Beyond the troubles of this present time

By on November 1, 2022

Anglicans and the remembrance of war

The Rev. Dr. Alana McCord is Associate Incumbent of St. Paul’s Kanata

“Comfort, O Lord, we pray thee, all who mourn the loss of those near and dear to them… Give them faith to look beyond the troubles of this present time, and to know that neither life nor death can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord”

– Concluding Prayer from the service unveiling the Regimental Memorial Tablet dedicated to the Officers and Men of the Queen’s Own Rifles, 1921

Most Anglican parishes possess some form of memorial object, work of art, or architectural detail in their buildings commemorating the First World War – perhaps several. But for Anglicans, these visible, tangible items have not necessarily existed side-by-side with a great deal of theological or psychological analysis of our response to such wars.

In the century since the end of the Great War, there has been a great deal of discomfort with the roles which the Anglican Church played in the conflict – roles such as the sometimes-enthusiastic support of the war effort, or the statistical fact that more Anglicans volunteered for the Canadian Expeditionary Force than any other denomination. This discomfort has continued to exist throughout the twentieth century and its subsequent wars and conflicts, and beyond, as the hundred-year commemorations have come and gone.

How individual parishes have chosen to commemorate the First World War, any other war specifically, or the time of national remembrance in early November has varied – unsurprising in a denomination which revels in its liturgical multiplicity. And so, there are parishes which observe Remembrance Day with solemn and elaborate ceremonies, parishes which have chosen to ignore it entirely, and everything in between. In Anglican congregations, veterans and the descendants of veterans coexist with ardent pacifists, and more recently, with refugees who have fled war and persecution. How is each individual parish supposed to respond to such diversity?

Meanwhile, there still exist those memorial objects, works of art, or architectural details, which, like all such things, are continuously subject to interpretation. The iconography of war has changed and evolved, been (sometimes unjustly) criticized, and (sometimes rightly) critiqued. We can lose the ability to recognize the original meaning behind these memorials, but we can also fail to perceive the ways in which they might be interpreted now. 

The relatively simple Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa depicts the familiar trench helmet, maple leaves (symbolizing Canada), and laurel leaves (symbolizing both death and victory). The Tomb also depicts a sword – a Crusader’s sword. The sword itself, a sword at rest, becomes a weapon ready to be beaten into a plowshare. Yet it is still a Crusader’s sword, the weapon carried in those bloody, centuries-long struggles for dominance in the name of religion. It is a depiction which echoes the choice to bury the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey in 1920 with an actual Crusader’s sword from the King’s own collection. It encompasses multiple meanings.

What are we to do with our discomfort in reconciling the multiple meanings behind the commemoration of wars and conflicts, and the roles which Anglicans have played in them throughout history? If the wisest among us cannot fully define how a Christian is supposed to act in times of war, how can we know how to respond to it, even in times of peace?

First World War chaplains were, on the whole, horrified and outraged by what they witnessed. But almost all of them decided that their duty lay not in condemnation, but in care. 

They chose to believe in both the inherent sinfulness of war, and the inherent goodness of the people caught up in it. They looked at soldiers and saw human beings, and not cogs in the political machine. 

As human beings, and as Christians, we should continuously examine and re-examine our roles in past and current conflicts, but at the same time we can continue to follow the example of those First World War chaplains who offered comfort outside of the troubles of their present time, knowing that every victim of war deserves our care, deserves to be remembered.


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