The Second Sunday before Advent
A great deal is being said in these days about the failure of the Church to attract the masses; and this is true not only of the Church of England, but also of other religious bodies. But it must not be thought on that account that it is Christianity that has failed. No, we must discriminate between Christianity and the exponents of Christianity. It is the exponents that have failed and not Christianity. But the failure of the Church is no new cry. Many years ago a Churchman asked David Garrick how it was that the churches were empty while theatres were full; and the great actor replied, “We act fiction as though we believed it to be truth, while you act truth as though you believed it to be fiction.”
You may be a little surprised to hear that these words were written by the Vicar of this parish during the First World War. You can look it up in the bound volume of the Parish Magazine from that period that is over there on display. His comments are as apposite today as they were in 1918. There are issues here, now and then about the mission of the church, in the local community and nationally, and it is interesting to notice that while the circumstances are different, the issues and the attitudes are not dissimilar at all. We are not at war now - indeed another European War has intervened - arguably precipitated by the way in which the end of the First One was handled. We get on well with the French and the Germans, and indeed, basically with everyone else - our threats are less from other nations now, as from worldviews which cross national boundaries. Brexit notwithstanding, the end of the Second World War in Europe was handled better than the end of the First, and out of it grew the European Economic Area, the EEC and now the European Union. The UK may be leaving the EU - although that isn’t over until it is over, as they say - but we are leaving something, which, while it was created to promote European peace and co-operation - and it would seem has successfully done so - the leaving of it is not something which most people would anticipate will precipitate further wars in Europe.
But there is an irony isn’t there, that we notice that politics suddenly became interesting again in the same week that we commemorated the end of the hostilities of the First World War. We have come a long way in international relations - Western Europeans have perhaps evolved into countries that argue about money and legislative powers rather than invade and blow each other up. Some of the language of Brexit is quasi-warlike, about sovereignty and self-determination and independence, and 100 years ago, when faced with threats of domination from other powers in Europe - not leastly the expansion of the German Navy - the culture of opposition to the undermining of sovereignty was expressed differently. There is much to reflect on here and now, including the distastefulness of any language of warfare when it comes to the discussion of Brexit.
But there is also much to reflect on from the past. It was wonderful to see the church packed last Sunday when the Armistice centenary fell so fortuitously on Remembrance Sunday - that doesn’t happen every year by any means does it?! Church and State were spared the conundrum as to whether to celebrate the Armistice Centenary on the exact day, or the nearest Sunday - for this year they fell on the same day. Although, to my mind, Armistice Day is a celebration of the ending of a terrible war, whereas Remembrance Sunday is a day of sorrow and humble pride at the loss of youthful, servant lives. So last Sunday we rightly had the blend of both.
Those who came may have brought different ideas about what we were actually doing, why, for whom: for people bring different attitudes to war, the glorious dead, to peacemaking and to our armed forces and their various tasks. But whatever it is that were doing, we did it well, and given that it is our largest attendance of the year at a single event - Crib Services notwithstanding - it is a heartening pleasure and privilege to preside over it all. I wonder what my predecessor a hundred years ago, who wrote the words I began with, would have made of the fact that the church would be packed to the gunnels a century after writing those words. I think he would have been heartened too.
We might also consider some of the other things he wrote, which add a poignancy, not only to our celebrations of armistice and commemoration of the glorious dead, but to our modern international relations. History is a great teacher: So here are some words on the Armistice - from the Parish Magazine of December 1918, written exactly 100 years ago in the space between Armistice and Advent: in which The Reverend George Thomas wrote this:
The great world war which lasted four years, three months, and nine days, came to an end on November 11th, 1918, by the Germans’ acceptance of the conditions of the Entente Powers for the cessation of hostilities and signing an armistice. Thus the people who had caused the war, hoping thereby to dominate the world, acknowledged themselves beaten. They have received a well-merited castigation, and for the added reason that they prosecuted the war more like fiends than human beings.
Genuine and understandable sentiments from a distant age. History may be a great teacher, but it is also, as L.P Hartley famously said, ‘a foreign country’. And we find that the politics of 1918 and of 2018 were and are all about ‘foreign countries’. Do we understand? As the song puts it, ‘will we ever learn?’ Where have all the flowers gone, in a world which, as Jesus predicted, “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom;”? According to our gospel passage, these things are verging on the inevitable, and need to be seen within a very big picture:
“When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
But I do see a speck of hope in the midst of the Brexit fiasco swirling around us.
As we bumble through what international journals and other countries are calling a ‘National Crisis’ for us, we might be reminded that a century ago differences of international opinion and sovereignty were not generally resolved around a table. And the idea of asking a population to democratically decide who they wanted to be and how they were governed was a newish phenomenon. Historians may remember what were called plebiscites - people’s votes - votes of plebeians as the Romans would put it - and while the Brexit referendum truly was a plebiscite, one of the first and most significant of the new enthusiasm for asking the people about self-determination was the Saarland Plebiscite of 1935, when the people of that part of Germany bordering France voted to become German again. Since 1919 they had been administered by the League of Nations, while France benefitted from the region’s coal reserves. In 1935 83% of the people voted to return to German rule, which happened and League of Nations peacekeeping forces were withdrawn. We all know what transpired politically and militarily thereafter. But we have now had a hundred years of internationally constituted organisations, none of which have been perfect, but whether we are speaking of the League of Nations, the UN, NATO, the EEC or European Union, we can see a learning curve from which, one hopes, not only those who are member states will benefit. The European Union is a bit like the Church of England, as the wartime Archbishop William Temple put it, existing for the benefit of those who are not its members.
Yet there are still wars and rumours of war, and this prediction of Jesus’ lands sharply this week as poppies are still being worn, and the details of lost lives still grace our noticeboards. Great War history is indeed a foreign country - a foreign field which is forever England even - but unfortunately we are still fluent in the language of battle.
So where does this all leave us this week? Sorrowful about the First World War, yes, and perhaps proud of our nation’s efforts to preserve and protect freedoms over the years, and also apprehensive, if not frustrated about the ravages of Brexit.
So, as a bleak week closes we remind ourselves that as Christians, we are a people of hope. Hope in humanity for sure, but also hope in God. This season of the Kingdom as the church calls it, coming on us as the nights draw in, seems dark and doom-laden as it encompasses Halloween, All Saints Day, the Remembrance of All Souls’ and Remembrance Sunday. In some places at this time of year there are also services to mark and remember those killed on the roads, children who have died, and perhaps even those still-born or miscarried. It may seem like heavy stuff, and each particular tragedy or loss is indeed weighty. But through it all - at the heart of it - the purpose of it all - is hope. All Souls is all about the hope of resurrection life. Remembrance Sunday is about the same resurrection hope for the dead, but also about hope for the world, saved perhaps both from and by warfare. And this is why the Church has always, and must continue to remain at the hub of these commemorations, because hope is what we stand for. Hope is our USP - the unique selling point - hope that from the past can spring hope for the future. Hope that all shall be well, and all manner of things well. Hope that flies in in the face of evidence that nothing changes, that we never learn, or never get better.
Well perhaps we do, ever so slightly, and buried beneath the rubble of this week’s political bombshells, lies some hope that we have learnt a thing or two from the past, and that hope in the future is not futile, whatever that future may hold. Brexit may be painful and frustrating, but it is not a war.
Ultimately, it is all in God’s hands, and it is in Christ our King in whom we trust. And it is as we gather around the table of holy communion that our vision for peace, faith in Christ and hope for the future are all made manifest among us. For as our final post communion collect will put it:
‘in this holy sacrament
you give substance to our hope:
bring us at the last
to that fullness of life for which we long;’
May that be our prayer as Brexit rumbles through our present, and as we remember the dead of the past. And, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam – May the greater glory be given to God, now and always. Amen.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 18/11/18