Prince Harry came to Wiltshire this week. He was present when a new Field of Remembrance for those killed in Afghanistan was dedicated at Lydiard Park. 349 young men and women so far are commemorated in that good earth with small wooden crosses. 349 crosses have their photographs on them, but members of the public can also buy crosses from the Royal British Legion. Even now only a few days on 35,000 people have already marked their respect and remembrance by leaving just such a cross.
Lydiard Park is in the parish of Wootton Bassett which itself is next door to RAF Lyneham. You’ll doubtless know that about once a week a C17 aircraft bringing back the bodies of those killed in Afghanistan flies over Wootton Basset. Then a repatriation ceremony takes place on the base sometimes in the presence of senior military personnel, members of the government or even members of the Royal Family. But this is chiefly a moment for those whose loved one lies in the coffin.
· This is inevitably a bureaucratic moment: the armed forces need to deal with their dead in as respectful but orderly a way as possible. The Coroner awaits a post mortem report on the death. The family needs to arrange a funeral.
· This is also an intensely personal and grief-stricken moment: for comrades, friends and families the sight of a flag-draped coffin means their worst fears enacted. As the psalmist once said they have been fed with the bread of tears.
· This is also a religious moment: the coffin is accompanied by an army chaplain because, whatever the faith or none of the family, we believe that the mortal remains of someone should be treated with ceremony and respect, and in the face of death we declare our Christian hope that those we love will yet live.
· But Wootton Basset has also turned this repatriation into a moment of shared significance for us all. As the cortege makes its journey from the chapel on the base to the John Radcliffe Hospital here in Oxford it has to travel through the life of the town, and so the town stops what it’s doing for a few moments. People gather at the war memorial, they line the main street, they chat about what is happening in their lives but then the traffic is stopped and the church bells begin to toll and there is a profound silence. They never knew the young people who now pass before them in the hearse but they honour their sacrifice, they give dignity to their return and they assure those grieving of their gratitude.
On this Remembrance Sunday we’ve no trouble remembering the misery and costs of war. All of us are aware that British soldiers are engaged in the most intense and prolonged theatre of operations since the Second World War. More than 140 times have the people of Wootton Basset turned out. And then there are those with life-changing injuries caused by improvised explosive devices. The sacrifice of young people is real at a time of war and we honour it today in our remembering.
The poet Wilfred Owen, who was awarded the Military Cross for bravery but then killed just a few days before the Armistice in 1918, once described the experience of the war dead as being like autumn leaves. They fall to earth, their life decomposes and is gone but then their sacrifice brings the hope of Spring. For Wilfred Owen’s generation this earthly life was only a small part of the equation of what matters to us. There was a sense of a grand scheme or divine purpose whereby we know who holds the keys of death and hell, whereby in the end God makes everything right. The sacrifice we make by forfeiting our security and comfort is intrinsically meaningful to us. Sacrifice may be deeply sorrowful but it makes sense to us.
Wootton Bassett happens to have a simply splendid parish priest and he would be the first to tell us that it doesn’t feel like that anymore, even in the conservative villages of north Wiltshire.
Firstly they’re less sure about the justifications for war. Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing because certainly the Christian starting point has to be that war is always and absolutely evil. We’ve occasionally tried to glorify the experience, to dress it up as a ‘crusade’ or present it as a sanctified moral endeavour but violence will never be the chosen way of a God who, as our gospel reading says, longs for us to know wellbeing and peace. And in our other reading the aspirations of the prophet Isaiah were, as he described it, for the wolf to live peaceably with the lamb, the leopard to share a bed with a kid – there would be no aggressors in a world full of the knowledge of the Lord.
We recognise that war is sometimes a necessary evil, to preserve higher values. We live with the responsibility of having British soldiers in Afghanistan because we believe that without their presence our safety and freedom to live without terror would be compromised. It still ought to be a difficult debate for us as a nation not least because the Cold War and globalisation have brought with them a sharper moral question of whether aggression is a justified response to potential threat? What are our proper responses to militant ideologies and atrocities in distant places?
The Salisbury diocese, of which Wootton Bassett is a part, has a 40 year link with the Episcopal Church of the Sudan and so we count as friends people who live on the other side of that debate. A billion citizens of our world live with the suffering brought about by the mix of poverty and war. The conflict our soldiers are experiencing in Afghanistan is endemic to societies where the economy is weak and the State failing. And lest we forget, it affects us all; for instance 95% of the global production of hard drugs comes from conflict ridden countries.
Perhaps the issues are more complex, the causes of conflict more intractable and the solutions more elusive: for whatever reason the good people of Wootton Bassett are less sure about the justifications for war than they were when their war memorial was erected.
Yet what prevails for them is a desire to protect the dignity of sacrifice. Wars may cease, or seem a very distant reality to us, nevertheless the importance of sacrifice remains critical to our self-understanding as a human community. The ability to surrender what we badly want for the sake of something more meaningful gives your life and my life a dignity which it’s hard to achieve through self-interest alone. The moral and spiritual values of our nation matter to us, not only because they sometimes hold us back from war or properly send us into it, but because without such principles we devalue the sacrifices we all make when we choose the costly option of self-offering. As Jesus speaks of His own sacrifice, moving as He is towards his death, it isn’t the hope of a Spring to come and His resurrection which drives Him on and keeps Him brave: it’s partly knowing what sacrifice will achieve.
So on this Remembrance Day, in the midst of our ongoing debates about the justifications for war, let’s remind ourselves that how we view the sacrifices we ask of other people, of military personnel, has consequences for how we see the dignity and importance of sacrifice in our own lives.
There’re some things we want for ourselves and those we love which can only be achieved by risk and letting go of our security. Sacrifice is the price we pay to discover something more meaningful and to capture a greater prize. Think of the sacrifices the likes of you and me might be asked to make in the years ahead: as a husband or wife we may give up the chance of promotion because the cost is too great for our family: we may sacrifice our leisure and ease in order to do better by an elderly relative: we might resist betraying someone or put another’s welfare before our own.
Sacrifice may not be exalted any longer because it’s seen as nobly part of a grand plan or majestic purpose but the dignity of sacrifice remains at the heart of what achieves our human goals. Whether its integrity, or trustworthiness or faithfulness we’re unlikely to live up to who we want to be without immense sacrifice. So let’s treat it with dignity and get used to calculating the cost.
Another poet who uses the image of autumn, this time the burning of trees, is Mary Oliver. She talks of the resurgence of natural life through the sacrifices made at the end of a year. Let me finish with part of her poem ‘In Blackwater Woods’
I have learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.”
In our moral scepticism about war, in our sorrow about letting go, in our loving what is mortal, let us also protect the dignity and importance of sacrifice. It’s what makes us more than we dare to hope we can be.
Very Rev’d June Osborne, Dean of Salisbury
14th November 2010