Monday, 4 August 2014

Lights Out and Post-Christian Rituals

The more I learn about World War I the less I understand it and the harder rituals of commemoration become. I have very mixed feelings about marking today 4 August as the centenary of the day Britain declared war on Germany and dragged the British Empire into the conflict whether its individual colonies and dominions wanted to be part of it or not. Yes on one level I know what led up to that and why Britain joined in to support France against German aggression and to attempt to support Belgium neutrality. But the more I read the more complex the European situation of the time seems. 

Certainly the 1914 - 18 war was and continues to be hugely significant. Its affects are still being felt for good and ill. We should remember and we'll be doing a lot of that over the next 4 years. I spent part of this morning watching the televised service from Glasgow Cathedral attended by representatives from all over the Commonwealth. It was emotionally moving. At the same time it felt like an escape - an escape from the latest news of dreadful conflicts happening now in Gaza and Israel, Syria, the Ukraine, Iraq and many other places. So I felt guilty at enjoying the music, the rituals, the readings, the stories that came through the TV from peaceful Glasgow. Even though it recalled harrowing scenes, there was the nostalgic comfort of 100 years distance. What's happening now is much more of an immediate challenge to complacency for those of us who live in peaceful places but who bear some collective responsibility for current injustices that lead to conflicts.

Tonight many people in the UK will join in a ritual of turning out the lights and lighting one candle instead for the hour up to 11 pm which was the time we entered WW1. It has captured the imagination of some. It hasn't really grabbed me, perhaps because lights out at 10 pm is not so unusual for me! And after all there is no real certainty that Sir Edward Grey ever did say on 3 August 1914, 
"the lamps are going out all over Europe: we shall not see them lit again in our life-time".
His friend remembered it but apparently Grey did not remember.

 Andrew Brown writes of tonight's collective lights-out action as an example of post-Christian ritual. Communities need rituals to bind people together but there is a problem when the ritual points towards a significance that is confusing, not made explicit. 

On the other hand, recalling a song we used to sing in the Girl Guides, may
"it's better to light just one little candle,than to stumble in the dark".
The candles of peace carried by children at the end of this morning's service from Glasgow perhaps do carry a message of hope.

This has been a bit of a ramble. How to pray today? Lord, have mercy.

Photo: my own, Tyne Cot Cemetery, Flanders, Belgium

4 comments:

  1. I too have some difficulty commemorating something as dreadful as the carnage of 1914-18 war, not least because it was supposed to make a better world for us all and as Simon Weston so poignantly said this evening, "They enlisted because they thought they would change the world, and they didn't"
    The second world war was "the war to end all wars", but it didn't.
    Rather than the gratitude we are supposed to feel for the 'peaceful' world we were all to inherit, and the dreadful loss of life world-wide which was to achieve that, I can only feel sadness, and pity for the terrible waste of so many lives.
    Certainly we will never forget, but equally certainly we will not learn from our experiences.
    I am glad so many people are able to pray but like you, can;t help wondering what we should be praying for.

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    1. Ray, I wander what helps us learn from experiences?

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  2. A thought-provoking reflection, Nancy. For me the conflicting thought and emotions were summed, as so often, by the incomparable Archdruid Eileen: http://cyber-coenobites.blogspot.com/2014/08/andrew-brown-writes-of-first-world-war.html?showComment=1407174614416#c115252793424166965

    So here in France I extinguished all but one light and thought of the young great-uncle I never knew, who was killed while tending a wounded comrade. If nothing else, their sacrifice deserves not to be forgotten.

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    1. I agree that those who suffered and died in WWI shouldn't be forgotten. I have a problem with the word 'sacrifice' in this context. Many who went to war did not 'give' their lives but had them taken away. Those who were conscripted. had no choice. Even some of the ''volunteers' were more or less forced into signing up e.g. examples of employers putting men on short hours so they could not earn a living wage. And then there was the emotional pressure (even bullying) of being taunted as a coward if not following the herd. They should not be forgotten - but - 'sacrifice'? Having said that I don't want to denigrate the contribution of many who gave sacrificial service in wartime.

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