The weather was sunny and warm – unseasonably warm. The Queen was there, as were
the senior politicians, the massed bands and representatives from all branches of the forces, faith leaders and thousands of members of the public. The arrangements went as smoothly as I imagine they always do, precise timing, places allocated for everyone and ushers in place to ensure that they get to them.
It is a great privilege to be present, representing the denomination at the Cenotaph in Whitehall but I cannot help reflecting on the nature of the event. There are those for whom it is deeply emotional, people with recent or distant memories of the death of close families and friends. There are those with firsthand experience of war and conflict in all its horror. There are those who, like me, are fortunate enough never to have had that firsthand experience for whom the mood is probably more reflective, what does all this mean and what should we be doing with the memories and remembrance?
This year there were two things which struck me.
First, the experience of standing in a line flanked by Mr Farooq Murad, Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Great Britain and Dr Raj Pandit Sharma, Secretary General of the National Council of Hindu Temples UK whilst the Bishop of London read Christian Prayers and we all joined in singing ‘O God our help in ages past’. I know that we designate ourselves as a Christian country but we do not question the fact that some of those service men and women who have in the past died in the service of this country are not Christian but are people of other faiths. I wondered how those leaders of other faiths, service personnel and members of the public felt about that and how long before we can make such state occasions more inclusive recognising the changing nature of our society.
The second thing that struck me was how, until recently, I guess most of us would have expected that the numbers of veterans present would gradually decline. This year there was no-one present who had fought in the first World War and over the years the expectation was that eventually there would be no-one present from the second World War until there would be no-one present at all with those first hand memories and experiences.
Well the reality is that numbers will decline but there have been 52 members of the armed forces killed whilst on duty in the past 12 months and we are now seeing a new group of people with those firsthand memories. Do those memories mean nothing in terms of learning, which is not to decry what the forces are doing in the places in which they find themselves but it is to question those politicians who lay wreaths year by year, look serious and sombre and yet by the next day do nothing to prevent it all happening again.
My guess is that remembrance Sunday is a comfort for some, a space for reflection for others and a challenge to us all to ensure that the lives lost and maimed are not lost and maimed in vain.
The final blessing from the short act of worship uses familiar words:
“Unto God’s gracious mercy and protection we commit you. The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift up the light of his countenance upon you and give you his peace this day and always. Amen”
And all the people say “Amen”