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Father Christopher writes:-

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Since the beginning of this month we have been marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele which began on 31 July 1917. Every Remembrance Sunday we remember those who died in warfare fighting for the freedom of our nation and the Commonwealth but it is a feature of life that certain anniversaries and certain events are commemorated in a special way. People have for example already started marking the twentieth anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales which falls later this month. Those of you who have been following the activities commemorating the anniversary of Passchendaele will have heard how together with the Battle of the Somme it came to be a symbol of the First World War, a battle that had to be fought not only against the Germans but also against the mud. The First World War was the first to include trench warfare on a large scale and for the men going to the trenches mud was inescapable but at Passchendaele the worst rain in thirty years had turned the battlefield into a quagmire in which men and horses drowned. In one of the bloodiest episodes of the first World War the loss of life on both sides was immense.

Much has been written about the war and the Church of England. Most recently an article in The limes by Canon Rachel Mann considered the role of the Church in the war and the effect of the war on the church, pointing out how certain sections of the church acted effectively as recruiting agents for the forces. She particularly mentions Arthur Winnington-Ingram, Bishop of London who preached a sermon on Call to Arms, though she might have mentioned others such as the Anglo-Catholic Charles Gore Bishop of Oxford who were equally vocal in encouraging men to fight and kill. But given the scale of death on the battlefield we can well imagine the difficulty of chaplains in the field, while in the pulpits at home and throughout Western Europe clergy had to try to explain the horrors of the war to their people. Mann suggests that it was perhaps the experience of places like Passchendaele that made people question faith [and authority?] as never before for there is little doubt that on a national scale the importance of religion declined during and after the war. At the same time, however, the Church of England rediscovered the practice of praying for the dead to the extent that an authorised prayer for the departed was published in 1917.

For all the casualties of Passchendaele the front line advanced by only some five miles, albeit a strategic advance. Many people have questioned the leadership of the forces and of the politicians back home, the phrase 'lions led by donkeys' often being used. I am fond of the poetry of the war poet Wilfred Owen, and there is one particular poem that seems to raise a lot of questions about the war, those who took us into it and who planned and executed it, and perhaps Owen's own view of what God wanted us to do. Set within the context of God's call to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, it is called Parable of the Old Man and the Young. Rather like Christ's parables which tease our minds and invite us to respond individually to them, you can interpret this as you wish.

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,

And took the fire with him, and a knife.

And as they sojourned both of them together,

Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,

Behold the preparations, fire and iron,

But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?

Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,

and butlded parapets and trenches there,

And stretched forth the knife to slay his son.

When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,

Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,

Neither do anything to him. Behold,

A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;

Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him. But the old man would not so, but slew his son,

And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

We hold all those who died in the battle of Passchendaele in our prayers at this time.

Blessings,

Fr Christopher.

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