Many people are familiar with the gatherings that happen on Remembrance Sunday and also on Armistice Day [November 11th]. There are usually one or more Christian ministers present at these events, and in addition churches may hold special services. These events are not limited to one kind of church or even one faith, but happen across all kinds of churches.
Across the globe, and across time, people have needed to gather after times of great loss of life. Sometimes that is as the result of war, or sometimes natural disaster or human tragedy. These kinds of gatherings will often be facilitated by local faith leaders, who will help the whole community, of all faiths and none to remember.
Churches often play a leading role in helping people to gather, as they can offer the space, and are familiar with creating the kind of environment where people can bring a huge range of emotions. In the United Kingdom, Christian ministers have also been present during conflicts, with men and women serving as chaplains and padres to the armed forces.
Different traditions have different views about war, but across Christian denominations there is a commitment to peace, and to helping those who suffer, whether they are in the armed forces or affected as civilians.
...across Christian denominations there is a commitment to peace, and to helping those who suffer, whether they are in the armed forces or affected as civilians.
There are four main things that happen at remembrance events:
1. Ritual – there will be some formal words that are said on every occasion. There will be a structure to the gathering, which will include listening, responding and reflecting.
2. Remembering – the story of what happened and the loss of life will be recalled. Often names will be read out, and a symbolic action takes place such as lighting of candles.
3. Grieving – space will be given for the emotion that is present, and words and prayers offered to bring comfort.
4. Commitment to change – there will usually be a moment for those present to think about how this might affect them and the world going forward.
Churches in the United Kingdom have played a part in shaping these rituals, especially since World War 1, when many of the things that we now experience around Remembrance Sunday took shape. In particular, the Church of England has been involved, because in England it is still the established church, with the Queen as head of both church and armed forces. These days, many other Christian and other faith traditions are involved. These are the different kinds of moments that emerged:
1. National moments: these are moments when there is an opportunity for people across the nation to join in remembering, as they wish. This includes the two minutes of silence on both Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day [11th November]. It also includes the ceremony at the Cenotaph, which is not a ceremony of any particular faith, but will include representatives of the Christian church and other faiths as well.
2. Community moments: after World War 1 many villages, towns and cities erected war memorials in public spaces. These are now the focus of gatherings to remember on both Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day. These services will include familiar hymns, poems, readings and offer time for reflection. In addition to these spaces there are also many memorial plaques in the communities to which those who died in war or tragedy belonged. For example, you might see lists of names in Working Mens’ Clubs, sports clubs, factories and schools. These plaques will often include a simple line from the Bible which gives value to those lives. Services that take place outside at war memorials are community events, although church leaders may be present, and may take part. In addition, local churches hold special services on Remembrance Sunday.
3. Individuals: alongside the opportunity to gather with others and remember those who have died, individuals will remember those who have been part of their story, whether dying recently or long ago. Sometimes this happens in the privacy of our own homes, when we join in broadcast services or just light a candle.
Church services on Remembrance Sunday will include some familiar words, and the speaker may reflect on issues of peace, justice and loss in the light of the hope Christians have in Jesus Christ.
Words from the Bible will be read, for example the words of Jesus in Matthew 5, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’. Sometimes words from the prophets are read such as Isaiah 2: 2 “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.” This expresses the Christian longing and hope for a time when God’s love and goodness will transform our world.
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we shall remember them.
There may be a time of regret, lament or confession for the lack of peace and justice in our world. Christians believe that there is wrong in the world which hurts people, and also that each of us plays a part in that wrong through our own selfishness.
There may be traditional hymns or other music. The most well-known Remembrance hymn , which may be sung in church or at a war memorial is 'O God our help in ages past', which reminds us of God’s presence.
Prayers will be offered for the peace of the world, as well as for those who are mourning, those who have been injured in mind or body, and for those who still serve in the armed forces or as civilians supporting them. There will be a sense of solidarity with others and a moment of stillness to remember, which may coincide with the national moment of silence, where that is possible.
These words are used at Remembrance Services, and at Acts of Remembrance as well:
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old; age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we shall remember them. Everyone will reply: we will remember them.
These words are for everyone, not just those of the Christian faith. In churches, they may be followed by a prayer asking God to keep those who have died in God’s presence, and also to be with those who mourn, and help us all work for peace.
Acts of Remembrance and church services will also include the singing of the National Anthem, which many will join in with.
Everyone is welcome to attend services on Remembrance Sunday or Armistice Day.