Address given at the Service of Thanksgiving and Rededication on Battle of Britain Sunday

18 September 2011 at 11:00 am

The Venerable Raymond Pentland QHC RAF, Chaplain-in-Chief

It is a typical September day, sunny but breezy. Sitting by their tents the aircrew listen to music, read newspapers, dream of pleasant things, play cards; but always they wait and they wonder. The aircraft sit at the ready courtesy of the tireless work of the ground crew. The bell rings. They run to the aircraft. The engines roar to life. They take to the skies, risking all, sometimes sacrificing everything for the sake of others - hour after hour, day after day.  

This was the Battle of Britain and men like these - the few, supported by the many made the world a better place. 

Today Churchill’s iconic words still ring true – ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.’ We are among the many, whether or not we were there to experience the events of 71 years ago. 

Because of the few we have the freedom to come to this great Abbey, to give thanks and to put that thanksgiving into perspective. 

For it is here that worship has been offered for some 1400 years;

It is here Monarchs are crowned;

It is here that the nation celebrates

It is here that we mourn;

It is here that we come to pray.

It is here that we consider and reflect on life, recognizing that things don’t always work out as we might expect.

We come knowing that human beings despite the flaws and sinfulness, exhibit the extraordinary qualities of courage and faith that we commemorate today.

Recently the Secretary of State for Defence said that the ‘People of this United Kingdom know that the Royal Air Force will never let them down.’  

It was so in 1940 and the years following, 

It was so in the skies above this great city and across our nation.

It is so, as our aircrew take to the skies in Afghanistan, over Libya, or to protect our homeland.  

It has been so for the 70 years that our Search and Rescue Teams have operated in our mountains and coasts.

It is so for those who protect our airfields, and for all who support our people in every aspect of life necessary in today’s Royal Air Force. 

It is so for our helicopter crews in Afghanistan, who continually fly into danger; offering support; bringing medical care; rescuing the wounded, and who in their lives and service embody the very spirit of the Battle of Britain. 

All of this takes courage - and courage finds it roots in the Latin word for ‘heart’. It suggests being in touch with the very essence of ourselves and living at that deepest level of being. Courage was evident during the Battle of Britain – 

in our nation,

in the Royal Air Force, 

and in the individuals who rose to the occasion. 

They took heart and responded to the threat before them. Their response involved what we call responsibility – each airman setting out on a sortie took responsibility for himself, trusting others to have done the same to make his flight possible. How very different from much of our culture today – a culture which often shies away from personal responsibility and so easily seeks to lay blame elsewhere. This would not have served in the circumstances facing the few in 1940.

Their courage and dedication gave us victory, but gave them a depth of living few had plumbed before or perhaps were ever to find again. They were living on the edge – but they were living, or dying, for others.  

They exemplified St Paul exhortation to

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

This is service; this is a measure of what we witness in those who served in the Battle of Britain and it is something to which we should all aspire. 

For to put others before ourselves makes for a better world,

it makes for a community based on solid principles;                                                                                       

it makes our lives richer.

it makes us better human beings.

Our first lesson, from the prophet Micah, reminds us that God’s vision for the world is that Old Testament concept known as “shalom” or peace. Micah’s vision was that one day, in God’s time, nations would realize that they are all part of God’s creation, and so they would come together that God “may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths” (Micah 4:2). It may seem that Micah’s vision is theological pie in the sky, but consider that today, the ‘old enemies’ work as allies, sharing the same desire for peace, justice, and freedom. 

The Battle of Britain may have been a moment in human history when God’s shalom took root, but it is a fragile plant, and its growth needs careful encouragement. However as long as hatred and extremism exist, we require the professionalism and courage of a few, who stand ready to do their duty to protect others. While evil exists we need to come to this place to pray, to reflect and to commit ourselves to working for a better future.

The inspiration of those who fought in the Battle of Britain challenges a good deal of our privileged lives today, we are privileged despite the pressures that many face in the economic turmoil of the moment. However, what ought to shame us is the indulgent carelessness of much that we find in our society. All too often we witness examples of wasteful meaninglessness and ultimately destructive behaviour on our streets and communities where selfishness is the order of the day.  

Sometimes it seems we have allowed the freedoms so hard won by others to become meaningless, a sort of caricature of freedom from any restraints, producing a society in which many seem to lack a sense of purpose or responsibility in their lives. Have we really lost sight of the very heart of life, the courage to live not for ourselves but for others? 

To set that contemporary self indulgence alongside the heroic accounts of young people serving in our armed forces is to view something truly obscene. 

The courage we celebrate today – and a courage we recognize displayed in Afghanistan, and over the skies of Libya and many other places by our Royal Air Force is courage rooted in the heart – the heart that is set on truth. We have so much and yet it would seem we have not enough. 

It was St Augustine who wrote ‘Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in thee’. He caught sight of the fact that truth lies with God himself, and that our lives yearn after such truth and meaning which can be found in Him alone.

To take courage, to take heart, is to begin to reach out towards God who gave us the gift of life in the first place.

What we do with that gift is our responsibility – no one else’s. The choice is ours; we must take responsibility for life, and if necessary risk all. 

Those who fought the Battle of Britain did just that. And of course Jesus himself showed us that we must live, not for ourselves, but for others. 

This is the challenge of life – 

it is worth living for;

it is worth dying for; 

It is where we find ourselves; 

it is where we find God.  

It is a typical September day, sunny but breezy. Sitting by their tents the aircrew listen to music, read newspapers, dream of pleasant things, play cards; but always they wait and they wonder. Their aircraft sit at the ready courtesy of the tireless work of the ground crew. The bell rings. They run to the aircraft. The engines roar to life. They take to the skies, risking all, sometimes sacrificing everything for the sake of others. This is Afghanistan and just like the few, supported by the many, they do so hour after hour, day after day.  Men and women like these make the world a better place. 

So here in this place of worship,  

this place of history,  we remember with thanks giving a moment time when the world held its breath 

as evil was challenged, 

as freedom was won by a group of young men who put aside their fears, 

who took heart and flew into the sky and who in the words of John Magee, 

slipped the surly bonds of earth

– and touched the face of God.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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