the many other memorials of battles, conflicts and campaigns and those engaged in them? Let me try to explain it with three short points:
- We gather to remember, and pay our respects to, those who marched away never to return and to remember all who have been victims of war and oppression then and now.
- We seek to remember all those who have bear within themselves (in body, mind or spirit), the scars of conflict (including those left behind).
- We seek to commit ourselves to work for a world where humility, justice and mercy are the guiding principles in our dealing with all people and nations and to commit ourselves to working for peace and reconciliation; remembering all who serve throughout the world at this time.
"These three elements are present (or should be) in every act of remembrance we undertake. No surprise then that when the man with whom I was conversing referred to the gathered schoolchildren as, 'No better than those who worshipped war as members of the Hitler Youth!' I found myself more than a little disappointed and saddened for it was not only wrong but quite meteorically distasteful to boot.
"We never do remembrance to glorify our forces or be disrespectful to those against whom we have contended. Perhaps a glance towards the 30th Anniversary of the Falklands War when Margaret Allen, whose husband died in an Argentine attack on his ship (HMS Argonaut) lit a candle and took part in a service in which we prayed for peace between our nations and remembered, alongside our own those, who mourned the three Falkland islanders and the 649 Argentinians who died in the conflict all parties to this conflict united in our shared loss and sadness. Thats the heartbeat of remembrance.
"As we approach Remembrancetide at the NMA we celebrate the conclusion of some quite substantial building work and remedial work on the Armed Forces Memorial its centrepiece which will be rededicated on the 10th November a day which will see those who lost their lives as a result of action in Afghanistan remembered and honoured. On that same day we will hold a service for those families who have lost loved one on active service in British forces during the previous year before we hold the Armistice Day service with its amazing aligning of the suns rays and the slots cut in the walls of the memorial itself hopefully illuminating the central wreath within it (as so often it does each year).
"There are services in the grounds of the NMA every day of the week and many of these are celebrations; the family milestones whist others are reminders of service given and of those we see no longer. It is a place where remembrance, commemoration, celebration and reflection are to be found.
"As we approach our season of remembrance can I encourage you to see past the politics and excesses of war (which I am reliably informed is generally started by politicians) and the ills that are conflict, power and iniquity and instead focus on those who today serve in pursuit of peace, those who have served in the quest for peace and those who have lost loved one through conflict. Spare a thought for those who even today wait at home for their loved ones return and those who wish those same men and women be at their gate to combat Ebola, despotic regimes and the wickedness that is fundamentalism.
"And when the bugles sound ends and heads are bowed, think of those who march (and have marched) away, those who long for liberation from wickedness and fear, those whose lives have been taken or broken through the wickedness of man and in that moment pray for the peace of the world and the dawn that heralds the second advent of Jesus, the Christ."
Revd Vic Van Den Bergh RF CF
Hon. Chaplain National Memorial Arboretum