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Remembrance Day


An Atheist Goes to Church

The War Memorial in Northleach

By luck we were back in the Cotswolds last weekend for Remembrance Day, so we joined our village for the ceremony at the local war memorial followed by a service at our church.

While I’m an atheist for all intents and purposes, attending church in the Cotswolds has always been a non-issue for me. Perhaps because I was raised Presbyterian or perhaps because village churches are intricately woven into this Cotswold landscape I love, I’ve always found a sense of comfort in their drafty Anglican sanctuaries.

On this Remembrance Day I attended church out of respect and to sit for an hour in a still, sacred place.

If my use of the term “sacred” jars, allow it. I mean it in the dictionary sense of something that is both highly valued and important, and deserving of great respect. Of course we all know the reasons religion isn’t to be highly valued nor deserving of great respect. The list is as long as my arm, as old as the crusades, as recent as the ISIS massacre in Paris last night. But on this occasion church was sacred. It was also a reminder of how much work we have yet to do to create secular institutions that replace the sacred functions historically provided by the church.

These sacred functions were laid out in the major sections of the order of service: The Gathering, Listening for the Word from God, Praying Together, Remembering, and The Act of Commitment. With some secular adjustments—changing “Listening for the Word from God” to simply “Listening,” and “Praying Together” to something like “Sharing Hopes and Burdens”—it’s a blueprint for a secular approach to community.

During “Remembering,” the group of people bearing the poppy wreath moved to the church’s War Memorial by the south door and, as The Last Post sounded, we, the congregation, turned to face them. An elderly gentleman, the leader of the wreath party, kept silence for a long time. Long enough to feel the grief of those long-ago wars and the grief of the world today. Long enough for me to appreciate the rare opportunity to grieve with others.

And of course there were hymns. Speaking on behalf of the tone deaf of the world, one of the unparallelled benefits of church is the opportunity to sing with abandon. And for anyone who loves language, it’s hard to beat hymns. I don’t remember the name of the hymn in question, but I do remember marvelling at seeing such an elegant use of the underused word “concord.”

Perhaps the most striking part of the service was the last, “The Act of Commitment,” in which the congregation is asked to say out loud that “we will” seek to heal the wounds of war and work for a just future of all humanity. I know they’re just words, but there’s a simple power in asking that people speak them in front of other people, without the virtual veil of Twitter or Facebook. And I know of nowhere else that I’d be asked to say aloud such radical things.


Remembrance Day

Our Remembrance Day service started with the blessing of a new standard for the village Brownie troop, done with an abundance of pomp and circumstance by Godfrey the vicar. After church, the entire congregation of thirty or so filed down the lane to the war memorial on the green for the act of remembrance. Around the British isles many others gathered at village greens just like this to speak the names of the war dead and observe two minutes of silence.

A retired local serviceman read aloud the names of those who died from this village and its sister village up the road, then placed a wreath of poppies on the memorial, followed by another from the Brownies. There were no more than twenty or so war dead, but these are tiny villages and the sense of loss must have been overwhelming. Ninety years later, there were still tears. “The Last Post” (the British version of “Taps” and equally as moving) played from a portable CD player propped on a chair outside the house at the top of the green. Even the white terrier accompanying his master looked solemn and sat quietly throughout.

Afterwards we went for a walk where, despite being intermittently pelted with freezing rain, we were offered two signs of hope and renewal. First was Hawling Lodge, which we’ve watched emerge from little more than a ruin over the last year. It has been beautifully restored, including a length of drystone wall where new, honeyed pieces sit alongside sections dark and chalky with age. A hill serves as one border in the back garden, and there is a door built into it that I would dearly like to open to discover what secret grotto lies within. Later, walking back by Roel Farm, a double rainbow appeared: two perfect arches over ochre fields.

Postscript: For anyone who fears political correctness has run amok, there was evidence to the contrary in the Cotswolds yesterday. A neighboring village was holding an evening Remembrance service honouring “especially those who died in the Indian Mutiny.”

I’ll stick with the Brownies.