There is a scene in the film ‘The History Boys’ by Alan Bennett where the students are visiting a war memorial. Their teacher points to the very familiar words ‘Lest we forget’ and tells them that it should really say ‘Lest we remember’. His point is that just focusing on the deaths and the number who died means we don’t face the real causes. It means we don’t really learn any lessons. Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the assassination in Sarajevo on 28th June 1914 of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie. It was the beginning of a catastrophic sequence of events which led to four years of disastrous war in Europe, which we call World War 1. There are lots of words about sacrifice and cost, but very little about learning the lessons. I think this next month is the most important anniversary of the First World War because it is in this month that decisions were taken that made the difference between war and no war or how previous complex factors and tensions unraveled to catapult Europe to war.
There is a scene in the Harry Potter books when Harry is struggling with how alike Voldemort he is. His wise headmaster, Dumbledore, tells him that it is not how alike they are but how they are different that matters and that difference lies in the choices that they make. If it wasn’t for imperial and empire aspirations and fears, for political aims which were blinded to potential consequences, the First World War would not have happened. If the Serbian’s had not had their eyes on annexing Bosnia then the assassins would not have laid in wait for their moment to take out the heir to the obstacle for their expansionism. If it wasn’t for all the other complex European tensions and pressures, we might have been elsewhere. And if it hadn’t been for the technological developments in weaponry which made industrialised killing possible, the war would have been on a smaller scale. The shock was that Europe went quickly from war not being on anyone’s radar to become a reality within just over a month. That makes this next month the real anniversary for the First World War, because it is the anniversary of the decisions that led to it. There was a very interesting series on Radio 4 this week called ‘Month of Madness’ in which the historian Christopher Clark told the story of that month.
The element I find missing from recent commemorations, not least the D-Day anniversary earlier this month, is the notion of standing in solemn silence at the terrible, tragic cost of decisions and policy failure. Failure because, as Archbishop Robert Runcie used to say, war is always a sign of failure, notably the failure to find another solution. I put all of this into a prayer and used it in the cathedral when introducing Baroness Shirley Williams to give the Heritage Festival Lecture last Saturday on her mother Vera Brittain, who volunteered as a nurse on the front lines in 1915. It was a bit of a road test. I was surprised that afterwards a number of people came up to me, when you’d expect them to have forgotten it, to say how much they appreciated the sentiments conveyed in that prayer.
There are lots of tensions around at the moment, some with striking comparisons to 1914: expansionism and hardened hearts that will not stop or be restrained. How will we respond to this hour? Will we look to take up arms to defeat? One of the things I find disturbing about Armed Forces Day is it makes it look like might and awesome destruction is the only solution. I was left uneasy by the chilling military hardware on display yesterday in the city centre here. Will we look for another way to build and strengthen bridges across communities, cultures and faith differences? Will we look for those of good will with whom we can work? There are extremist voices on many sides and in all communities. We need to find the ones who add light not just heat to debates and discussions.
Today we are celebrating our patronal festival. This is the day that we remember the saint after whom this church is named: John the Baptist. He is described as a voice crying out ‘prepare the way of the Lord’. As a voice, he calls us to stop and check where we are going. He calls on us to adjust the setting so that we are ready for the God of love and justice who comes among us in Jesus Christ. He calls us to repentance, to be so sorry for what we are doing and where we are heading that we change course. Repentance literally means to turn around and go in the opposite direction. It is no mere lip service but a complete reorientation. So often peace is taken to be just the ceasing of hostilities, but Christ’s peace is something much more radical and foundational about how we relate and mutually flourish together. To pursue peace we likewise need a reorientation, to turn around from whatever courses are leading us towards disastrous conflict. It does of course require all sides to take this seriously and if the First World War and other conflicts do anything they should remind us what happens when they don’t and it should sober us.
This church stands in the heart of this city’s public square. We are part of the backdrop for so many events. We have the opportunity to take our namesake’s calling seriously and be a beacon for a new, a different response; to proclaim Christ’s peace. We are not just a piece of fine architecture – we could be that without being a church. The calling is to call out to prepare the way of the Lord and his peace, to engage with all who pass by and who call in so that something of the good news of Jesus Christ connects with them.
To do that we will use a variety of tools and I spoke about a few of them at the annual church meeting back in April under 5 ‘L’s: location, love, live, longing and learning. Location is where we are and the opportunities it brings. By opening the doors last weekend we took that seriously and there is no way we could have done anything other with so many people in the city centre for the Heritage Festival. Love means that we are people who proclaim and display love. We welcome, care and respect so that this becomes infectious. This faith that inspires us is to be lived, to be put into practice so that good deeds flow. We see this through our support for the food bank and in lives that make a difference in so many ways. Longing is our desire for God’s justice and peace, to ask questions of policy makers and support them in the difficult challenges they face. We long for this congregation to grow. Learning is life-long, we never stop, and we need to know more about our faith if it is going to inspire.
So today we celebrate our patronal festival as we enter the awesome, shocking commemoration of the First World War which began 100 years ago. Our vocation is to be a voice crying out to prepare the way of the Lord, to announce Christ’s peace among us, among the world, in the heart of this city.
Let us pray
As we stand in solemn silence
and recall the terrible cost of war and conflict
give us courage to take stock
of all that led to the hour;
the evil intent,
the opportunities to step aside
and embrace a different path not taken,
the confrontation and aggression
with violence in the heart
that would not stop.
May we learn to build true peace;
to nurture the channels and bonds that unite;
to respect and honour all people,
however different they may be.
Keep us ever mindful of the road that leads to death and destruction
lest we forget and travel it once more.
For the greater love that lays down its life
in your Son, the Prince of Peace,
won for us eternal hope
and a Kingdom built on true justice;
we ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
we ask this in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.