“We have come to remember before God those who have died for their country in the two world wars and the many conflicts of the years that have followed. Some we knew and loved: we treasure their memory still. Others are unknown to us: to their remembrance too, we give our time…With thanksgiving we recall services offered and sacrifices made…”
These solemn and familiar bidding words were spoken at the Service of Commemoration and Thanksgiving on Remembrance Sunday by the Dean, The Very Reverend John Hall, at Westminster Abbey. The night before Her Majesty the Queen, senior members of the Royal Family, and the Prime Minister came together with veterans and members of the public to remember the nations fallen and wounded at the Royal British Legion’s Festival of Remembrance. The same bidding prayer had resonated amongst the testimonies during the evening. Paul Jacobs, who had lost his sight whilst helping to save others in Afghanistan, recited a moving citation that he had written. Kathryn Williams, Michelle Stead and Sheila Griffiths-Gibson told of how they had all been widowed when a Hercules had been shot down in Iraq. They acknowledged the value of their friendship, bound together by their shared story. These contemporary tales of the costs of standing up for righteousness were united with the past as 95 year old Squadron Leader, Tony Pickering, spoke of his experience flying Hurricanes in the Battle of Britain, saying “We never gave up control of the sky…we never gave it up.”
Last weekend I found myself at the heart of the nation’s acts of remembrance in London as Chaplain to The Lord Mayor of Westminster, Lady Christabel Flight. The wife of former Arundel and South Downs MP, Lord Flight, Christabel is bringing her undoubted energy, talents and qualities to the role of Lord Mayor of Westminster.
On Sunday morning Lady Flight joined with leading military figures in laying wreaths of remembrance in a private ceremony. We entered the Abbey passing before the assembled ranks of veterans and serving service men and women.
There seems to have a been a particular poignancy to the Remembrance celebrations throughout this year as we have commemorated the 70th Anniversary of Victory in Europe and 75 years since the Battle of Britain was fought over the skies of southern England.
We gathered in the west end of the Nave of Westminster Abbey standing beside the grave of the Unknown Warrior, whose body was brought from France to be buried there on 11th November 1920. The grave, which contains soil from France, is covered by a slab of black Belgian marble from a quarry near Namur. On it is an inscription, composed by Herbert Ryle, Dean of Westminster, which includes the words ‘MAN CAN GIVE LIFE ITSELF, FOR GOD, FOR KING AND COUNTRY, FOR LOVED ONES HOME AND EMPIRE, FOR THE SACRED CAUSE OF JUSTICE AND THE FREEDOM OF THE WORLD’.
As Big Ben rang out 11 o’clock, and the familiar canon rumbled in the distance, in the silence there was an overwhelming sense of the long shadow of history and our place in the procession of human history bound up with faith and nationhood – a tangible sense of loss and gratitude.
These commemorations combined familiarity with reverence. I hope that each of us will be able to find time in this Remembrance Day and week to reflect and offer thanks for the courage of successive generations who have been called, and continue to be called, to fight for the greater cause of justice and concord.
By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 11th November 2015 in the West Sussex Gazette.