For those alive who saw in the new year of 1914, few would have guessed what horrors this year would usher in or how the events of that summer would change the world they lived in and shape the world we now live in.
|Rededication of the war memorial at St Paul's, Shadwell|
For those of us who have lived afterwards, the time before 4 August 1914 has seemed like a long lost summer of golden innocence. Indeed in August 1914 Britain basked in glorious sunshine and all must have seemed as it should be. Britain ruled over a quarter of the earth’s population in the largest empire the world had ever known, and we were the world’s preeminent super power who truly did rule the waves. King George V sat on the British throne and Herbert Asquith was in power in Downing Street. A young actor called Charlie Chaplin made his film debut in movies that were still silent. In the FA cup final Burnley defeated Liverpool 1-0, and in cricket the summer before, Kent had won the County Championship.
The world seemed to be as it had always been. But on 28 June 1914 a foreign prince who was unknown to most in Britain was assassinated in a place most Britons had never heard of. It was the murder of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist that set off a chain reaction that dragged all the major European powers into an apocalyptic struggle.
World War One broke out on 4th August 1914 and the nations of the world endured a four year bloodbath which cost the lives of millions of men and women from every continent. In this village alone dozens of families were left grieving the loss of their young men. Today is a day that we rightly commemorate the events of 1914. We do not glory in them but we do remember a generation that was willing to make a terrible sacrifice for their King and their country. It is impossible not to feel moved when seeing the rows and rows of white gravestones in France and Belgium, each representing a young life mercilessly cut down by gunfire, shelling and disease. Today is a day when we remember a lost generation and the deep trauma that this country suffered.
In 1914 they called this conflict ‘the war to end all wars,’ but as we are all too aware from our TV screens, war was not consigned to history on Armistice Day. As we gather in this church today, exactly one hundred years after the start of the bloodiest war for this country, men, women and children are still being slaughtered in Gaza, Iraq, Syria, the Central African Republic, Ukraine, and countless other lands across the world.
As human beings we seem to believe in the myth of human progress. We often look with distain at our ancestors and marvel at how wrong they could be. And yet are we really so different? Twenty-first century human beings still have a remarkable capacity for great evil and we inflict terrible suffering upon other human beings. Today, war is still a scar across the face of humanity. If today is a day to stop and remember the countless lives lost a hundred year ago and every year since, then today is also a day when we remember the utter futility of war.
One voice that speaks of both the courage of soldiers and the futility of war is a voice that was born here in Leeds. In those months leading up to the war, a young man was living here in Leeds and serving as curate at St Mary’s in Quarry Hill. His name was the Rev. Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. He was born at St Mary’s Vicarage in 1883 and was the son of the Vicar of St Mary’s. And a hundred years ago in the first few months of 1914, at the age of 31 he was living in this city and assisting his ailing father by serving as his curate at St Mary’s.
After his father’s death Studdert Kennedy left Leeds and moved to Worcester to become vicar of one of the city’s poorest parishes. At first Studdert Kennedy was an ardent supporter of the war. However, in 1915 he left his parish, became an army chaplain and travelled to the front in France. It was his traumatic experiences in the trenches that would transform him into an advocate of peace. Studdert Kennedy endured the horror of trench warfare and for him the war changed everything. He returned to his parish in 1919 with the conviction of the courage and bravery of ordinary soldiers, but also convinced that war was immoral.
He wrote: ‘When I went to the war, I believed that the war would end to the benefit of mankind. I believed that a better order was coming for the ordinary man, and, God help me, I believe it still. But it is not through war that this order will be brought about. There are no fruits of victory, no such thing as victory in modern war. War is a universal disaster.’
This year’s commemoration of the outbreak of war should also be a catalyst to spur us on to work for peace in our broken and fractured world. The Bible reading that we’ve just read comes from Micah 4:1-4 and looks forward to a time when there will be no more war and when everyone will live in peace under God. It speaks of a time when God will arbitrate our disputes and weapons will be made into farming tools. It is a time when everyone will live in peace and no-one will be afraid.
At the heart of the Christian message is a message of love and peace. Throughout his life, Jesus demonstrated how to live in love and peace with all. Even throughout his horrific crucifixion he never called for vengeance and instead prayed that God would forgive those who were killing him. Jesus announces a different way of living. He calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. The Christian message is deeply counter-cultural and incredibly hard to live by. None of us will ever manage to live as Christ lived on earth. I guarantee that the one thing that all followers of Christ share is our collective failure to live like Jesus. But despite our failure to live in peace, Jesus is still calling all of us to live in peace with God and with our fellow human beings.
However, does that mean that the prophet’s vision from the Book of Micah an unrealistic goal? If we know that peace will never be possible in a world filled with fallible human beings, then should we even bother trying to create a peaceful world? Our God is a God of peace and Christians do believe that one day we will live in a world where there will be no more death and no more suffering.
But do we just put our feet up and wait for that time? Never! As followers of Jesus, Christians are called to live a life of peace in the here and now, and to struggle for peace with every fibre of our being until that day when God will wipe away all our tears. Until that time, we carry on living for peace in a world that seems to favour the sword. Now, as in 1914, we see a world desperately in need of peace. Jesus said: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.’ Let each of us hear the call of Jesus in our lives be advocates of peace in our world. Amen.
Sermon preached at a service of commemoration at St Paul's Church, Shadwell on 3 August 2014 marking the centenary since the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914.