In 1990 when I was minister of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Cork, I was tidying up a back room when I discovered in a cardboard box a Union Flag, all damp and moth eaten. It may be presumed that this was the same flag which was draped over the pulpit every Remembrance Sunday until the late 1940s, a sign I suggest of a Southern Protestant congregation in political transition, no longer comfortable about displaying it in the Republic which was declared in 1948-49 but still unwilling to throw it out.
Rev Alick Cromie who ministered there from 1950 to 1955 had this reminiscence:
A colleague asked me “What would happen if you displayed a Union Jack in Trinity on Remembrance Sunday?” My reply was “Half the congregation would walk out.” “What would happen if you displayed a Tricolour in Trinity on Remembrance Sunday?” – Reply “The other half would walk out”. “What would happen if you displayed both Flags?” Answer – “They would all walk out.” However any church gathering open to the public such as a concert was closed by singing the Irish National Anthem. Others such as Annual Meetings were closed with the Benediction.
Forty years later, no flag was displayed nor any national anthem sung on Remembrance Sunday, but we did have moments of silent remembrance, prayer for those who suffered and grieved through war and for the President and armed forces of Ireland, especially those serving on United Nations peacekeeping duties. (I don’t recall the Irish national anthem being played in any church service – its militarism would be quite out of place – excepting the opening of the Presbyterian General Assembly in Dublin in 1969 with the President attending when it was played but not many appeared to know the words!)
On returning to Northern Ireland on retirement in 2017 I experienced some reverse culture shock around how Remembrance Sunday was observed. A survey of online services suggests that there is a general pattern in churches with some if not all of these elements: two minutes’ silence, Last Post and Reveille on a bugle, laying of wreaths, perhaps the parading of the Union Flag, the recitation of non scriptural poetry and the singing of the National Anthem.
Lines commonly recited are Laurence Binyon’s
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
and Rudyard Kipling’s,
When you go home, tell them of us and say, for their tomorrow we gave our today.
I realise that this is an emotional minefield: a very complex subject of great theological, societal and political significance. I fully appreciate that there are those who grieve the loss of loved ones in conflict in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan and I have my own memories of those lost in thirty years of violence, not least the Remembrance Sunday atrocity in Enniskillen. I often watch and am moved by the Remembrance ceremonies at the Cenotaph in London. I respect that in the early years of his reign many may wish to sing “God save the King” (as it happens, a much more prayerful anthem than the Irish).
But, with the change of monarch and with memories of the Queen playing a significant part for reconciliation in Ireland, typified in her bowing her head to remember those who had died fighting against the British Crown, and with some gracious condolences from some nationalist leaders, I believe this is a good time to reconsider how we remember so that, whether identifying as British or Irish or Northern Irish, we aspire to being less nationalistic and more Christian.
I have two questions in particular.
How far do the British resonances of Remembrance Sunday as commonly observed in many Northern Ireland churches have the effect of discouraging people with Nationalist/Republican sympathies from entering our churches, with the wrong equation reinforced of, if Protestant, therefore British? My experience in Cork suggests that there is a way of inclusive remembering. I believe it important to understand the stumbling blocks that some traditions present to those not of our “tribe”. I think of Paul’s desire to become all things to all people so that by all possible means he might save some. (1 Corinthians 9.22)
Whereas the poems have their place in civic remembrance ceremonies in the public square, are they appropriate for the worship of God? Can we not do better with scripture? I often read Psalm 46 as a conclusion to our period of silence, or David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan. Indeed, why not what Jesus said about loving your enemies? (see note below for a fuller list) The secular poems say something about remembrance and sacrifice but they are horizontal, they leave out the vertical dimension of what God thinks.
I know most changes in worship are hard, and all the more so in anything to do with conflict and loss. I suggest that those who lead worship make sure that this part of worship as with every part of the service becomes more conformable to God’s word.
I have in my notes on Remembrance the following comment by “Gordon Brown” (not I think the former British PM) written in an edition of “PS” of ECONI, the predecessor of Contemporary Christianity.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in 1936 as his Church began to be persecuted by the Nazi regime, stated, the disciples realized that they too were his enemies, and that he had overcome them by his love. It is this that opens the disciple’s eyes, and enables him to see his enemy as a brother. The disciple can now perceive that even his enemy is the object of God’s love, and that he stands like himself beneath the cross of Christ.
Should we hold Remembrance services this November? If so, let it not be remembrance just of those who died for our freedom, but also for those who sought to take it away, for the worst of our enemies, as well as the best. And for ourselves, who will also stand before the Great Judge.
John Faris is married to Heather and they have two adult children. He has served as a Presbyterian minister in North Belfast, Co Fermanagh and then in Co Cork until 2017. Although still a supporter of Munster rugby, he retired to become an Ulster Scot once again. He retains involvement in the Presbytery of Dublin & Munster, and compiles the fortnightly Presbyterian Notes in the Irish Times.
This is the first of two …PS…blogs on the subject of REMEMBRANCE and REMEMBRANCE SUNDAY. Click here to read the first.
Please note that the statements and views expressed in this article of those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Contemporary Christianity.