One Sunday in the middle of November 2023, the morning Eucharist began with the singing of “O God our help in ages past”. It was Remembrance Sunday. Having begun with that traditional prologue, the liturgy ended with the traditional epilogue: a bugler playing The Last Post, a bagpiper playing a Scottish lament, and an Act of Remembrance. Unlike many similar occasions in the past, there was no display of flags, no singing the National Anthem, no listening to John McCrae’s exhortation to “Take up our quarrel with the foe”.
The prologue and epilogue recalled a past reality, but between the two there was a sincere and heartfelt effort to address the realities of our present world, and not the one that has passed.
We prayed a Litany of Peace, broadening our observance to include not only service personnel, but also civilians (whose deaths in armed conflicts now far outnumber those of the armed forces), peacemakers and peacekeepers, and those responsible for avoiding war in the first place. The choir sang a Litany of Reconciliation, acknowledging the hatred, covetousness, greed, envy, indifference, lust, and pride on our part which lead to war.
The preacher took up the theme, explaining how in 1940, the medieval cathedral in Coventry had been destroyed in an air raid. Soon after the war the Cathedral had been rebuilt, and the Dean had established a ministry of reconciliation with three guiding principles: healing the wounds of history, learning to live with difference and celebrate diversity, and building a culture of justice and peace.
Many years later, the preacher continued, a survivor of the bombing had encountered a visitor to the Cathedral who confessed to piloting one of the planes that had destroyed the Cathedral. The two of them acknowledged that they were now at peace. They mutually enacted one small but genuine and gracious gesture of reconciliation.
At the conclusion of the Liturgy, I sat recalling a vague memory of my first Armistice Day in 1937, as it was then named. At that time, we remembered only the Great War, known also as the War to end all Wars. Two years later hostilities were resumed so that now we remember, and must distinguish between, First and Second World Wars.
Over the years, the manner of our remembering those two wars, it seems to me, has changed considerably. I see fewer red poppies and there is no widespread silence at eleven o’clock on Armistice Day as there once was. World War I that the poppies signify is being forgotten, and who can wonder why? We have long ceased remembering the Napoleonic Wars which, in their time, had been (for Europe, at least) equally cataclysmic.
Still sitting there, I wondered how others, my companions in the Remembrance Liturgy, had felt about it. Very few of those in church that day could have had personal memory of World War II, the last one fought by Canada in response to an aggressor. But perhaps their parents or grandparents may have been alive then. What would they have remembered: the London Blitz? the Dresden Inferno? the Hiroshima Atom-bombing?
The shape of our Eucharist on Remembrance Sunday has changed and will no doubt continue to change. Among those changes, should we, perhaps, consider another change of name? Might it be called Reconciliation Sunday?
St. Michael’s Cathedral, Coventry, England
Photo Credit Claudio Divizia