Sermon from Remembrance Sunday
As I’m sure you all know, Coventry Cathedral was destroyed by bombing during the Second World War, and a new cathedral was built next to the ruins. Benjamin Britten, the composer, was asked to write a Requiem Mass for the week of the consecration of the new cathedral. Britten was a pacifist, and registered as a conscientious objector during the war, being condemned by some as a coward. So he faced a dilemma, how as he to compose a Mass glorifying those who died in war while staying true to his principles.
Britten’s brilliant solution was to combine the traditional Latin text of the Requiem Mass, with the poems of Wilfred Owen, an English soldier-poet who died in the trenches in 1918. As the war progressed, Owen grew increasingly appalled at the senseless loss of life, on both sides. He wrote:
Above all, I am not concerned with poetry. My subject is war, and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do today is warn.
So, Britten set each of the sections of the Mass against a different poem by Owen. These poems challenged the complacency of those who used religion to justify sending young men to die in wartime. So “Eternal Rest” is matched with Owen’s words, “What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns.” Against the “Day of Wrath, which seems to suggest that violence is God’s judgement on human sin, was set “Bugles sang…Voices of boys were by the river-side. Sleep mothered them; and left the twilight sad.” The Latin hymns about death are contrasted with Owen’s words: “Out there…we laughed, knowing that better men would come, and greater wars; when each proud fighter brags he wars on Death, for Life; not men for flags.” After the plea that God may forgive us we hear, “Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm, Great gun towering toward heaven, about to curse.” Against the words “This day of wrath…this day of tears” we hear the heart-breaking words of soldiers who say of their dead comrade, “Move him into the sun…If anything might rouse him now, the kind old sun will know.” And after the Offertorium we hear about Abraham called to sacrifice, not his son Isaac, but the Ram of Pride instead – “But the old man would not so, but slew his son, and half the seed of Europe, one by one.” Those who were able to join us last night for the event to commemorate the armistice, will know that we did something similar – the choir performed Faure’s Requiem interspersed with extracts from a diary of a soldier written during the bloodiest two weeks of the recent operation in Afghanistan.
By highlighting the contradiction between Owen’s poems and the over-simplification of the Requiem Mass, Britten beautifully captured the conflict in the heart of each one of us, between the desire to honour those who died trying to defend this country, and a wish that war should never be necessary again.
Remembrance Sunday is a balancing act for the Church. There are some who think that war is such a terrible thing that we should not get dragged into celebrating it. Siegfried Sassoon wrote a poem called At The Cenotaph about the devil praying that the people who march by should forget what the memorial means, and begin to believe that war is somehow cleansing. Another modern poet wrote how a veteran, having seen too many young men carrying the coffins of their comrades, feels the weight of the medals on his chest as too heavy to wear in a procession. There is no doubt that generals have sent their troops to unnecessary deaths because they were instructed to do so by politicians, who themselves believe that the electorate would be more likely to vote for them if they lead the country into a glorious war. Maybe they were right, and that refusing to fight would have caused more deaths at the hands of dictators than resulted on both sides from the fighting.
So you see what I mean by a balancing act. At one and the same time today, we must express our gratitude to all those who died as a result of war, and our sympathy with the bereaved. But we also have to express our determination that there should be no more wars. These two things, honouring the dead and expressing opposition to war, are not incompatible, but we must be extremely careful what words we use to proclaim them. We should not and cannot use God as justification for war or to glorify it, as Benjamin Britten was only too aware. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie said “Those who dare to interpret God’s will must never claim Him as an asset for one nation or group rather than another. War springs from the love and loyalty which should be offered to God being applied to some God substitute, one of the most dangerous being nationalism.”
And so today, as we honour those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, we must also pray that there will come a time when war is not necessary and God’s love is felt around the world.