Remembrance Sunday is about to change. I don’t necessarily mean the rituals, the hymns or the flags – they may well be the same. And of course, the people bearing flags and on parade may change from year to year. But something wider is happening which is likely to have a deep and lasting impact on the way we remember, and it’s as well for us to be prepared.
For over a decade, our armed forces have been at war. The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have dominated what it means to be in the services, and have had a profound impact on civilian life too. Sadly we have been all too aware of the casualties of war – the repatriations through Wootten Bassett and now Brize, the injured, and the impact on service families often close to home.
Quite rightly Remembrance Sunday has become a time to remember the casualties and honour those who currently serve. It is a general human principle that what we remember affects what we do. Religion recognises this: the Communion service recalls Christ giving his life for his friends and so whenever it is celebrated it creates a community around his table; the Jewish Sabbath celebrates God’s rest on the seventh day of creation and thereby enshrines rest and family time at the heart of a balanced life.
So we too, in thinking of current conflicts, remind ourselves of our ongoing obligations to pray for the members of the armed forces, and to support their families. Remembrance Day as it has been for the past decade keeps the serving military in the public eye and sustains support
But change is on the way. This year several thousand of those stationed in Afghanistan have returned home. By the 11th November next year, the vast majority of British troops, if not all, will have left. By the grace of God we hope that there will be no further developments and so there will not be British personnel fighting in a war.
The likelihood of that happening seems to have diminished with the recent Parliamentary vote against military action in Syria. Whatever your views on the rightness or wrongness of that, it’s clear that public willingness to engage in foreign interventions has diminished. Surely it follows that over the next few years we shall have to work out as a society what it means to be peacemakers.
What diplomatic and economic means can we use to build peace if we cannot readily turn to the threat of military action? For instance foreign Aid and asylum are much maligned, but we could do a lot for Syrian refugees for the price of a single cruise missile. We must think deeply about what it means to strive for peace.
At the same time as overseas action winds down, everyone’s attention will switch to the 1914 centenary. It will be a hundred years since the beginning of the Great War, and all the human tragedy and international change that followed. For good reasons our remembering will be focussed on the past again – and we shall try hard to reflect that in an appropriate way.
These three things combined: the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the diminished likelihood of foreign interventions, and the centenary, mean that Remembrance Day will change. We shall look again to the past.
And that is important, because as I said earlier, our remembering affects what we do in the present. The casualties of the past decade will not be going away in 2014. The injured will still be getting by on disability benefit, the traumatised will be sleeping rough, the Royal British Legion and the other charities will be continuing their great work, and relying on us to support them. Forces personnel will still be stationed overseas, away from families, in dangerous and inhospitable places. They will still need our prayers and moral support. There is a risk that they may fade from view but we must not forget them.
As this day continues to evolve, as it has always done, let us recall what we have just said, let us act upon our promise: We shall remember them. Amen.