Moria Refugee Camp on Lesvos

Moria Refugee Camp on Lesvos
Moria Refugee Camp on Lesvos

Sunday, 2 November 2014

The Waste of War

My father fought in both world wars; he was sixty when I was born. I have been reading through the scrap books my mother kept when she was his PA and have found some wonderful material painting a vivid picture of that time. 

One particular piece was the text of a speech my father delivered in Halifax in Salute the Soldier Week seeking to encourage more people to put their money in National Savings in order to help meet the ever increasing monetary cost of the war. One sentence in this speech struck me very hard and it was this:

‘War in itself is essentially wasteful and if we are to be victorious we must waste more than the enemy. This is the cost of war.’

My father’s role was to supply the troops with all they needed and so this seems all the more odd; a grim acceptance of a reality.

My father spoke very little about his experiences in the Great War although I recall him saying that in the horror of the Somme quite by chance he met up with his brother. My father was a young officer in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps and my uncle in the Royal Engineers. I wonder what they may have said to each other? Their father had died in 1906 and their mother was alone in England working as a housekeeper at the Conservative Club in St James’ Street, London. 

I remember my uncle telling me with incredulity how on that 4th of August 1914 he and very many other young men had rejoiced in the streets at the prospect of standing up for King and country. The Somme campaign was some two years later. The two Williams boys, as their mother still regarded them, were certainly no longer boys. They had witnessed barbarism on a monumental scale. So, would the conversation have been about the horrors, or, perhaps, on an altogether more banal level. Concern for mother and how she must be worrying, but then perhaps the conversation that any two brothers might have, the telling of stories, a joke or two, then a glass or two. It can only be conjecture. What it tells me though is that during all the horror, somehow life did go on. People thought ordinary thoughts, did ordinary things, had ordinary conversations. 

Yet some things stick. I know my father had nightmares right up until his death. I can’t help feeling that the inherent wastefulness of men and material must have struck him hard in the trenches and then followed him as he strove to do his job and so work for victory against Nazism, but always in the knowledge of the awful waste this entailed.

Remembrance 2012

Awake remembrance of these valiant dead, and with your puissant arm renew their feats.

2015 marks the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt and the time I played a very young looking Bishop of Ely in Shakespeare’s Henry V. This line from the first Act has stayed with me over the last fifty years but its resonance has changed. The valiant dead we honour today and indeed sang about in our hymns. This time of year when we remember All Saints and, in All Souls, those whom we love but see no longer, we do awake the remembrance. These days though we have many reminders as in my childhood when wounded servicemen were quite common sights; so too in the 21st century with casualties from Afganistan and Iraq. What has changed is the imperative to renew their feats.

Something seems to have changed, whether in me or more widely. The bellicose reaction of George W Bush to the twin towers is replaced by the way the west now looks on as Syria destroys herself.
A question that perhaps I never expected to ask is whether we can be sufficiently valiant to say no to renewing their deeds. This is not that we don’t honour; it is that we do. It is about politicians being brave enough to say to the electorate, force will not work; our sons and daughters will lose their lives along with the sons and daughters of those whom we oppose, and nothing will change. This is not something that would command universal support and equally it is not the focus of what we are doing today. I am simply reminded by the death of Senator George McGovern who stood against Nixon over the Vietnam war. He came to politics from a distinguished service career and he said after losing the election that if his standing had brought peace one day closer it would have been worth it.

The reading we heard from St Mark’s gospel is about Jesus calling his first disciples. These men followed quite oblivious to their destination, their route or the hazards they may encounter en route. Those whom we honour today may have found themselves in not dissimilar situations. I remember my Uncle, who with my father fought in the first world war, telling me of the jubilation in the streets following the declaration of war. He then fell quiet.

The same is shown in a film I have watched more than almost any, Richard Attenborough’s a Bridge too Far. This is a crazy thing to do; it is an horrific film, showing as it does in graphic detail the consequences of an overly ambitious decision by a great war leader, Field Marshall Montgomery. There is one sequence in the film that always sticks in my mind. Somewhere in then free France, a hall is filled with British army officers chattering nervously; there is an overwhelming air of expectation. We see why as General Sir Brian Horrocks enters; a huge round of applause and this lauded general takes the stage to his obvious delight. He tells his assembled officers what lies in store. It is an ambitious plan. He tells them, it not the easiest party we have been too, but I wouldn’t miss it for the world. He goes on with a joked allusion to Henry V at Agincourt. It is perhaps quintessential fiction, but may well be based on truth. The inspiring speech, necessarily skirting round the fears of what the reality might be and we know he has fears since only a little later he discloses them; you didn’t actually believe all that rubbish?

It is inappropriate to draw on the hype of war movies when we are here to remember those who sacrificed actual lives in two world wars and later conflicts, inappropriate but perhaps revealing.
Our reading was from the very start of St Marks gospel, the shortest of the four accounts of Jesus’ life and one where no word is wasted. Jesus made no great speeches to encourage Simon and Andrew, James and John to follow him, simply the request. So why did they? Was he charismatic as, by all accounts, Horrocks was? Was it just an attractive young man with fresh exciting ideas that made sound men leave all to follow him? They had no idea of what was to come.

I am reminded of another film, that of Churchill in the year preceding the second world war, the Gathering Storm. Churchill is talking about the young civil servant who at great personal risk fed him the secret information that enabled him to bring parliament to appreciate the danger that was mounting in Nazi Germany. He said of the young man and of bravery, ‘it is one thing to undertake a dangerous task blind to its dangers, it is true bravery where fully aware of the dangers that the task is undertaken.

This brings us to the essence of remembrance. Who could have watched the Paralympics without a sense of awe at how these people had overcome the difficulties they live with. It all started with those young men at Stoke Mandeville inspired to take up the life that had so nearly forfeited. They, I believe, may have done what they did in the full knowledge of what lay in store. True bravery for which we give thanks.

This all begs a massive question: if they knew so too did their leaders: Churchill, Bush and Blair. Sometimes it feels with this latter group, the politicians, that they don’t truly think through the consequences of their demands. The demand is massive; can the end possibly justify it? It is the oldest question in the world, but perhaps one that is now at last being asked. We sit in agony as we see Syria destroying herself. We should send the troops in, is the kneejerk reaction that cost so many lives in Iraq and Afganistaan. Perhaps the world is learning however painful it may be.
That though is not our focus today. We remember, we give thanks too for those many, I fear probably like me, who were not so obviously brave, but rather were scared and died in fear. For them too we give thanks, but also for those caught up in the cross fire, the innocent victim, as if any victim was ever anything else. Those whose young lives were stolen from them. All these we honour and give thanks.

But what of Jesus and his call? Do we take a reality check and ignore it? Or for the sake of those whom we remember, respond to it in the faith that by doing so we make the world more like the heaven for which we pray.        

The hijacking of Jesus

They have taken my Lord…and I know not where they have laid him

These well known words of Mary are of course words of Easter, and now we are approaching Advent, so why?

The ‘why’ is serendipitous. Last year my wife told me of a review she had heard of a Man Booker Prize shortlisted book, I promptly added it to my birthday list and my daughter duly gave it to me. I started to read it, but failed to get into it; I put it down. This September I took it up again and have found it revolutionary, or do I mean revelatory?

Colm Toibin’s immensely moving book, the Testament of Mary, seeks to tell the story of Jesus from the point of view of his mother. From this vantage point we are shown a number of the events familiar through the Biblical accounts, principally the Wedding at Cana and the Raising of Lazarus, though nothing can prepare us for the account of the crucifixion. A mother witnessing unbelievable agony in her son is an image for which we cannot prepare. In the book it is short and sharp and stuns.

Whilst this image is central, the theme of the book is that Jesus, a good man, has been ‘hijacked’ by those who want more. They form an hysterical group around him and egg him on. The chill in the story emerges with grey shadowy men who seek to control Mary into her old age. They want from her an account of what happened that fits with their agenda. She resists. Everything seems to be orchestrated by men in power, essentially weak men who exert control through fear.

As she approaches her death, these men tell her what her son has achieved. Phrases which might be recognised as articles of faith are trotted out and fall flat in the context of what Mary, the heart broken mother, knows. She concludes, that, no, it wasn’t worth it. 

The whole book is powerful. There are passages which strike strong chords with ‘middle C’ of my previous post. The scene where there are men in hierarchies who demand to be listened to - surely a deliberate construct of the author, but one which seems to fit. The painstaking but angry work of the fictional ‘gospel’ writers as they wrestle with the difference between what Mary remembers and the theme they are determined to project.

The book, as did Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, again poses the question of whether the man we know as Jesus was hijacked by the religious men of his time, as, I might suggest, he is perhaps hijacked by the architects of great churches, composers of the great choral works, painters and sculptors, even preachers who use his stories to perfect the composition and delivery of ten minutes of thought provoking Sunday morning prose (present company excepted!).

Middle C

The difference between church and Church: the building and the body.

The Church is the more important and has as its purpose to be the Body of Christ, the continuation of the life of Jesus. So, it is a short step to tell what it should be: Christlike. If Jesus Christ typifies anything, it must surely be love. At the Church’s heart then is quite simply love. In a sense everything else that is Christlike stems from this. A welcome to everyone, a concern for the excluded and disadvantaged, but then also actions, like healing. 

The church with a small ‘c’ is a building, the product of human history. Perhaps in the early Church, the church was simply where the community of believers met. I was reading about the origin of Venice and found this: ‘Venice began life a a host of separate island communities, each clustered around its own parish church’. I love this image of a church that is both central but also protective, like a mother hen. Human history has added much: churches are symbols of glory, of wealth, of excellence, of power, but also of beauty, art and creativity. They have as many uses as buildings can have. 

This is, of course, not the whole story: there is the whole edifice or establishment of the institutional church, which I might call middle ‘c’.

When we have a problem with ‘the church’, it very often is with this middle ‘c’. At its worst child abuse could flourish because middle ‘c’ failed to stop it; the inquisition was really part of a power struggle within middle ‘c’. But there is more on a much mundane level. How often have I heard that ‘it’s terrible, the diocese did such and such.’ Of course it is always convenient to have something relatively faceless to blame, and what better than middle ‘c’.

Was middle ‘c’, an organisation or establishment, always inevitable? Could the early Church have found an alternative? Philip Pullman, in his intriguing book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, suggests something along these lines. The religious authorities of the time saw the effect that Jesus was having and took immediate steps to squeeze all the new dangerous thinking into a religion shaped box. After all it was only yet another gloss on an age-old subject. It would be wrong and seriously disrespectful by this token to damn other older religions, but I suspect Pullman has point. There does seem to have been something of a hijacking.

I suspect that in the beginning it was a fairly light touch, but not wholly if we listen to the arguments St Paul had both with young Churches and with the group of followers gathered round St Peter. The stories of the many heresies that emerged as men tried to make sense of the stories and teaching around Jesus certainly indicate that the touch grew heavier.

The turning point for middle ‘c’ came when the Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire. It was now part of the machinery of the state. Some centuries later this can be seen in vivid terms in places such as Lincoln where the Norman Castle and Norman Cathedral together send a message of power over a population of Anglo-Saxons that stood tiny before them. It was and is quite simply a massive contradiction, a church spelling out power in the name of a Church born of a cross.

So, what’s to be done? Well, over the centuries many have tried. John Wesley must be the name that springs most to mind. He wanted to get back to what matters: yet the Methodist church now has its own middle ‘c’, its own organisation.

I find it sad that middle ‘c’ that it is the institution of the Church of England seems to be gaining ground as I read of dioceses producing ‘strategies’, of inviting successful ‘churches’ to bring their magic formula and set up ‘branches’. I am probably grossly out of touch and will be proved wrong, yet I am haunted (in a good way) by the last part of John Betjeman’s poem, Christmas: Eve, where he explores the implications of the story of Jesus being true: 

No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

If it is true, can we find a way to trim down middle ‘c’ to give space for Church and church?

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Lincoln Synagogue

Today was a first for me, visit to the oldest Synagogue in England which is at Jews Court, The Strait, Lincoln.

The service for Sabbath morning was sung in Hebrew by a Rabbi  with a wonderful voice. I was struck by the way it followed a pattern that everyone knew. It was like the way my oldies in Cornwall all knew their prayer book services verbatim. It is there deep in the heartbeat of these warm and welcoming people. The other thing that struck me was how much was sung in a minor key. This reflects the lamentation of so much of the Hebrew Bible.

This is a congregation of Liberal Judaism. The Rabbi spoke about the reading from the Torah from Deuteronomy. He started from the orthodox view that it is the word of God, later it was accepted that it is the word of Moses, later still that it was written in the seventh century BCC in Babylon. Now it is acknowledged that it provides a framework for relating to God in our own time.

What struck me most was that everything was done not because someone in authority decreed it, but because it honours tradition going back into the depths of time.

Do we need the armed forces?

I wrote the following two paragraphs four years ago and only found the draft today. What is odd is that I have recently been thinking on very much the same lines, informed by my research for my book, The Logistics of War and encouraged by the possibility of exploring the subject at a future Lincoln Philosophy Cafe.

'In Friday's Guardian, Simon Jenkins asked this question; it should have made my blood boil, coming, as I do, from an army family. It should also have made my blood boil given the importance I attach to Remembrance. It did the opposite, and I am trying to work out why. When I read about Churchill in the thirties, he stands as my farsighted hero. I understand the desire of Baldwin and Chamberlain for peace, but Churchill was right. But he was right then. The world has moved on to become in many ways a more dangerous place. There is no single bogeyman.

On Sunday I will say in my sermon that the Second World War set the pattern for conflicts to come. It made ethic cleansing accepted, it made atrocities on civilians a normal part of war, it gave permission for the bombing of Baghdad. The difference now is that the threats are more insidious. They need a different response. The armed forces continue the pattern set by WWII, but the way the threats present themselves is radically different. We need a defence policy that addresses this rather than saying that the existing services can take it within their ambit.'

The point I am finding myself drawn to is that war is no longer the solution. War did defeat the Nazis, it didn't defeat any of Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. As my father said in a speech in Halifax for Salute the Soldier week, the nation that is prepared to waste the most will win. The Allies had an overwhelming advantage in resources compared to Germany. The problem now is that even small countries or alliances can have access to weapons the equal of the superpowers.