A Service to mark the 90th Anniversary of the Founding of Combat Stress: Sermon

12 May 2009 at 12:00 pm

The Right Reverend David Conner, Dean of Windsor and Bishop to Her Majesty's Forces

Last Thursday turned out to be a very special day for me. Knowing that I was to preach at this service today, I gladly accepted an invitation to visit Tyrwhitt House and to see, at close quarters, something of the work of Combat Stress; to get the flavour of what things have developed into in the course of the last ninety years. My visit, during which I met veterans and carers, was all too brief. However, I know that the impression that it made on me will certainly endure, and it most surely helped me focus on what it is that we celebrate today.

To begin with, we celebrate a certain quality of care. In the context that Combat Stress provides, veterans can be confident that they are genuinely understood. The quality of care that I noticed, for all the expertise that informs and undergirds it, might best be described as an extension of, and an expression of, real comradeship. Quite clearly, it is not given from on high. It is the fundamental ingredient of a shared culture; shared as much between the veterans as given to them by the staff. There is something very special (very rare, I should say) in this kind of care, though maybe quite familiar to those who have experienced Service life.

It is right today that we should say ‘Thank You’ for such care in the context of an act of worship, in this great Abbey. The God to whom this place draws our attention is the God who cares for all his children (as a shepherd for his sheep) and we can believe that our ordinary human scraps of kindness to each other are the means by which he works his purpose out in and through an often unkind world. Here we recognise that there might be more to the ninety years of Combat Stress than meets the outward eye; something strangely spiritual.

Then, we celebrate a certain quality of courage; the courage of our veterans. Courage comes, of course, in many colours; some of which are bright and noticed quickly. But there is a kind of courage that comes in subtler shades and requires of us a keener eye if we are to value it. It is the courage, when deep and painful wounds have been hidden for too long, to ask for help. It should not be underestimated. Far too many of us lack it.

The continuing community of Combat Stress over ninety years has been such a community as to welcome, embrace, affirm and value those who have shown such courage. All involved with Combat Stress have recognised that courage. They have seen, through emotional and spiritual brokenness, a shining human strength.

It is right that we should say ‘Thank You’ for such human strength and   courage (the courage to ask for help) in the context of an act of worship, in this great Abbey. The God to whom this place draws our attention is the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ; the one who offers comfort with the words:  “Everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds.” To those who ask, some new, often surprising, strength is given. Looked back upon, each and every asking has been a kind of prayer. Here, we recognise perhaps that, in the course of ninety years of Combat Stress, there have been depths to this asking that have not been spotted with the outward eye. We give thanks for something hard to put your finger on; something spiritual in this.

If today we celebrate and offer thanks for care and courage and the people who have embodied and enshrined these qualities down through the years, we also celebrate and offer thanks for all those supporters, families and friends whose faith in the whole enterprise has made it possible. Some of those, some of you who are here today, have borne great burdens and have shared the trouble of those whom you have deeply loved. In all this human sharing, all this human bearing of another’s burdens, and in all this human going-on-believing, I have a hunch that something spiritual has been surging through the veins of Combat Stress throughout these ninety years. That is why, of course, it seems just right to say our ‘Thank You’ in the context of an act of worship, in this great Abbey.

Yet we cannot leave it there, with a retrospective glance and a word of thanks, however heartfelt and right-directed that word of thanks might be. There are too many people who have served in our Armed Forces or who at present offer service in this way, who are nursing hidden wounds today and who as yet have not asked for help. There will be many more. The hidden wounds they suffer are wounds suffered in our name and for our benefit. Too easily, we can ask too much of them.

So, a ninetieth anniversary might provide occasion to take stock; to remember and to recognise the price that is so often paid in ordinary lives by people who have hoped to do their duty, and the pain that is so often borne by ordinary families who have been dragged into something they could never have expected, and the bewilderment of ordinary friends and ordinary neighbours who simply cannot understand.

A ninetieth anniversary might be a time to regret that the work of Combat Stress should still be necessary but, given the harsh fact that it is so necessary, to commit ourselves to tempering the consequences of our requirement that there should be those who fight on our behalf and in our name, with humble gratitude and respectful care, with some recognition of the strange dignity with which hidden wounds are borne, and with determination that, however great the pressures imposed upon us in our all too complicated world, we should never for one moment forfeit our humanity. It is for its guarding and preserving our humanity, that ordinary and yet extraordinary humanity, that I want to celebrate the ninety years of Combat Stress in this wonderful building, and before Almighty God, to whom this place draws our attention; the God who most showed his power in Jesus Christ by simply being human.

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