In the Belgian city of Ypres, every night of year, at eight o’clock, the Last Post ceremony takes place at the Menin Gate. No matter how many times one attends, the stark simplicity of the bugle tones and the profound silence never loses its power to move. Even when every note and every movement are familiar, there is a sense of this moment being unlike any other. Depending on who is present and how many wreaths are to be laid, the ceremony sometimes lasts no more than a few minutes and never more than fifteen to twenty.
If there is a lesson to be learned from the Last Post ceremony, it is that less is more, that simplicity and starkness have more power than complexity. A further conclusion that could be drawn is that remembrance requires no religious content.
The acts of remembrance that will have taken place in every French town and village today will have been secular occasions, at stone memorials in countless communes names will have been read and “mort pour la France” will have been repeated. A wholly secular country, there will have been no invocation of any deity, no sense of any need to turn the occasion into anything more than the plainly-spoken recall of those who had died.
In England, religion needs to be taken out of remembrance, for two reasons.
The words provided by Church of England clergy are no longer fit for purpose. In a post-Christian society, the crowds assembled at war memorials are disengaged from the recitation of prayers to a God who has no place in their consciousness. Few people show any interest in the printed leaflets circulated. Voices saying of the Lord’s Prayer and singing of O God our help in ages past are lost against background noise. People become active and animated when they realise that the religious component of the remembrance has been completed.
If one adopts a Christian perspective consistent with that of the Gospels, religion needs to be taken out of remembrance because its inclusion makes for poor theology.
Church of England prayers include the lines, “We are here to worship Almighty God, whose purposes are good; whose power sustains the world he has made.” Really? What good purposes were there in the bloody slaughter of two world wars? What power was there to sustain the six million who died in the death camps? It is lazy theology, it is bad theology.
Perhaps the Church of England fears losing its position of privilege, but it serves neither itself nor people well in simple repetition of words that find no resonance, words that do not bear the scrutiny of anyone who probes them.
Let remembrance reflect the power of moments at the Menin Gate and let religion face up to the contradictions encountered by those who wish seriously to pursue it.