Sermon for THIRD SUNDAY BEFORE ADVENT Remembrance Sunday HIGH MASS Sunday 9 November 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
One of the successes of the First World War commemorations this year has been the way families have been encouraged to trace their forbears, those great great uncles and other relatives who served In the Great War. It is touching to see how those long-lost figures have been welcomed back into their families with love and loyalty. Love and loss go together. You have probably found that out in your own life. That’s a rather autumnal thought, isn’t it that arises at this time, the time of All Saints, All Souls and Remembrance Sunday. Falling leaves, falling poppies. It’s a sad time. The more we love, the more deeply we feel the loss. You can’t close that gap. A new love does not replace an old one. Where love was once true, it can never be replaced. Nor can we look to God to make everything better miraculously. He doesn’t do that. What we can say, is that the gap, the loss, somehow preserves the love. Love survives death. In different ways, this is what happens when we see those proud groups of ordinary folk today standing round the grave of a Great War soldier found in Flanders fields. He is theirs, he is one of them. Out of the new found loss comes a powerful love. Love and loss go together.
I’ve decided that today we should join in, do the same, and look for one of our own. Anthony Allsopp was a fourteen year old naval cadet at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth when he began to attend this church in 1913 and 1914. He was the grandson of the 8th Earl of Shaftesbury. Anthony came here in his holidays, met some people as you do, and it was at this altar that he made his First Communion. He sat where you are, and he saw more or less what you see now. In August 1914 he joined HMS Aboukir, a cruiser in the North Sea. The 7th of September was his fifteenth birthday. On the 22nd September the Aboukir was torpedoed by the German submarine U9. Anthony was not among the survivors. From the three ships torpedoed in that action, there were 1459 fatalities. Anthony and his friends are not forgotten. On the 22nd September this year, at a drum head service at Chatham, the Duke of Kent unveiled a memorial to the casualties of 100 years ago. I summoned up the Illustrated London News for 3rd October 1914, and there is Anthony, proud, and with a half smile, in the cadet uniform which he wore when he came here.
I think that this sentimental approach – for we knew none of those men – the sentimental and imaginative approach is the right one, because it is our only way into the story, the only way we can begin to understand. Military historians use personal stories to illustrate the bigger themes, but Christians start with the personal, and, on this day in particular, that is where we stay, deep in the individual stories of love and loss. Feelings matter. They point us in the direction of truth. The catch in the throat at the Last Post, the conflicting emotions at seeing our flag lowered in Afghanistan, the sickening feelings at the news from Syria and Iraq, the sadness and pride we feel on hearing the old songs, those flickering grey images of the fleet going into action, these are our ways of remembrance.
In my own case, those wars have never stopped. For over forty years I have had a professional interest in military and naval history, and through my hands have passed literally thousands of original letters sent back home by combatants from every campaign from the English Civil War to the Second World War. Sometimes I am the first person to read the letter since the day it was set aside by the recipient, and tied in ribbon with those that came before. Some letters are annotated with a few words, such as “Jack’s last letter”. Sometimes the research is unbearable, because I know what is going to happen, and from the folds of a letter comes a grief and anxiety so heartrending and private, that all I can do is fold it again and replace it.
I know that these letters home from the front, wherever that is, don’t tell the truth. The truth is suppressed, not because of the censor, but because the truth of war is too awful and unbelievable, so letters home are padded out with questions about the harvest, news of younger siblings, jokes about promotion. Why should we expect the truth to be told, anyway? The object of the letter home was to preserve the bond, to close that widening gap. And they didn’t say much when they came home either. How can you say to those at home that you are now a stranger to them, because you have visited a circle of hell from which there is no escape?
Love and loss. They are everyone’s experience. We understand them. We live with them. We cannot live without them.
That is the Christian story too. A violent death by crucifixion, a loss too deep for words, leading, we believe, to a new and deeper and enduring love, which we call resurrection.
I don’t think that believing this heals any wounds; our religion doesn’t stop the tears, it brings no one back. But in that unfilled and painful gap between we who live and those who have died, whom we remember today, we can lift high the Cross, where love and sorrow meet. It is the only sign we know which can keep alive for us the faltering hope that when the cold North Sea closed over Anthony Victor George Allsopp, one of our own, aged just 15, on the 22nd September 1914, the God he worshipped here was with him then, and God is there, with all who die, on whichever side, in the conflicts which blight our age; for God is in the facts, in his creation, and God is Love, and Love endures to the end. This is no solution, it makes nothing better, but love and loss are brought together, and at the deepest level of our humanity, we find communion, remembrance, which helps us, in our confusion, towards a life worth living ourselves, a life of remembrance, a God given life of love and loss. And there, in God’s company, we discover today gratitude, humility and pride in the sacrifice they made for us. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.