I have been thinking over the strangeness of Remembrance Sunday
Thinking about Remembrance Sunday
“Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.” (Edmund Burke)
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." (George Santayana)
Each year Remembrance Sunday amends the Cathedral calendar as the principle Choral Eucharist is for that day set aside and a Civic Service of Remembrance is held in its stead. (Cathedral folk are used to this happening – I think they understand that Cathedrals serve the city and offer opportunities for worship on special occasions that include everyone regardless of faith.) You can also look at this another way: each year on Remembrance Sunday, people who might usually do something quite different, elect to come to the Cathedral to observe Remembrance Sunday.
The task of remembering the fallen has not got any easier: it is probably fair to say that there are no longer any surviving veterans of WWI. That generation has gone. But the legacy of WWI is immense, the books, films, memoirs, diaries, photographs and so on is available, accessible and impressive; it has seeped into our cultural memory sufficiently at least for most of us to have a glimmering impression of the conflict.
And yet … despite these abundant resources are we clear about what we remember and why we remember?
It has been commonplace to quote Edmund Burke and George Santayana about history and the need to know it or to remember it if we are not to repeat the disasters of the past. It would be foolish to doubt the wisdom of those statements but also foolish to deny the evidence of WW2 and various conflicts since then that remind us of our limited ability to avoid conflict in the future. The student of history knows that the memory of the past can easily be overridden by forms of self-interest and the emotions and fears of the present.
One of the things to happen on Remembrance Sunday is that we come together as a people and not simply as denominations or believers. This is a day when we remember the common bond we share as a nation; we remember a time of trial, mostly before our life time, when our nation endured a war and the hardships and losses it inflicted. We remember also that we were one of many nations similarly afflicted.
The point I want to consider here is the extraordinary significance of what we come here to do: the strangeness of it and the wonder of it. I think that to come together in the way we do is first of all a departure from the fragmented, selfishness that has become so common a feature of our society now. We are doing something together that we see as strengthening and affirming the bonds of our society, and within that affirmation is also a whole complex cluster of distinctive human values.
Second, this common purpose and common act of remembering turns against the tide of our aggressively secular society, because this is an essentially religious action. It is something that binds us together. The word religion means just that ‘to bind together’.
Even if we don’t think of ourselves as religious, this act of remembrance only makes sense as a religious act. Think about it: we stand with neighbours and strangers; we remember back before our life-time; we remember countless unknown souls; we remember nations other than our own; we remember, but we are remembering not in the sense of a name or a face, but in a more abstract sense, remembering the countless human others who have endured a darkness that we seek to avoid. To do this takes us beyond and out of ourselves, it is an activity of the mind, the spirit and the imagination. Peace demands no less.
I of course want to say more. As the Dean of this Cathedral, as a man who believes in Christ – I want to point to the way observing Remembrance Day draws us into the mystery we name as God. To share as we do this day a common liturgy, to pray together, to express a common faith and hope is to draw upon the immense power of God within us and beyond us. To do this is to begin to change the world and in that moment also to change ourselves. May that be so.