On Sunday 29 Ooctober Bishop Peter dedicated the new War Memorial at Kirk Malew and preached his first sermon there...
‘First Sermon’ preached at Kirk Malew, with Dedication of the new Memorial to the Fallen of the Second World War.
Even without the horse and the Landau carriage, it is very good to be here. ‘It is good for us to be here’ are the words of Simon Peter to the Lord at the Transfiguration, in Chapter 9 of St Mark’s Gospel, and we can barely imagine the wonder and amazement with which those words must have been spoken. The truth is that liturgy and worship, and even prayer, should give us something of a glimpse of the Mount of the Transfiguration, of what the revealed glory of God really is, and my hope and prayer for this evening is that our time here will do exactly that, drawing us closer to the mystery of God. We have already had one foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven today, with an extra hour’s sleep, and my hope is that our worship this evening may in a different way take us close to the mysteries of Heaven!
It is very good to be here also at this exciting and special time in the life of the Vicar of this parish and his family! Our warmest congratulations and best wishes to James and Caroline, and our prayers for their new daughter, a sister for George, and their life together as a family. I had earmarked the baby of the Cathedral’s Director of Music, due in early December, to take the leading part in this year’s Christmas Crib, but now it looks as if I might need to hold an audition!
It is very good to be here in yet another sense also: to be in this particular church, whose historical pre-eminence is impressive. For me at this stage, it is of course good just to meet with the people of this diocese and to get an increasing grasp of the faithfulness of God’s people on this Island and the spiritual and architectural treasures of our buildings. Times change, of course they do, but they need to change in a way that is coherent and that traces the path from one generation to another, if we are not to become disorientated. I have reflected already on the relationship between tradition and development, and this is surely vital in a community such as ours. I am, astonishingly, the eighty-seventh known bishop of the Isle of Man, of this diocese known as Sodor and Man, which is older than any diocese in the Church of England with the possible exceptions of London and York. And I also see great innovation and imaginative thinking here in our industry, our technology, our research, our financial sector – and rightly so. We need new ideas, new people, new developments, if our Island Nation is to play its part in the life of the world, and we also need to consider carefully not just ‘tradition’ but ‘the uses of tradition’. That is to say: how do we articulate our past into a narrative for the future?
This is the very question, of course, around the dedication of our War Memorial today. What are we saying in dedicating, or blessing, an artefact that refers back seventy years or more? Perhaps one way of approaching any question is to look at a similar instance, so let me tell you a story of another recent case of ‘memorialisation’ upon which I have reflected deeply.
Just over a couple of years ago, I dedicated, or blessed, a memorial to the Korean War. It stands in the grounds of the Ministry of Defence in London, between the building itself and the River Thames, clearly visible from the Embankment. It is a large, more than life-sized, figure of a soldier. I dedicated it on a cold, wet day, with rain of increasing intensity coming from a dark grey sky. There were several hundred people in attendance. This included the South Korean ambassador, our own Secretary of State for Defence, and a royal representative. But the majority of the people present were veterans of the war itself: perhaps 300 of them, all survivors from the dreadful fighting of 1950-53. I was astonished to see so many, and any mathematical calculation would have put them in their early- to mid-eighties. The truth is that it was utterly important for them to be there, as this was the story of their lives. In fact they felt it was a neglected story, as the Korean War was the ‘forgotten war’. The fighting was terrible; the weather conditions were atrocious; the forced march and the captivity that followed it were horrendous, as described subsequently by (then) Captain Anthony Farrar-Hockley of the Gloucestershire Regiment and the inspirational Regimental Chaplain, Sam Davies, whose account of surviving captivity and Chinese indoctrination was published under the title In Spite of Dungeons. The title comes from the hymn ‘Faith of our Fathers’: ‘Faith of our Fathers, living still, In spite of dungeon, fire and sword … ‘. The Korean War was the first to be fought under the badge of the United Nations. Britain provided the largest supporting contingent of the participating members under the United States, but until a couple of years ago there was no British national memorial. This memorial was provided as a gift from the Government of South Korea, in gratitude to Britain from the people of that country. That was why 300 octogenarians wanted to be there on that cold wet day. But there is another aspect to this. No peace treaty was signed. Although the fighting ceased, the war did not end. It established a demilitarised zone, but nothing more. The Korean War technically continues, and it is with us today in the posturing and rhetoric between North Korea and the United States that we have recently witnessed. The past is still with us, and it shapes the present reality of our lives.
As Christians, of course, we live with this truth, indeed to an even greater degree. We understand past, present, and future to be united in Christ, and in our Easter liturgy we say that ‘all time belongs to Him, and all the ages’. Rightly so, and in our worshipping and sacramental life we are united not just with Him, supremely, but with our fellow-Christians throughout the centuries and across the world. We correctly cherish the venerable antiquity of this parish church. In our first reading today, the prophet Haggai speaks of how the glory of the latter days shall be even greater than before, and the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages the Christian community in its togetherness in Christ. In Chapter 8 of his Letter to the Romans, St Paul makes clear that nothing, absolutely nothing at all, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. All of these things are as true for us as they were for our ancestors and forebears, and we rejoice today both in the promises of Christ and in the communion that we share with one another and with the previous generations that have worshipped and prayed in this holy place.
So where does that leave us today? I hope that I have said enough to give us confidence in Christ, a confidence that we may sometimes feel we very much need. We live as the people of God, and we live by faith and by prayer, by scripture and by sacrament. But we also live as the people of this place, and those who are commemorated on our memorial are those who also came from here, in another time, to face another challenge. They came from here: they worshipped in this church, they were baptised and confirmed here, and perhaps they were married here. They rose to meet the challenge of their day, and it proved to be a challenge that cost their lives. Unlike the Korean War, the Second World War did reach its end, but although it no longer continues in our own time, it has shaped and moulded us entirely. Most obviously, it has given us the freedom that characterises our society, and it has also formed us as moral beings, providing a compass of virtues and values by which we should live.
‘Virtues and values’: we recall selflessness, sacrifice, moral courage as we dedicate our memorial today. But let me conclude with a thought or two on what it means to ‘dedicate’ or to ‘bless’ our memorial. Does to ‘bless’ mean to make holy? Yes, it does, in that we impart a spiritual significance to the object. We ‘hallow’ it, commending it to God in love. But it is of course already hallowed by those whom it commemorates. Our sacrifice of praise may seem very small compared with their sacrifice of their lives. Nonetheless, what we do is itself a wonderful thing, for it acknowledges God’s sovereignty over every aspect of human life and death. It recalls God’s abiding love for each human life that he has created. And in gathering together in God’s name to pray for those who have gone before us, we fulfil the very purpose of life itself: to honour the Creator and to love that which He has made.
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TAGS: Bishops Letter