Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 24 August 2014
Sermon Preached by Fr Gerald Beauchamp –
Feast of St Bartholomew, Sunday 24 August 2014.
Readings: Ecclesiasticus 39. 1-10; Matthew10. 1-22
Throughout this year both here and overseas there have been events commemorating the outbreak of the First World War. There have been church services and exhibitions, concerts and drama. Some of these have had a high profile; others have been more local.
The Annunciation Marble Arch was consecrated by the Bishop of London on 24 June 1914 just six weeks before Britain entered the conflict so it has been poignant for us at the other end of Oxford Street to think about the events that overshadowed the opening of the church.
Much has been written about World War 1. Some 25,000 books and articles have been published about its causes, course and consequences. But one of the more overlooked aspects of the war is religion.
To start with (and to state the obvious) all of the countries involved in the war were religious. With the exception of Turkey they were Christian albeit from different traditions – Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. And in all of the combatant nations the religious establishment backed their governments.
In this country the most bellicose bishop was Arthur Winnington-Ingram, the Bishop of London who consecrated the Church of the Annunciation. It’s a pity that there’s no copy of his sermon on that day because it would be fascinating to know what he said but his other public pronouncements leave no doubt that he thought that Britain was fighting a ‘holy war’. His remarks were so outrageous that the Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith described him as ‘an intensely silly bishop’.
In Germany, the church historian Adolf von Harnack along with other academics published a stream of pamphlets supporting the German war effort. Von Harnack is important because not only was he a leading professor but from 1911 he was also President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Foundation making him the senior figure in German academia. To cap it all, he was also a privy counsellor in the Kaiser’s court. Von Harnack carried a lot of weight.
The one Christian leader who bucked the trend was Pope Benedict XV. Crowned pontiff soon after the war began he tried to prevent what he called ‘the suicide of civilised Europe’. He was a sensitive and pragmatic man yet he went unheeded.
If ‘old religion’ by and large backed the war, the war also generated religion of a startling kind. Séances, spiritualism and superstition all abounded. The term ‘New Age’ was coined in 1915. In this feverish atmosphere fiction became ‘fact’.
A striking example in this country was the belief in the Angels of Mons. It became widely circulated that a British regiment under pressure from the Germans had been saved by angelic archers at the Belgian town of Mons. A ‘resurrection’ from the Battle of Agincourt showered arrows on to the German troops.
What sparked the idea was a short story published in 1914 by the now forgotten Welsh author Arthur Machan called ‘The Bowman’. In the story a British soldier prays to St George under fire. He and his regiment are saved by angelic bowmen. But it was a story – fiction. Something similar happened in France but in that account the dead saviours came up from below not from above.
It’s as if the terrible explosions that characterised the First World War with body parts flying in all directions generated the belief that we’re all doomed if all we have are our own resources. ‘Salvation’ comes from ‘outside’: either showered down from on high or erupting from the earth below.
And then there was language. Already by 1914 Western Europe was becoming more secular. Churchy language was losing its hold. But as the horrors of the war became more apparent it was the language of religion that was pressed into use. Arriving at the Somme in 1916, a young German colonel named Adolf Hitler described the conditions as ‘more like hell than war’. He was hardly alone. It seemed inconceivable that all this carnage was without reason or purpose. So those who died had made the ultimate ‘sacrifice’. They were ‘martyrs’.
At this point a properly religious critique of the language should kick in. Is it really possible to talk about the millions who died as ‘martyrs’? The Church has long recognised the importance of martyrs. We are celebrating one today: St Bartholomew. I’m told by Dee in the parish office that she had quite a struggle to find an image to go on the front of the service sheets that wasn’t too gruesome. After all Bartholomew was flayed alive – possibly in Armenia or India.
As the Church grew rapidly in the early years it came into conflict both with the Jewish and Roman authorities. There were persecutions. Christians died in large numbers. In some quarters it seems that Christians were seized by a masochistic blood-rush. They were egged on by the likes of Tertullian, the North African theologian who in the second century famously declared that ‘the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church’. Martyrdom was a passport to heaven. Short-term pain led to eternal gain.
Cooler heads recognised that it’s easier to die for the faith than live for it. This became the bedrock of the monastic movement. The vows of poverty, chastity and obedience were seen as a living martyrdom: a form of renunciation that isn’t death-dealing but life-giving. The monastic life became the highest form of Christian living until the Reformation when domesticity and the family replaced it. But martyrdom in its various forms as understood by the Church is a far cry from countless bodies strewn across a battlefield.
And what of today? It seems that holy war is back on some people’s agendas. Social networking along with much of the media feeds us countless images of atrocities carried out in the name of religion. The problem that we have as Christians in an Established Church is to live down some of our past. Calling for repentance only carries weight if we show that we ourselves are penitent. And that means facing up to what has happened in the last 100 years.
I’m no expert on Islam but even a cursory reading of history shows that the rise of Islam and the antipathy of some towards the West have causes which are down to us. Britain along with others took advantage of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the demise of the Caliphate as part of the upheavals of the First World War. The West’s thirst for oil has pumped vast sums of money into what was once an impoverished part of the world. The end of colonial rule especially the partition of India caused many people to define themselves as Muslim for the first time. For these and other reasons radicalism has taken hold.
And we shouldn’t forget another uncomfortable truth. Much of the historical information in this sermon has come from a book published this year called ‘The Great and Holy War’ (Philip Jenkins ‘The Great and Holy War: How World War I Changed Religion For Ever’ Lion Hudson 2014). The book is illustrated with some grim photographs. One of the most disturbing is a photo taken during one of the overspill conflicts that continued after 1918. It’s from the Second Moroccan War, sometimes called the Rif War because it was fought in the Rif Mountains of North Africa by Spain and France against the Berbers. In the photo there are seven Spanish legionaries, each holding up a severed head.
This is not an excuse for barbarism in our own day but a salutary reminder that the Christian West has much for which to answer. Our only weapon now should be humility. Humility calls for a very different sort of war: a war in which our understanding of martyrdom is both challenged and renewed.
Bartholomew and all the martyrs, pray for us. Amen.