Remembering Passchendaele: How a Great War battle still challenges the Church

This weekend the great and the good gather in Belgium to commemorate one of the defining battles of the First World War – 'Passchendaele' or 'Third Ypres'. Solemn ceremonies will be held at the Menin Gate and at Tyne Cot, the largest Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery in the world. The Prince of Wales, the King and Queen of Belgium and many other dignitaries will lay wreathes and bow their heads in silence.

Wikimedia CommonsThe Menin Gate at Ypres, near the site of the Battle of Passchendaele.

Passchendaele – even more than the Somme – is the battle which defines how British people see the Great War. For over four months, the already war-damaged ground of Flanders was churned into the sludge which haunts our worst imaginings of war. Human beings, artillery and horses were not only obliterated by shells, but simply sucked beneath the mud. By the end of the battle over half a million casualties had been sustained on all sides. This was the battle of which my grandad Bert, always a taciturn man and veteran of several campaigns, said simply, 'Passchendaele was the worst'.

One hundred years on, some will be feeling a kind of 'commemoration exhaustion'. Christians, in particular, may be anxious about the way that our established rituals of remembrance seem to co-opt the language of Remembrance, Sacrifice and Glory for civic ends. As a Church of England priest, I'm alert to the tensions implicit in my civic and religious identities. I believe I'm called to model a Christian faith shaped by reconciliation, peace and hope; at the same time, I serve real human communities that wish to remember the military service of loved ones.

What are Christians to say in response to war? Personally, I want to steer a difficult path – between the 'holy' conviction of those who claim war is always wrong and the fearsome passion of those whose hackles rise at any questions raised about Britain's prosecution of international affairs. Perhaps this desire to steer a complex via media is a symptom of my confusion and bewilderment. Perhaps it's a mark of my broad Anglicanism.

In the Great War, the CofE acted not only as an organiser of comfort, but as a propagandist. The consistent refrain of diocesan conferences and parish meetings was that the Church had a dual role – servant of God and servant of state. As servant of God, the CofE provided huge amounts of practical humanitarian support. As a servant of state, with far too few exceptions, the Church of England was a recruiting sergeant for destruction.

Preachers like Fr Paul Bull and the Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, used their exceptional rhetorical gifts to preach to vast crowds of potential soldiers. Rev AW Gough, Vicar of Brompton and Prebendary of St Paul's, suggested that every Englishman should don the khaki uniform, 'the festal garment which God is offering us today, which he is insisting that we put on'.

Yet, if, as Modris Ecksteins claims, 'clergymen dressed Jesus in khaki and had him firing machine-guns', at the Front there were instances of profound service. Chaplains like Geoffrey Studdart-Kennedy – aka 'Woodbine Willie' – distributed comfort to soldiers. Many CofE chaplains defied standing orders and went into No Man's Land to act as stretcher bearers. By the end of the war there were 3,475 chaplains. 172 of them died, of whom 88 were Anglican. Four received the Victoria Cross.

The God of the Anglican leaders typically reflected the muscularity and presumed masculinity of their class. Their god echoes through the martial fair play of the poetry of Sir Henry Newbolt. His most famous poem, Vitai Lampada, imagines a soldier bringing the virtues of his school and sport, specifically cricket, into the battlefield:

The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
'Play up! play up! and play the game!'

The Establishment, of which the CofE was part, celebrated what Patrick Howarth has called Homo Newboltiensis: the man who is stoic, honourable, brave, loyal and a little unimaginative.

It is perhaps easy to mock that picture of masculinity. It is certainly an image of manhood that deserves interrogation and challenge. Yet, Aristotle famously claimed that the model of the virtue of courage is the soldier. Perhaps part of the reason I feel moved to remember those who have served in time of war is that I respect the power of courage.

However, one of the shocking truths of Passchendaele was the way it deprived soldiers of many of the classic ways of demonstrating courage. What value 'dash' and 'courage' when the conditions of war mean that one is forced to huddle in a makeshift trench because of the sheer force of artillery? What does courage mean when stepping off a duckboard signals death by drowning?

As Christians we also want to acknowledge the courage of those who, for reasons of conscience, refuse to fight. In the Great War, conscientious objectors were often treated abominably and it is only in recent decades that their desire not to kill has been respected and honoured. For many people of faith they have become the model of true courage.

Christianity – especially in its post-Constantinian co-option as 'state' or 'imperial' religion – has always run the risk of becoming a handmaiden of power and authority. Certainly, early Christianity was fundamentally pacific. The psychologist and historian Sue Mansfield suggests, 'from [the perspective of early and mystic Christianity], war is simply one of the side effects of human error, a sign that humans' separation from their true nature has not been overcome [...] once God is understood as love, war ceases to have any mythological meaning or transcendent imperative, since it imitates no divine gesture'.

Yet, how difficult did the Anglican leaders of 1914 find it to leave behind their imperial, patriarchal visions of God? The behaviour of the Church in the Great War is not the least of arguments against too close a relationship between Church and State. Whatever else was wrought by the War, it finished off the mentality of churchmen who identified the Christian good with that of the state's good.

However, if Passchendaele exposes the dangers of state co-option of Christian ideas and concepts like Sacrifice, it remains for me, at least, a curious privilege to be called as a cleric of the established Church to lead Remembrance services and stand in the midst of public memory. Despite my attraction to pre-Constantinian Christianities and their enactment of 'the pacific God', I'm not sure I'm clear-minded enough to 'lay down' my respect for those willing to serve and to fight.

Canon Rachel Mann is Canon Poet-in-Residence at Manchester cathedral. She is the author of 'Fierce Imaginings: The Great War, Ritual, Memory and God' ( DLT, £12.99).