First World War shows us there are no easy human or Christian answers to life

Published 01 March 2014  |  

"In what way should the Church be distinctive?" That was the question Canon Alan Wilkinson was trying to answer when he wrote his pioneering book The Church of England and the First World War.

Speaking at an event in Southwark Cathedral this week to promote the publication of an updated edition, Canon Wilkinson commented on the complexities of the Christian response to the First World War and how what happened then is in some ways still happening now.

The event's host, Southwark's Sub Dean Bruce Sanders said of the book: "There is not a page, not a paragraph, not a single sentence or line that does not bear the hallmarks of meticulous research."

Mr Saunders also called the book an important contribution to the exploration of the Christian experience, showing how different Christians in the period 1914 to 1918 dealt with "the tragic paradox of trying to live out the Kingdom in the world we find ourselves in".

Alongside trying to untangle some small part of the Church's need to be distinctive, Canon Wilkinson also wanted to dispel what he called the myth of the "lions lead by donkeys" image of the war, the "Blackadder" idea of a futile conflict, uniquely terrible, and foolishly fought.

"Those who regard the First World War as futile, ignore the consequences of a German victory, including the possible extinction of freedom on both sides of the Channel," he said.

"Most British soldiers, realising this, were as prepared to die in 1918 as they were in 1914."

He also cited "obliteration bombing", Stalingrad, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb as reasons to avoid thinking of the First World War as somehow uniquely horrible.

In attempting to explain why many more Christians did not object or call things into question when the war began, Canon Wilkinson suggested that the narrative of the bullying Germany invading poor defenceless Belgium was a powerful one.

Contrasting the two different views of the war, Canon Wilkinson explained that many in the Free Church of the time "sympathised with poor little Belgium as they felt themselves being bullied and put upon by the big bad Church of England".

But while there were many patriotic Catholics, zealous Anglicans, and indignant Free Church members, there were also many who simply thought "they could not pray to Jesus to ask him to help them to reload and fire a gun".

Today's Church of England, struggling to find a voice and angle of protest amid welfare reforms and a country less inclined to heed religious authority, is not so far removed from the challenges the Church was experiencing in 1914, he contended.

Speaking about the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, Canon Wilkinson said "he tried to stem the tide of hatred against Germans, and objected to the use of poison gas. He said when we prayed to 'our Father' the barriers between us should crumble."

This was not received well, as were other later comments of the same kind from Archbishops of Canterbury objecting to wars. Canon Wilkinson recalled how when Archbishop Robert Runcie gave a speech during the Falklands War, in which he said war "has always been detestable, a sign of human failing", Dennis Thatcher, the then Prime Minister's husband, said: "The boss was livid!"

While Canon Wilkinson's own father was a pacifist, his own views developed in a different direction.

"He failed to lead any of his three children in that direction," he said.

Pacifism is too simple for Canon Wilkinson, nor is jingoism apt in the face of "personal and national suffering". Ultimately, he finds himself supporting the more modern revisionist historians who regarded the war as a "sad necessity, but reject idealism, both pacifist and military".

Recalling a childhood memory of the aftermath of war, Canon Wilkinson said: "I remember seeing the soldiers that came into the church, kneeling in the pews to pray, bringing that confusing and confounding mass of experience towards God, their medals clinking against the wood of the pews."

In each of the chapters of his book, Canon Wilkinson examines a different aspect of the Church's role during the war, fom the surprise at the start of hostilities at all, to the service provided to woeful widows at home and weary warriors at the front, to the question of the morality of the war, and how Christians of various stripes responded.

In providing a history of how the Church attempted to deal with these and other issues, Canon Wilkinson offers something of a blueprint for how the Church might choose to face a society in the throes of deep change - a lesson from the past, providing a possible pattern for the future.

Contemplating the war as a whole, Canon Wilkinson suggested that "the fact that the Great War still haunts our communal memory suggests that we have not yet completed our work of remembrance.

"The Great War confronts us with the fact that there are no easy human or Christian answers to life.

"It is the greatness of Christianity at its best that it affords no easy answers, but rather points us to the heart of darkness unflinchingly, enables misery to be transmuted into pain and, by making the darkness tangible, turns the apparent absence of God into a presence, however paradoxical and elusive that presence has to be, of God being God."

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