02 January 2014
Throughout 2014, the nation will be celebrating 100 years since the First World War. At the start of this commemorative year, Richard Woodall explores the work of the organisations involved and finds out what the Church is doing to mark the occasion…
"The government is investing in making sure the First World War centenary commemorations are marked throughout the generations. If the Church is not involved with it, we are missing out on engaging with something significant."
These are the words of Roy Crowne, executive director of mission movement HOPE, a Christian umbrella group seeking to work change across communities in 2014.
As 2014 arrives and we mark the milestone of 100 years since the start of the First World War, we would do well to remember it was a conflict with resounding repercussions.
In 1914 the conflict was ambitiously called the "war to end all wars" but as the 20th century unravelled it became abundantly clear this was not the case. What the conflict did do was give birth to the right of women to vote in 1918. It also altered the political map of Europe, gave birth to the rise of air warfare and became the first conflict to be termed a 'global war'.
Outlining its significance therefore, the government has committed £50 million to the national commemorations, the BBC has commissioned 2,500 hours of programming while two young people from every state secondary school will visit the battlefields in France and Belgium. It is a phenomenal programme designed to engage the whole country. Marking such a landmark gives the Church the chance to decide what part it should play in the commemorations.
But should the Church be commemorating something which saw nearly 10 million soldiers killed before the guns fell silent on 11 November 2018? Should society be marking the start of the conflict rather than the end? And if the Church is involved, should it use the occasion as a chance to share the good news of Christ? The commemorations do represent a politically sensitive issue, not just for the Church but for pacifists.
Announcing the package of events to mark the centenary, David Cameron said it would be the foundations on which to build "an enduring cultural and educational legacy" and ensure "the sacrifice of 100 years ago is still remembered in 100 years' time".
Roy Crowne believes the Greater Love campaign is also a chance to talk about the gospel.
"Remembrance Day is a key mission moment in the calendar when communities expect churches to play a part. As we remember those who lost their lives during the First World War, millions of people will observe two minutes of silence. At this poignant moment, many individuals and communities reach out for a spiritual dimension to life.
"My prayer is that the Church points to the 'Greater Love' Jesus has for us."
Other Christian organisations involved include Youth for Christ which will provide school resources on the themes of war, heroes, sacrifice and the concept of remembering. SGM Lifewords will echo some of its own historic wartime work during which it distributed more than 43 million pieces of literature to training corps, troops, and civilians.
For 2014, the charity will produce material containing the words of John's gospel and short pieces about wartime distribution and its impact.Christian Vision for Men (CVM), a movement seeking to spread the news of Jesus among men, is producing a Greater Love DVD alongside other resources.
The film features stories of current Christian servicemen talking about the front line and drawing parallels to the First World War.
"Many men are walking away from the Church. CVM is about making church relevant to men," said CVM's Jeremy Geake.
A report from think tank British Future named Do mention the war: Will 1914 matter in 2014? seeks to find out what the conflict means to people.Its results found that people primarily saw the centenary as an opportunity to learn about the UK's shared history with more than 80 per cent supporting a centenary focused on preserving peace through commemorating the sacrifice of those who lost lives.
The poll also showed many thought it important to know about the Commonwealth contribution.
Matthew Rhodes, director of strategies and partnership for British Future, said: "Since the last Tommy died (Harry Patch,aged 111, died five years ago) the First World War is now passing from living memory.If we want to understand our multi-ethnic society today, we need to understand where it has come from."It will help bring to the table discussions about identity, integration and shared history but the government does not want this to be some kind of nationalistic thing."
Such mention of a "shared history" refers to the fact that 140,000 men from the Indian Army served alongside the British on the Western Front. During the First World War conflict, 1.2 million soldiers from undivided India fought with the allies with 74,000 making the ultimate sacrifice.
But British Future's survey shows just 44 per cent of those questioned knew Indian soldiers fought alongside British troops. However, the commemoration does raise questions for a certain spectrum of society. Earlier this year it emerged that a pacifist organisation which hands out white poppies had been given £95,800 in funding to hold alternative activities to those planned. The Peace Pledge Union – Britain's oldest pacifist group – was granted the money from the Heritage Lottery Fund to hold an event remembering conscientious objectors executed during the war.
The event will be organised by the No Glory campaign which has backers including Jude Law and the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.
But should the Church be using such an occasion to "evangelise"? Perhaps some might feel uncomfortable about using the milestone to talk about their faith.
Roy Crowne said: "This is not going to be a sudden overnight awareness of our eternal future, but it presents us with an opportunity to connect and to have conversations about faith. Whenever we've told church leaders about Greater Love, they have been hugely enthusiastic about it; the importance of the First World War and pointing to something eternal through that."
Jim Currin from Churches Together said:"War is a time when we think about the ultimate issues and the sacrifice of life. When the First World War finished it was named the 'war to end all wars' – that was clearly not the case."
And so this year as we collectively remember perhaps the most defining and tragic event of the last century, let us pause to think of how it relates to our faith in Christ's death and resurrection. But equally– let's make sure we show society how important it is that the Church honours those who served their country and paid the ultimate sacrifice.