Sermon for High Mass – Remembrance Sunday Sunday 11 November 2018
SERMON PREACHED BY FR JULIAN BROWNING on REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY, 11 NOVEMBER 2018,
THE CENTENARY of ARMISTICE DAY 1918
On this day, Armistice Day, in 1918, the vicar of this parish, Father Mackay stopped writing letters in his study at noon and went out into the streets to join the rejoicing crowds as they welcomed peace after four years of war. The church bells were ringing. The bells are going to ring again today throughout the country in thanksgiving for the blessings of peace in our time. Our bell will ring at 12.30 today, and I hope you will be able to stay on and witness this, one hundred years on.
Yet I wonder what Father Mackay was thinking on Armistice Day. Like us, he must have found it very confusing, because we know that peace was, and still is, bought at a terrible price of life, young lives. As the parish priest of a central London church Mackay had to confront all the raw grief, four years of it, erupting week by week as the casualties of war mounted. He knew many of those who died.
Harold Godwin Williamson, born 1896, was a chorister at the choir school we had then, and he sang up there with his friends. As Father Mackay said, Harold was more of an adopted son really, because he spent some of his holidays and leaves here at the church. Harold went on from here to public school, to St. Edward’s, Oxford, a school in the High Anglican tradition, and he thrived there from 1910 to the Lent Term of 1914. I’ve seen a photograph of Harold in the 1913 Cricket Eleven. Harold was accepted for training to be a priest in the Church of England, and in June 1914 he went from St Edwards to be a student at the Society of the Sacred Mission at Kelham in Nottinghamshire, a theological college which trained for priesthood those who were not going forward for a university degree. At the outbreak of war that year, the College was closed and young Harold, aged 18, joined the Queen Victoria Rifles as a private soldier and endured a freezing winter in France. In 1915 Harold was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the North Staffordshire Regiment. On his leaves from the officer training course he used to come back here, in high spirits, much as many past worshippers turn up here today. On 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, Harold Williamson was killed in action, blown up by an enemy shell. His body was never found, like 73,000 others in that long battle. Harold was twenty years old. You can find his name on the memorial plaque for former choristers in the floor of the sanctuary, to the left. We will remember him. He would have made a fine priest. One hundred years on, I find that little story devastating still.
Remembrance works when it’s personal. The great achievement of the last four years of 1st World War commemorations has been to rescue, name by name, family by family, village by village, all those great uncles who never came back, to recognise their common humanity, and to acknowledge their sacrifice of life, and, maybe for the first time, to mourn their deaths. Later in this service we shall sing the hymn O Valiant Hearts. Every few years this hymn gets banned by clerical pundits, because it appears to suggest that the sacrifice of the Son of God is on the same plane as the sacrifice of those killed in war, and thereby justifies warfare. These concerns need not detain us today. We can sing that hymn in remembrance, in solidarity with all those who mourn lives lost in conflicts right up to the present day, on whichever side they find themselves; those who, in the loneliness of their grief, today (not just in the First World War) are attempting to find some meaning, some connection with a God in the loss, in the courage, and in the sacrifice, in the good and in the evil of this world.
Remembrance is more than just remembering. Remembrance is the pulse of love, binding us to that past without which our lives have no meaning. Shared remembrance is stronger still. We cross the boundary of time. We can say, I was there, I saw it happen. The past becomes present, and it becomes present through love and forgiveness. A nation that forgets its war dead has lost the war. God cannot forget them, because God was with them as they lived and as they died.
At his Last Supper Jesus said: This is My Body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me. Do this out of love for me. Do this so I am part of you today, so that you can live with my life. We began today’s service with two minutes silence. Yet we enter this silence of remembrance every time we attend communion. We learn then, from the way God does things, through a body broken, through wine poured out, to make space in our lives for others, including those who are forever silent, and including our enemies then and now. The silence after the Last Post seems so final at the going down of the sun. Their sacrifice, young Harold’s death at the Somme, seems so pointless, so heartbreaking. But in the morning, as the bells ring out for Peace today, we shall remember them. The more we remember, the more we learn to love again, and so the greater their victory. For our Remembrance is nothing less than God’s compassion, the first step to any reconciliation and forgiveness, so that, in the words of our first lesson, God may teach us his ways and we may walk in his paths.