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The British BeehiveHallo again to all.

This November, we will mark the short one hundred years since the end of the Great War—the First World War—the War to End All Wars. All of the veterans of that war have died (though perhaps not all of the widows), and the trauma of the trenches has gone out of living memory. We still have poppies and Remembrance Day and a seam of poetry whose intensity continues to sing through the hearts of students who consider whether it is dulce et decorum pro patria mori. For most of us, though, this war goes through our mind just a handful of times a year, if at all. The nightmares and tremors are done; the active mourning has ceased; the bodies that contained power and strength and pain and rage and pride have turned to silent ashes and clay. The gas has gone out forever from the nostrils.

Our church throughout the world before this war was a rather different one than it would become afterward. We read this week a glimpse of a normal English Sunday before 1914 in the excellent memoirs of James Lees-Milne:

attendance at divine service was a universally recognized means of giving vent to that community spirit, which before the First World War was very compulsive in country districts. Everyone who was anyone in the village automatically assembled once a week, and offered up his and her praise and thanksgiving as much to the prevailing social system as to the Almighty. Our family was no exception in rejoicing that the happy state of the world was what it was. So my parents did not regard spending one hour a week glorifying the status quo too great a sacrifice of their leisure moments.*

Lees-Milne—a towering figure in the preservation of English architectural heritage during the twentieth century—goes on to flesh out in great humour the brass tacks of what it was like to live in the squirearchy. (His father chose the readings each week for the curate, lectionaries be damned.) It was the world of a race taught to sing and believe in

The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at the gate:
God made them high and lowly,
And orders their estate.

Anglicans in all countries have a complex relationship with this amber-coloured nostalgia-without-memory. Was it not better when pews were full, and the Gospel was preached out of duty and social inertia, rather than as an opt-in addition to one's busy life? Was there not something good about the central presence in every settled community of a parish church to which all could repair for hatching, matching, and dispatching, and where daily or weekly visions of beauty were afforded to all sorts and conditions? Have we not sacrificed something, allowed some of the vigour to leave us, and succumbed in weakness to the tides of disbelief and unbelonging?

There are no easy answers. Establishment (official as in some places, unofficial in other places) allows for tendencies to worship, as we have been accused, the Power of Our Glory. In practice, it has allowed us to neglect the poor rather than to embrace their spirit and persons at Christ's own commandment. At its worst, the Church before the War could be wedded unhelpfully to class or language or subjective taste.

Yet the questions must be asked a hundred years on: are we truly doing a better work in 2018 than in 1918, as churches, with returned soldiers suffering from the distortion of their hearts through ever-new kinds of warfare? Does the Bible compel us to care for the widowers, widows, and their children, in a way that balances the value of sacrifice with the intense pain of human suffering—and do we listen? Have our liturgies (the answer is No) found a place everywhere for the blessed dead from every kind of conflict or genocide or forced displacement? Do our congregations have a heart for the decent burial of the poor, the person who dies abroad, the family who need a fit place to mourn and to remember?

A century is a good measuring-point from which to look and to acknowledge in a stark humility that there is still work to do on all of these fronts. As long as we have war, the War to End Them All still accuses us in its futility, our need for reform, our duty to call beautiful the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace.

See you next week.

Our Signatures

Richard Mammana


All of us at Anglicans Online

2 September 2018

* James Lees-Milne, Another Self (1970).

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