Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 3rd August 2014

3 August 2014 at 10:00 am

The Venerable Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence

Writing in yesterday morning's Daily Telegraph, Professor Hew Strachan said: 'In his 1925 memoirs, Sir Edward Grey said that he could not recall uttering this lament for Europe as he looked out from his office over Saint James's Park at dusk on August 3rd 1914, but the words have ever after been attributed to the then foreign secretary. And they will prompt a nationwide act of commemoration on the centenary of the declaration of war on Germany.

At an official service [here] in Westminster Abbey on Monday night the candles will be snuffed one by one, until only a burning oil lamp remains at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior. At 11.00 pm, that lamp will be extinguished, marking the exact time the British Empire entered the war.'

The Solemn Commemoration and Vigil will feature both sublime music and heart-wrenching verse, from among the War Poets commemorated just behind you in Poets' Corner, among them Wilfrid Gibson's The Messages:

'I cannot quite remember.... There were five Dropt dead beside me in the trench – and three Whispered their dying messages to me....'
Back from the trenches, more dead than alive, Stone-deaf and dazed, and with a broken knee, He hobbled slowly, muttering vacantly:
'I cannot quite remember.... There were five Dropt dead beside me in the trench – and three Whispered their dying messages to me....'
'Their friends are waiting, wondering how they thrive.... Waiting a word in silence patiently.... But what they said, or who their friends may be,
'I cannot quite remember.... There were five Dropt dead beside me in the trench – and three Whispered their dying messages to me....'

From 10.00 pm, for an hour, the lights will go out at landmark sites, including the Houses of Parliament, Durham Cathedral, Blackpool Illuminations, and Liverpool's Liver Building. This is part of a campaign being promoted by the UK Government called 'Lights Out', like the Vigil itself, also the brainchild of the Abbey's own Precentor, Dr Jamie Hawkey.

'The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life.'

Beyond the bloodshed and the undoubted waste of human life and potential, the historical understanding of the Great War, as it came to be known in English, has been subtly nuanced in recent years. Not so much a focus on its futility, but more these days on the necessity of securing and maintaining alliances: standing by our allies, doing the right thing whatever the cost.

But 'lights out' nonetheless conveys the bleakness of war, not just for those who did the actual fighting but for those at home who watched and waited and prayed and feared and trembled at the thought.

However, these words have taken on a different resonance in the week which saw Israelis shell the Gaza Strip's only power plant, turning sporadic access to electricity and water into an almost impossible luxury. Quite literally, the lights have gone out.

While Western liberal democracies have become increasingly sensitive to civilian casualties—euphemistically known as collateral damage—itself the product of learning the mistakes of past conflicts, the State of Israel appears to show a disregard for the lives of innocent victims. Similarly, Hamas's silo of thousands of indiscriminate rockets can make no claim to righteousness. The United Nations will rightly be investigating the allegations of war crimes against humanity by both sides.

Sadly, the numbers speak for themselves: as of this morning, Palestinian officials said that more than 1,700 Palestinians have been killed and nearly 9,000 wounded. Israel says that alongside the deaths of 63 of its soldiers, two civilians and a Thai national have died and more than 400 have been injured.

I speak as one who strongly supports the right of the State of Israel to self-defence; who strongly supports the right of Palestinian self-determination. Clumsy and careless would be cruelly insufficient words to describe this callous betrayal of the values of humanity which the modern State of Israel espouses, and which Hamas has long held in contempt. This must come to an end.

But in that region of the Middle East, there is a different sense in which the lights are going out. These are ancient flames, burning fires of witness who have passed the torch of confession from generation to generation for most of the last two millennia. By the time this Abbey Church was founded at the end of the first millennium, Christians in the Middle East had carried that flame for nearly 1,000 years, already having lived through the most dramatic change in their religious landscape with the rise of Islam.

The Body of Christ in that region has known trial and tribulation for many years: periods of accommodation have alternated with harsh oppression and the imposition of taxes or enforced conversion.

Still they have survived. The flame may have flickered low. But the candle has kept burning. Until now!

And now we must seriously ask whether the great Christian communities in Syria, Iraq, and, God forbid, Palestine are not in mortal danger. The desecration of Christian shrines by Sunni extremists—who have also tried to wipe out Shia holy places—has heralded the obliteration of these communities. This, too, must come to an end.

Not only will every household in the land be asked to switch out their lights tomorrow evening between 10.00 and 11.00 pm, but they will also be encouraged to keep a single flame or light or candle burning.

A reminder that no matter how dark the gloom—and, God knows, 100 years ago it must have been a fearful prospect—'the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it'.

We pray that in this moment of darkness, Israelis and Palestinians may find a way to re-kindle the light; and that our brothers and sisters in persecuted lands may hold the light of Christ ever before them. And before us.

© 2017 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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