First World War: Bishop of London highlights role of cathedrals and parish churches in ‘active commemoration’

“It is obvious that we cannot change the past, but we are responsible for how we remember it. Memory—and its more active form, commemoration—is certainly more than just lifting down a file and recalling a past event: it is a creative and responsible art which involves highlighting certain features and identifying significant resonances” – Bishop of London, 25/6/14

On 25th June 2014, Lord Gardiner of Kimble led a debate in the House of Lords to take note of the programme to commemorate the centenary of the First World War. The Bishop of London the Rt Rev. & Rt Hon Richard Chartres, took part in the debate, speaking of the importance of collective memory and ‘active commemoration’ of the First World War. He made reference to the significant role of citizens of the Commonwealth who served in the War, the ‘proper protest’ of those compelled to take a pacifist position, and set out some of the plans being made by churches and cathedrals across the country to commemorate the First World War.


The Lord Bishop of London: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the Minister for the comprehensive and measured way in which he introduced this important debate and laid out the Government’s plans for this commemoration. I also very much echo the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, about the emphasis being placed on the Commonwealth dimension. I have had the privilege of participating in the annual observances at the memorial gates since their inception. Remembering the sacrifices that were made by so many of those from Commonwealth countries who served provides us with an extremely important opportunity to weave that strand into the national tapestry and our national identity.

It is obvious that we cannot change the past, but we are responsible for how we remember it. Memory—and its more active form, commemoration—is certainly more than just lifting down a file and recalling a past event: it is a creative and responsible art which involves highlighting certain features and identifying significant resonances. As has already been suggested, memory informs our attitudes in the present and opens up or closes down possibilities for the future. Therefore, the programme that was outlined this afternoon is immensely responsible.

Our debate is very timely, coming just a few days before the centenary on Saturday 28 June, when the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, will be in Hamburg. It is the centenary of the very day on which Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, an event which ultimately detonated the First World War. It was not immediately recognised at the time as the historic turning point that it undoubtedly was. Europe had surmounted a number of crises in the preceding years. At the time, many people agreed with the views expressed in The Great Illusion—an amazing book by Norman Angell which can still be read with enormous profit. Published in 1910, a short time before the outbreak of World War I, it argued that in an interdependent international economy, war no longer made sense as victory would merely impoverish your customers and destroy your markets. Many were convinced by that. Nevertheless, just a short time afterwards, the irrational happened. At the beginning of August 1914 Europe was at war and the Armed Forces of the Crown—we have had some marvellous evocations of this—not only from Great Britain but from other realms and territories as well were called upon to make great sacrifices.

The Minister made an important point by referring to those who have been so conscious of the horror and irrationality of war that they have consistently embraced a pacifist position. Theirs is an important and proper protest, but for most churches and religious communities, our remembering of history—our responsible remembering of history—has compelled us to come to a different conclusion. As it says in the 39 Articles of the Church of England, it is lawful for Christians,

“at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars”.

It is a sober thing but it is the fruit of remembering our history. Organised force enables the peaceable to go about their daily life and provides a breathing space in which the slow business—to which the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, referred in relation to World War II—of building a better moral order can be undertaken.

I must also declare a particular interest as an ambassador for Remember WWI, an initiative which, as the Prime Minister said in his message of support, seeks “to galvanise people to take part in active commemoration”. We intend to channel, as far as we can, the emotion generated by the commemoration into charitable activity of all kinds across Britain, and we are particularly grateful for the assistance that we have already received from DCLG. I should also like to pay tribute to the contribution of the Very Reverend June Osborne, who has been part of the Government’s organising committee for this commemoration. She has circulated and been very active. Every one of our 16,000 parish churches and innumerable communities have received a comprehensive briefing and a list of suggestions and resources to help local communities devise ways of remembering that are appropriate to their circumstances.

As the Minister said, immediately and locally, Westminster Abbey will hold a candlelit vigil which will be broadcast by the BBC, drawing on that famous remark about the lamps going out all over Europe. The abbey will move from light to darkness until a single candle remains alight on the tomb of the unknown warrior, and at 11 pm, the exact moment of the declaration, it too will be extinguished. The hope is that all faith communities and local parishes will have their own vigils, and there are resources, particularly on the abbey website, to help them plan.

Every cathedral—Catholic cathedrals, Anglican cathedrals—has drawn up plans. We are grateful to the right honourable Chancellor of the Exchequer and acknowledge his assistance in granting £20 million in the Budget to both Catholic and Anglican cathedrals as a way of tackling urgent repairs and enhancing the setting for the commemorative events. The first round of applications closed on 30 May and we will have details of the grants awarded on 10 July. Obviously, war memorials will also be a focus of attention during the next four years. The Church Buildings Council stands by to advise on funding from its own resources, from the War Memorials Trust and from the HLF grant which has set aside £1 million for each of the next four years for war memorial projects.

In these commemorations we wholeheartedly salute, as has already been said, the courage of those who during the past 100 years have served under the British flag, and we remember with sorrow, pride and gratitude those who have given their lives, especially in the First World War but also in the wars of the past century. We honour those who, from our very diverse community, serve in today’s Armed Forces. This is the point of importance of these commemorations. As we navigate now into a new multipolar world, as the period of unchallengeable Western hegemony passes into history, our commemoration has to stimulate the deep reflection that we shall need if we are to avoid the mistakes of the past.


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