A fight of faith: The Church of England and the First World War

In this centenary year of the start of the First World War, the nation is looking back a hundred years to that harrowing conflict and the Church of England is very much a part of the collective remembering.

Canon Alan Wilkinson, honorary priest at Portsmouth Cathedral, is the author of a seminal examination of the Church of England during this challenging moment in our nation's history. First published in the 1970s, it has been re-released to coincide with the centenary.

While most histories of the First World War examine the geopolitics of the day or the horrendous reality of the trenches,  The Church of England and the First World War sheds light on how very much the Church and Christians were part of the national conversation on going to war and how the conflict was to be regarded in the bigger picture of God's world.

Interestingly, he paints a picture of a Church that was taken by surprise by the outbreak of war and which struggled as much as anyone else to make sense of it.

What comes to light is how much Christians, for all their faith and churchgoing, really struggled and wrestled within themselves to decide whether or not it was just, and indeed whether they should become one of the men in the trenches or adhere to a pacifism inspired by Jesus' teaching to turn the other cheek.

The so-called "rape of Belgium" resonated with Christians as an event that called for a righteous war, being compared to Ahab's seizure of Naboth's vineyard in 1 Kings 21.  But Canon Wilkinson shows that for the Church in general, Britain's intervention was not simply about defending Belgium. Many would go on to look at the issue almost as a crusade, a battle between "Christ and Odin".

On the other hand, there were those who sought to resist such over simplistic narratives. They would be punished by the public and politicians alike for such a stance.

Beyond questions of pacifism and militarism, there are fascinating insights into the day to day life of the clergy during the War, both at home tending to those whose friends and family were fighting in far off fields, and at the Front, where chaplains offered what comfort they could to those suffering the full horror of the War.

Canon Wilkinson seeks in his text to dispel myths, and instead paint a picture of the complex, multi-faceted and above all messy reality of the Christian experience of the First World War. Regarding chaplains, he is suspicious of Robert Graves' characterisation of them as cowardly, but also notes how much better prepared for war ministry the Catholic chaplains were than their Anglican counterparts.

To put this in perspective, Canon Wilkinson provides detailed accounts of the experiences of several chaplains on the Front, from one Catholic chaplain who refused to take up arms even when no other officer was available, to a priest who calmly ministered compassion even to those who aggressively rejected the faith, some going as far to bite and spit in response to his kindness.

When venereal diseases started to spread among the soldiers, because of the increasing use of prostitutes as the conflict went on, the Church found itself at one and the same time moral instructor, seeking to stamp out sexual immorality among the men, and friend to those who had contracted an STD and found themselves ostracised and on the receiving end of harsh condemnation.

The conflict also forced the Church to reexamine theology and practice in some areas, such as prayers for the dead. As the Church's position on this issue, as well as many other issues evolved, Canon Wilkinson considers the question of whether churches of the time behaved more as thermometers or thermostats.

He remarks: "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 mystery 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, God being God," he remarks.