Julian Browning concludes a series of sermons for Remembrance Sunday at All Saints, Margaret Street
Every human life is sacred. Human life is divine life made flesh. The Holy Spirit is present in every human heart. Remembrance Sunday is a profoundly Christian festival because it states just that: those human bodies who were sacrificed were full of divine life, as was Jesus who was sacrificed on the cross. We see this in action today when bodies are recovered from battlefields, painstakingly identified, and reburied with full military honours, in the presence of a proud family who never knew the great-uncle who didn’t come back. This year the scope of our remembrance is widened to include the innocent civilians, on all sides, who met their deaths in war. This is entirely right. Remembrance brings before our eyes those communities, obliterated villages, bombed towns, prison camps, refugee columns, where the victims did not sacrifice their lives for a worthy cause. They were sacrificed to the god of war. So our pride and gratitude is tempered by a repentance for the depravities of warfare in our age and every age.
But where do we start? How do we remember all that? How can we bear the weight of such savagery and loss and heroism? We cannot: it’s too much for us, and that is why the Unknown Soldier was buried in Westminster Abbey, to give some focus to national remembrance. Remembrance works when it’s personal and real. Do this in remembrance of me. We have Jesus Christ as Lord, because in his person, one human life, we can see all divine life, the life of God in ourselves and in others.
In 2014, I set myself the task of bringing into the light of day, on the Remembrance Sundays when I was asked to preach, the names of those choirboys who sang here, when there was a choir school attached to All Saints, and who died in the First World War. That little exercise was my remembrance. Through the individual we remember the many. That’s the Christian way. By being attentive to the particular, to the personal, to the individual, our imagination is opened to what is transcendent, what is universal, what is divine. The First World War commemorations are now over. I’ve got three choristers left. We’re not leaving them behind. I have to mention them now, bringing them to light, like finding identification discs in the battlefields of the Somme.
Geoffrey Harold Smith was head boy of the choir school and left in August 1912. He was a second lieutenant in the Northamptonshire Regiment and was killed, declared missing in action, in July 1917. He was nineteen.
He would have known John Edward Lowrie, who left the choir school in 1911, having been a brilliant solo voice in the choir. Lowrie was a second lieutenant in the Household Battalion. He was killed in action on Sunday 17th June 1917. He was twenty-one.
Then there was Malcolm Higgins. He was different from the others. He was older. As a chorister he made his first communion in this church on Whitsunday 1904. The school lost touch with him because, like his many brothers, Malcolm emigrated to Australia, in 1911. The Vicar of All Saints, Father Mackay, said that Malcolm went to join his brother on a wheat farm, but that was an English genteel gloss on the reality of emigrant life. Malcolm went west and worked as a labourer in the mining camps at Kalgoorlie, cutting railway sleepers for the trucks that went to and from the mines. When war was declared, Malcolm volunteered as a private in the 11th Australian Infantry Battalion, joined the ANZAC forces in Gallipoli, was invalided out with enteric fever, rejoined his battalion in Egypt, and in April 1916 proceeded to France with a machine gun company and into the Battle of the Somme. He was hit by a German shell on the 22nd August 1916 and died a few hours later. Malcolm was 6ft 1, his eyes were grey, his hair was brown, he gave his occupation as ‘Labourer,’ and his religion as Church of England. He is remembered in Australia. The name of one of our own, Malcolm Leslie Higgins, will be projected on the exterior of the Australian War Memorial in Campbell, Australia, at nine minutes past midnight on 13 December this year.
He and the others sang their hearts out in this church and loved life as we do. They lived with God, as we try to do. Like them we can learn here, week by week, how God does things, how, in the life of Jesus, God shares his life with us, so that we can make space in our lives for others, including those who are now for ever silent. That is remembrance. Remembrance is the pulse of divine love in our lives, declaring that every life is sacred and of an infinite value, a value which death does not diminish. Jesus said: ‘And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day.’ [John 6:39]. The silence after the Last Post seems so final at the going down of the sun. But in the morning we remember them. The more we remember, the more we love, and so the greater their victory.
Fr Julian Browning is Honorary Assistant Priest
at All Saints, Margaret Street.