theguardian.com, Sunday 10 November 2013 09.51 GMT
Cenotaph designer Edwin Lutyens recognised many of those died fighting for the British empire were not Christians. Photograph: Luke Macgregor/Reuters
A secular campaigner has called for the Church of England to abandon its role in the annual Remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph, claiming it no longer represents the views and beliefs of the majority of Britons.
Norman Bonney, emeritus professor of sociology at Edinburgh Napier University and a director of the National Secular Society, argues that the Cenotaph was deliberately conceived as a non-religious memorial and should be treated as such.
The Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Whitehall monument is usually led by the Bishop of London, who offers prayers for all those who have died in the service of their country.
In his paper, The Cenotaph: a contested and consensual symbol of remembrance, Bonney argues that the the monument’s designer, Edwin Lutyens, did not want it to have religious significance as he recognised that many of those killed fighting for the British empire in the first world war were not Christian but Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh.
He points out that David Lloyd George’s cabinet rejected the Church of England’s requests for the Cenotaph to include a cross and to bear Christian inscriptions. It is marked only with the words “The Glorious Dead” and dates commemorating both world wars, “1914-1918”, and “1939-1945”.
Yet despite the monument’s explicitly secular nature, argues Bonney, the remembrance ceremony retains strong Christian aspects that demonstrate “the continuing ritual dominance of that religion – in its Church of England form – in the public life of the UK state and its annual ceremony of remembrance of the dead of war”.
The church cannot claim to speak for everybody in 21st-century Britain, he argues. “Changes in religious belief, emphasised in recent census findings, demonstrate that Christianity in general, and the Church of England in particular, can no longer be fully inclusive of the whole community, particularly when over a quarter of the population have no religion,” he writes.
Bonney would rather see the event stripped of all its religious aspects and replaced with “a secular ceremony with which all can identify”.
According to the Ministry of Defence, there are 265 Christian chaplains serving the armed forces, including 49 army reservists. Sixteen Anglican chaplains are understood to be spending Remembrance Sunday on active service in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
The Church of England dismissed Bonney’s suggestions, saying the religious ceremony served a valuable purpose.
“The Remembrance Sunday Service at the Cenotaph has always contained prayers and readings from scripture, and the fact that it continues to be so central a part of our public life would suggest that it is meeting people’s pastoral needs,” said the Venerable Peter Eagles, archdeacon for the army.
The church’s director of communications was more forthright, accusing the National Secular Society of a “rather sad” attempt at seeking publicity.
“As the nation prepares to collectively remember the sacrifice of those who laid down their lives, it is both misjudged and misguided for the National Secular Society to attempt to politicise Remembrance Sunday for their own ends,” said Arun Arora.
“As millions of people prepare to gather at churches and war memorials for remembrance services led by clergy this Sunday, they will be accompanied by those on active service who will join services led by chaplains in the field. To see the National Secular Society – and its barely 10,000 members – hijack this time of solemn remembrance is rather sad.”
I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above, Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test, That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;
The love that never falters, the love that pays the price, The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.
And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago, Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;
We may not count her armies, we may not see her King; Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;
And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase, And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.
PUBLISHED: 00:37, 9 November 2013 – Daily Mail
‘Obscene’: Reverend Gordon Giles claims the words of I Vow to Thee My Country are obscene, offensive and unfit to be sung by Christians
A leading Church of England vicar yesterday condemned the words of one of the country’s best-loved hymns as obscene, offensive and unfit to be sung by Christians.
The Reverend Gordon Giles, one of the Anglicans’ leading authorities on hymns, declared that I Vow to Thee My Country should be rewritten if it is to be sung by modern congregations.
His verdict was delivered in advance of the remembrance weekend when the hymn, which is especially valued by military families, will feature in thousands of services across the country and the Commonwealth.
Its patriotic words, written in the final year of the First World War, speak of the ‘final sacrifice’ made by those that love their country, and end with a promise of peace in heaven.
But Mr Giles – a former succentor responsible for hymns at St Paul’s – called I Vow to Thee My Country ‘dated’ and ‘unjust’.
He said in an article in the Church Times: ‘Many would question whether we can sing of a love that “asks no question”, that “lays on the altar the dearest and the best” and that juxtaposes the service of country and that “other country” of faith.
‘The notion of vowing everything to a country, including the sacrifice of one’s life for the glorification of nationhood, challenges sensibilities today.’
Valued: His verdict was delivered in advance of the remembrance weekend when the hymn, which is especially valued by military families, will feature in thousands of services across the country and the Commonwealth
Mr Giles said that the hymn had a ‘dated military concept of fighting for King and country.
This, he said, ‘gives offence, as it is based on the idea of a king as head of an empire, whose bounds need to be preserved for the benefit of subjects at home and abroad.
‘In post-colonial Britain this comes across as patronising and unjust. Associating duty to King and Empire with a divine call to kill people and surrender one’s own life is a theologically inept reading of Jesus’ teaching.’
Mr Giles, who is vicar of St Mary Magdalene in Enfield in North London, added: ‘Furthermore, if the cause is wealth, power, influence, national pride, then the sacrifice is diminished and its connection to the pride of suffering is, for me, almost obscene.’
The new emphasis on sacrifice came in the final months of a war which saw more than three million British Empire casualties, including over 900,000 deaths.
Composer Gustav Holst, who was director of music at St Paul’s Girls School, where Spring-Rice’s daughter was a pupil, set the words to a slightly altered version of the Jupiter theme from his Planets suite in 1921.
With its stirring new tune, called Thaxted, it rapidly became a staple of Anglican worship.
However left-wing and liberal teachers turned against it after the Second World War, and nine years ago a Church of England bishop, the then Bishop of Hulme, the Right Reverend Stephen Lowe, described it as ‘heretical’ and accused it of having ‘echoes of 1930s nationalism in Germany and some of the nastier aspects of right-wing republicanism in the United States.’
Its unpopularity with some Church of England clergy mirrors the fate of another hymn that dates from World War One. Blake’s Jerusalem, set to music in 1916 by Sir Hubert Parry, is now often regarded by Anglican leaders as unsuitable for Church use.
While frowned on by some clerics, both songs remain treasured by millions.
I Vow to Thee My Country has been used as an anthem by England sports teams and featured in the opening ceremony of the Paralympics last year.
Former defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth said that churchmen who dislike the hymn are out of touch with their congregations.
Criticism: Former defence minister Sir Gerald Howarth said that churchmen who dislike the hymn are out of touch with their congregations
Sir Gerald, Tory MP for Aldershot, said: ‘Any Church of England vicar should know that the Supreme Governor of the Church of England is the Queen. I am not sure a Church of England cleric should be taking this view of Her Majesty.
‘He is completely out of touch with the spirit of the times. There are more poppies being worn this year than ever and the armed forces have never been held in higher regard.
‘A vicar of all people should not be so insensitive at a time of remembrance of those who have made the final sacrifice, for the freedom of vicars to say insulting things.’
O valiant hearts who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle flame;
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the land you loved.
Proudly you gathered, rank on rank, to war
As who had heard God’s message from afar;
All you had hoped for, all you had, you gave,
To save mankind—yourselves you scorned to save.
Splendid you passed, the great surrender made;
Into the light that nevermore shall fade;
Deep your contentment in that blest abode,
Who wait the last clear trumpet call of God.
Long years ago, as earth lay dark and still,
Rose a loud cry upon a lonely hill,
While in the frailty of our human clay,
Christ, our Redeemer, passed the self same way.
Still stands His Cross from that dread hour to this,
Like some bright star above the dark abyss;
Still, through the veil, the Victor’s pitying eyes
Look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.
These were His servants, in His steps they trod,
Following through death the martyred Son of God:
Victor, He rose; victorious too shall rise
They who have drunk His cup of sacrifice.
O risen Lord, O Shepherd of our dead,
Whose cross has bought them and Whose staff has led,
In glorious hope their proud and sorrowing land
Commits her children to Thy gracious hand.
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