Remembrance in a land of forgetfulness


All together now: "Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November – gunpowder, treason and plot..."

Except that if you are like most people today, you are unlikely to be able to remember how it continues. In fact, the final two lines are: "I see no reason why gunpowder, treason, Should ever be forgot..." And, yes, you're right – it doesn't really scan very well, does it!

Bonfires and fireworks to mark the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 seem as strong a tradition as ever – even if the custom of children asking for a "penny for the guy" is just about extinct. And Remembrance Sunday – that other great festival of commemoration at this time of year – seems, if anything, to be going from strength to strength.

Yet it is arguable that both Bonfire Night and Remembrance Sunday are unusual in the vitality of the continuing link to the past which they represent. They are unusual because in many ways Britain – along with much of the western world – is becoming a land of forgetfulness and collective amnesia.

We do not have to think too long to observe this in many areas. When I visited a primary school not so long ago and asked children about the Ten Commandments, I was expecting them to struggle to remember many of them. What I hadn't expected was that none of them had even heard of them to start with.

Other basic building blocks in Christian knowledge have been forgotten too. The liturgy of the 1662 Prayer Book formed a backdrop of religious knowledge for generations until the latter part of the 20th century. While its language – if beautiful – became archaic, its content of essential Christian doctrine was not.

Some things are good to move on from, of course. To move forward we cannot stay stuck in the past. Technology changes, history unfolds, and it would be foolish to want to remain in some romanticised earlier era which was almost certainly far less ideal than we like to imagine. Who would want to return to the days before electricity or pain-killers, to name but two things.

But there are dangers in collective amnesia when it comes to spiritual matters. It's fascinating to observe that not a few Chinese academics pin the reason for the rise of the West not on technology or democracy but on Christianity. And they are amazed at how this is being forgotten. In his book, "The Victory of Reason," Professor Rodney Stark quotes a Chinese academic who declares: "The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of freedom and then the successful emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don't have any doubt about this."

Similarly, an article not so long ago in The Sunday Telegraph reported a prominent Chinese businessman as saying that the growth of the Christian faith in his country had led to a growth in trust between people – and hence to the ability to do business effectively. By contrast, many recent scandals in the West have stemmed from a loss of trust and an absence of ethics.

Perhaps it is time for our society to remember once again the spiritual foundations which enabled democracy and freedom to develop.

We rightly hear the words of John's gospel – "Greater love has no-one than this, than to lay down one's life for one's friends" – at Remembrance. But they also point us to Christ, to the cross and to a whole system of belief and behaviour which is the most important thing we can ever remember.

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