Peter Eagles on Remembrance and Remembering

By the time we get to Remembrance Sunday, many of us will already have been engaged in an act of national recollection in this extraordinary year of anniversaries. For my part, as a military chaplain, I have been involved in a sequence of liturgies: Commemoration of the End of Combat Operations in Afghanistan, and the Rededication of the Memorial Wall from Camp Bastion; the centenary of the Gallipoli Campaign; the seventieth anniversary of Victory in Europe; Albuhera Day; the bicentenary of Waterloo; the seventieth anniversary of Victory in Japan; and six hundred years since Agincourt. In the week of the anniversary of Victory in Japan, I was invited to broadcast a series of radio reflections around the theme of memorialisation, and into this I incorporated thoughts to do with the new Korean War Memorial in London, the National Memorial Arboretum, and the tomb of King Richard III in Leicester.

Why do we do this, and what does it achieve? The answers are many and complex, but before coming to them we need to look at several very reasonable concerns. As Christians, we believe that all time is redeemed in the new covenant; so obsession with dates and numbers is unnecessary, and even unhelpful. Much as I value history and tradition, I am not convinced that every anniversary needs to be marked.

More fundamentally, we know that war is wrong, profoundly and indisputably so, and therefore we must not seek to sanctify it. It is the ultimate human failure: the characteristic mark of fallen nature and original sin. In times less enlightened than our own, we have committed young and terrified conscripts in their hundreds and in their thousands to the field of slaughter, all for the sake of a few yards of ground which would be lost again the next day. In our own day, and despite all our efforts, Iraq remains a traumatised country out of which terror and violence continue to spring; and any progress or development in the landscape of southern Afghanistan into which I first deployed with a small expeditionary force in the spring of 2006 has been gained at dreadful cost. I think every day of the innocents who have been overwhelmed by all of this: the bereaved, the dispossessed, the injured, the lives and livelihoods that have been lost, and the faith and trust which has been destroyed.

The truth is that conflict is part of a world which falls short of the Kingdom of God, and so the first element of Remembrance must be contrition. As we remember what it is to be human, honesty compels us to make a response of sheer repentance. This needs to be explicit in our liturgy, both at the beginning as we gather and at the end as we pledge to do better. It will be built into our prayers and it will find powerful expression in the act of corporate silence. We stand at the edge of the abyss, and nothing can pull us back but the grace of God. We are justified by grace through faith, and by nothing else.

This is a profound experience when shared with a large group of people. Apart from the liturgy of the Eucharist, it is possibly the most visible public moment when we reflect upon what it means to be human. Further, it is entirely universal, predicated simply on our shared humanity. I recall the repatriation of two soldiers from Afghanistan: a Muslim and a Christian killed in the same action. I said my prayers, and my Islamic colleague said his, and there was no sense that we were speaking different languages. That is simply to say that as the coffins were loaded onto the aircraft, revealed religion spoke words of truth and comfort to the congregation of several thousand, and it was possible for everyone who stood there in silence on the airfield that night to feel that they were both a British soldier and a child of God.

I think also of a moment at the other end of the process of repatriation, several years later, when I stood at the runway at RAF Brize Norton. Again, two soldiers had been killed in the same action. Both were from the same regiment. One was British, one was Fijian. A large extended family had gathered to receive back the body of the British soldier, perhaps fifteen or even twenty people who waited together for the aircraft to arrive carrying the coffins.

For the Fijian soldier there were three people, all women: just two relatives and a government representative. Seeing the tiny group standing there by themselves, having come from one side of the world to receive back their brother killed on another far side of the world, I asked myself what I could possibly say that would bring any support or comfort. At that moment, it was not words that were needed. It was human company that was required, the presence of someone to share the vigil, to stand alongside and to inhabit the same experience with understanding and compassion.

It was an extraordinary experience, in every way. The families, the mourners, the regimental and MoD representatives, and the attending priest stand outside as the aircraft that carries the bodies flies in. You hear it before you see it. Then it becomes visible in the distance, growing in size and volume as it circles and descends and lands. But then, having flown directly from a war-zone, it needs to disable its weapon systems and discharge its flares, so the families and mourners go back indoors for another hour. Then, at last, we step outside again, and the coffins are unloaded. The chaplain stands at the foot of the ramp and says prayers privately: a final link in a ministry of prayer and presence that will have accompanied the dead soldier from as soon as possible after wounding or death, through notification and support to undertakers, care of the platoon and the battalion, and the repatriation itself. There is then time in the chapel of rest at the air terminal before the final stage of journey to the family home and the funeral in the parish. It was now that I was able to speak to the Fijian group, sitting in the chapel, and they had nothing but gratitude for those who had supported them, and for the larger bereaved family who had by now become their friends. There was deep sorrow, huge sadness, but there were also smiles and embraces and even moments of laughter within the healing grace and mystery of shared humanity.

With this in mind, we might ask whether words have any part at all in Remembrance. Surely they do, but they are words that convey richness and breadth of allusion; and which seek to take us beyond that which is only of this world. ‘Why should religion be part of Remembrance?’ or ‘Can you have Remembrance without religion?’ These questions are regularly asked, perhaps increasingly so, every year. Secular liturgies of Remembrance are of course in use, but they speak to us in a different register, and it has certainly been my experience that they do not meet the pastoral need of soldiers or the wider military community. They do not meet that need even in barracks in peace-time, let alone in a situation of conflict and death and isolation.

The incandescence of spiritual liturgical language is what takes us beyond ourselves, and that is what soldiers seek as they gather to remember their dead. I once used the Lord’s Prayer in modern language with a congregation of soldiers, and it missed the mark entirely. I have not used it again since. For all its beauty, it did not have the spiritual resonance and richness – familiar and yet also transcendent – that they associated with the traditional words, which they were content to let wash over them and bring forth association, and reference, and comfort. Soldiers ask very straightforward questions, such as: ‘What happens when my friend is killed?’, and ‘What is God like?’ For all the directness of those questions, they deserve a response that takes seriously the mysteries of our faith and does not seek to dilute them.

The greatest word of all is the very word ‘Remembrance’, and my homily on Remembrance Sunday always seems to conclude with reference to the wonderful use of this word in the New Testament. ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ speaks not of recollection, nor of not-forgetting, nor even of a process of thought – but of an abiding relationship that Christians have been able to understand as the eternal life of the believer within the love of the Holy Trinity.

‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom’ is this very same concept of shared humanity, but now taken up into the heights of redemption through the eternal Son. ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ does not mean that we should not forget; but rather that we should do this in order that we may be with Him always. Bread and wine become the reality of Christ, and Remembrance is revealed as indwelling, as abiding, as a loving and unbreakable relationship. Remembrance is therefore not an act of the mind or of the will, but of both, and more: an act of the whole person which is rooted in love. For Christians it is rooted also in the hope of the resurrection to eternal life. We remember our departed not because it is the last thing that we can do for them, but because it is the greatest. ND

The Ven. Peter Eagles CF is Assistant Chaplain-General and Archdeacon for the Army