Sunday, November 12, 2006

Remembrance Day

Yesterday was Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of the First World War (at the 11th hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month). In the UK the Sunday nearest to Armistice Day is Remembrance Day, and services are held throughout the country to remember those who lost their lives in the two World Wars and other conflicts. Angel was booked to play with the brass band for the Remembrance Day service in a nearby village, so we all trotted off to Mass last night to leave this morning free. It is many years since I attended one of these services, which are very much a part of the Church of England's role as the established (state) Church. I found it both moving and sad, in a number of ways.

The service began in the parish Church, which in size and splendour outdoes all but a few of this country's Catholic Churches. And this is a village Church, remember. Admittedly it has the advantage of being the local Church of the Dukes of Bedford, who had it built in splendid Gothic style to replace the original medieval building in the nineteenth century. It would make a perfect setting for traditional Catholic liturgy, with the altar set against the East end in front of a magnificent gilded reredos, approached by a long, stepped chancel. Add soaring stone pillars and a canopied pulpit and you get the idea. But how empty it felt. No tabernacle. No Real Presence. No candles (apart from two in front of the altar). No sense that it was a place of prayer at any time other than during formal services. Yet the Church of England does tradition and language magnificently, and even in a short, austere service I felt that. Hymns accompanied by the brass band, echoing in the high building; an old man in uniform and medals marching with the flag of the Royal British Legion; collects with lots of "thy" and "thine"; the vicar asking the congregation to be "quiet, discreet, orderly, and fairly quick" in processing to the war memorial, and being obeyed to the letter (in my experience Catholic processions have an inevitable tendency towards disorganisation). It left me feeling a double sense of loss, for the Presence that would fill the emptiness, and despite that a sadness that English society is losing (or has already lost) something central as people abandon the Church of England in droves.

From the Church on to the war memorial, and another sense of loss that moves me deeply even ninety years after the First World War. I find those lists of names of young men who went to war and never returned, carved on stone memorials like this one in villages and towns across the country, utterly haunting. In this village alone, the count was thirty-nine dead in the First War and five more in the Second. The British War Memorial project is trying to identify as many of these names as possible. The partially completed online Roll of Honour gives a sense of the scale of the catastrophe by putting flesh on the bones of all those who died for king and country.

Wreaths of poppies were placed on the memorial, including two by old soldiers wearing rows of medals. The old soldiers are few and far between now, with veterans of the Second World War now in their eighties. In a very few years there will be no survivors of the Great War at all - the tiny handful that remain are already well past one hundred. A minute's silence to remember, followed by the Last Post played by a solo cornet.

Lest we forget ...


Anonymous said...

Have a listen to the Remembrance podcast on iTunes or on the Royal British Legion blog. It's a good way to remember.

Elizabeth said...

I really know what you mean about the C of E and especially C of E churches -- such a *shame*.

Anna T. said...

Bookworm, thank you for your thoughtfully written description of the Remembrance Day service. As a new blogger, Catholic, North American, and erstwhile (20-some years ago, and while I was living in Cobham, Surrey) home-schooling mom, I enjoy your blog immensely.