Address given at a Service to commemorate the centenary of the First World War
11 November 2014 at 10:00 am
The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
On 4th August this year we marked here the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. It was at 11.00 pm that the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. Our vigil of prayer and reflection for the centenary began at 10.00 pm and drew to a close at the precise centenary. During the hour, candles and lights in the Abbey were extinguished until one flame alone burnt at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior at the west end of the Abbey's nave. Around the Grave were no poppies for remembrance, but fresh flowers, chosen to represent the flora of the four nations of the United Kingdom. No wreaths were laid; there was no last post or reveille; no verse from Laurence Binyon's poem. For this was no conventional act of remembrance. Rather we tried to freeze ourselves at the very moment of the centenary, looking forward fearfully or perhaps with eager anticipation to what lay ahead.
Our mood is different today. Even a century ago this November, after only a few months of war, many terrible battles had been fought and lives lost; the long years of trench warfare lay ahead. There would be loss of life that would be hard for us to contemplate today. Then the final few months of warfare brought an extraordinary break-through and at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month after four years of world war, the guns fell silent.
We come to stand in remembrance and to reflect on the suffering of the war and the loss of life. From 11th November 1920, with the dedication of the permanent cenotaph in Whitehall and the State funeral of the Unknown Warrior, have spread out in towns and villages across the country and across the world ceremonies like this today of solemn remembrance and of thanksgiving. It is fitting that we should remember. We should always remember and honour those who have been willing to give their lives in the cause of peace, justice, and freedom and of whom the ultimate sacrifice has been demanded. But we should also commit ourselves with due solemnity to doing all that we can in our own age to defend and preserve those freedoms for which they died.
The world is no safer or more secure a century after the outbreak of the Great War than it was then. It seems clear that no war will end war. The defeat of one threatening enemy leads to the rise of another. Men and women of goodwill are confronted with the need to work together with all determination, care and sophistication to avert further catastrophe and to advance the causes of peace, justice, and freedom.
There have been times of optimism and pessimism in the history of the world. Many of the world's diplomats and statesmen a hundred years ago thought it inconceivable that a new conflict could arise in Europe to match the Napoleonic wars. Now we may be more pessimistic than they after a hundred years when armies have been almost permanently engaged.
But neither pessimism nor optimism is a virtue. There is always hope. As St Paul said, 'Faith, hope, and love abide, these three.' If the greatest of them is love, then faith and hope rank highly too. And neither faith nor hope is irrational. Faith in humanity's better nature may seem misplaced. But faith and hope in God are never misplaced. They were powerfully symbolised, on 4th August when the darkness fell, by the light of the Paschal Candle, of the risen Christ, our hope, shining in the Lady Chapel.