Friday, 7 November 2014

Remembering atheists

There is a rather strange article published in The Guardian by Dan Snow in which he claims that a lack of a secular presence at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday means that the occasion could be diminished for many people and that they might stop engaging with it. It is a rather disingenuous article because what Snow is really arguing for is not a secular presence but the removal of a religious presence at the ceremony. In response to his arguments I would make the following observations.

Snow tells us that he first attended the ceremony as a child:
I remember my dad taking me when I was a boy. Pressed against the temporary railings, overwhelmed by the power of the British state’s simplest yet most moving ritual.
The author was 'overwhelmed' by the ritual he observed. So as a child Snow wasn't put off by the religious aspects of the ceremony which he argues are an intrinsic part of what takes place, rather he was captivated by it.

In the next paragraph Snow comments:
The leaders of the political parties stand side by side, their bickering stilled for an hour, the Queen in jet black, alone, bows her head with a mournful gratitude and then the veterans march past, obviously enjoying the chance to meet old friends and grieve for old comrades.
Two of those political leaders laying wreaths are self described atheists. No one steps in and says 'hang on, you ain't C of E you can't lay a wreath during this ceremony, it's religious.' Their presence and participation is a secular presence. As for the figure in jet black, the Queen, well she is Head of State and also Head of the Church of England, so unless she has developed some sort of Nestorian trick, you are going to need to find a new monarch to participate in the ceremony. And when Her Majesty bows her head I would hazard a guess that this might be more than an act of 'mournful gratitude', it might just be that she is praying because, as anyone who has seen her Christmas speeches of late will know, she is a woman of faith and prayer. Following Snow's argument there is no place for the present monarch in his new improved version of Remembrance Sunday.

Snow continues:
Yet for many of us in today’s Britain, this important ceremony is diminished by the dominance of a religion that fewer and fewer people follow. An Anglican bishop presides over a portion of the ceremony. His fellow imams, priests, patriarchs and primates stand by like also-rans and there is no sign of a secular representative.
Who is to be the secular representative, apart from the elected politicians already mentioned, that Snow would like to see at the Cenotaph? Who would command his and other atheists' approval? Richard Dawkins? Ricky Gervais? Polly Toynbee? Andrew Copson, who in case you are wondering is the Chief Executive of the British Humanist Society? Someone from the National Secular Society, whose membership is roughly the same as the British Sausage Appreciation Society?

And who are the 'many of us' who find the ceremony diminished by the participation of a bishop. Can Snow point to any research to support this claim, or is it based on the chattering of a few of his mates in the pub? Has a poll been conducted to show how the present ceremony is diminished 'for many of us'? As I observed earlier, it does not seem as if Snow's own experience was diminished as a child. Snow acknowledges that the bishop only presides over a portion of the ceremony so is he really saying that he doesn't think that religious leaders should participate, be present or even acknowledged at all? What of the sensibilities of the many people of the different faith communities in our country, including many of the relatives of those who gave their lives, who would then be unrepresented?

I could go on but want to finish by picking up on this claim by Snow:
There is a great danger that by letting a bishop dominate and refusing to admit a secular presence at the ceremony it will be diminished or even ignored by modern Britons.
Again I ask who has refused a secular presence at the ceremony and what is the evidence to support this great danger that Snow fears? Last year I was chaplain to the Mayor of the City of Chelmsford and as part of my duties I participated in a Service of Remembrance at the war memorial outside the Civic Centre. I was staggered by how many people attended. The streets were packed with representatives from the armed services, veterans and the public. I asked one of the Mayoral party if it was like this each year and was informed that the numbers had been increasing year on year. Perhaps this was because our armed services have been on active duty in recent years or it may be because of the approaching centenary and the renewed focus of attention. One thing is certain, the ceremony hasn't been diminished or ignored. I wonder what would have happened if I and the Vice Dean of the Cathedral had suggested we don't participate because it might put some people off attending? I can visualise the headlines in the local and national press!

This year I will be preaching at our Remembrance Sunday Service at St. Mary's. As in previous years it will be very well attended by many who are not regular church goers and some may even describe themselves as atheists. Representatives from the British Legion will participate. We have been approached for the first time by the Parish Council and asked if they might participate in the service and I welcomed that request. Hardly signs of a diminishing or ignoring of the ceremony.

I confess that I have a certain ambivalence towards Remembrance Sunday. I feel uncomfortable with the way it can slip into an unquestioning glorification of war. I was deeply concerned with the Prime Minister's suggestion that the centenary of the outbreak of World War One be commemorated like the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. I see this Sunday, like Snow, as an occasion to remember the sacrifice of those who gave their lives. But unlike Snow, I also see this Sunday as a time of repentance for the sin in our lives and relationships that leads to conflict and destruction. And I see this Sunday as a time to focus on the Lord Jesus Christ, who offers forgiveness, healing, reconciliation and invites us into a new way of peace made possible through his sacrifice on the cross.

1 comment:

Anne said...

Thank you, Phil. Well argued.