Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Remembrance Day Dilemma

A tweet on Saturday night got me wondering. "This is beyond hideous. Am now trying to produce order of service which will square circles of traditional expectations & youthful boredom."

1. the Remembrance Service is a standard part of the church's year, and it's expected on the 2nd Sunday of November every year. It has standard elements: wreath laying at the local war memorial, certain hymns, involvement of uniformed organisations and the Royal British Legion etc. It's a right and proper part of what we do, to remember the dead and their sacrifice, and to give thanks.

2. But: those who come from the uniformed organisations are met with church at its most traditional - solemn processions, organ music, a format which it's difficult to do much with if you want to be creative or child/youth-friendly. At the same time it's a big day for some of them: being in the flag party for a big civic event is quite something for a 13 year old.

3. Result - if Remembrance Day is one of the few bits of exposure to the church which those youngsters get, then it may leave them with a skewed view of the church, one rooted in a culture several generations adrift from their own. So preserving the traditions in the present may be turning people off in the long term.

4. At the same time, young people are keenly aware of issues of war and peace, and in this part of the world there are many with Forces connections. We had a short Remembrance ceremony at Yeovil College last year, and (without any great publicity) roughly 100 students were present to remember, and reflect. We used war poetry, some video clips, a bit of U2, and a prayer. It's been even higher profile this year, so there could be quite a crowd on Weds morning. Using 'Fortunate Sons' by the Lost Dogs (a war lament by a rock group) with war images on powerpoint, the poem 'Flanders Fields', the traditional 'we will remember them' response, and a couple of short prayers.

5. Is it possible to reinvent Remembrance Day, or does it have to remain forever bound to 'I Vow to Thee My Country' (a sub-Christian hymn, unless you substitute the word 'Saviour' for 'Country', but then it isn't a bit of patriotic music anymore) and 'they shall not grow old'. 'We that are left' have grown old, and most have died, so that particular poem is drifting so far from its historical moorings that it's no longer a lament for lost comrades. There are new poems to be written for Iraq and Afghanistan. How much can we tinker with the formula without upsetting people for whom the very familiarity is a key part of the event itself?

6. Our situation is unusual: the 2nd Sunday of most months sees a traditional service at the church, and a 'Cafe Service' in the local community centre. At the cafe service on Sunday we kept a minutes silence, got the children making poppies, and thought about a wider theme of 'arguments' - what causes them, and what the Bible says about them. Because it's always the 2nd Sunday of November, there's always a link to Remembrance, and we recognise that it's Remembrance Sunday. At the same time that's only part of what goes on in the service, rather than taking it over completely. As a result there's a choice for worshippers, and on Sunday morning we had a number of families present who, had it been a traditional Remembrance service, may well not have come at all.

7. Is there more flexibility outside the church? Many will remember on the 11th itself, not on Remembrance Sunday. Local supermarkets will announce it over the tannoy. Factories stop. There may be a chance for someone to offer a brief 'thought', or a prayer, or something which makes it more than just silence. Ritual is one of the few things which people still expect the church to do well, and this is one where we can help wider society mark it meaningfully.

another way of joining the dots here: 'Black Swan Song' by Athelete


  1. I couldn't agree more, but sadly it is what is expected as Remembrance Sunday is one of the few times many people come to church, young or old. The danger of changing the format to project more of what you, as a Church, would like to see runs the risk of alienating those that seek a more solemn and respectful service.

    Even in my congregation however where I, at 41, was one of the oldest in attendance as the Chaplain the traditional format was what was expected and accepted.

    'They shall grow not old' may not speak directly to many in the safety of the UK, who do get a chance to grow old, but it is very relevant to those on the front line and has an added poignancy when coupled to the fact that sadly two more soldiers were killed on Remembrance Sunday itself. Many Churches are now adding the Kohima Epitaph (When you go home tell them of us and say, for your tomorrow we gave our today) in to their services as a means of relaying the sacrifices that were made then, and now, by our service personnel.

    Remembrance Sunday, along with much of the liturgy and language that Churches use, does need a great deal of thought if it is to be of relevance to the occasional congregations that gather for these big events. However we need to be careful that, in our quest to make the church more relevant, we don't throw out the baby with the bath water by making the services so unfamiliar we scare people off.

  2. last year amidst the solemnity and ritual (NB Remembrance Sunday is the only Sunday of the year my priest wears a chasuble)we had one of our own regulars, a young lad and a student of music play Hero during a short time of "reflection" (whatever that means in a church service lol).

    This year the service seemed shorter, but a lot was made using the Multi media projector, lots of images.

    A further problem is: if we stray too far into the waters of Fresh Expression we run the risk of alienating young undecideds.

    Last year i had the opportunity to take a few friends along to the Remembrance Sunday service. One a lapse Catholic, one a lapse atheist, and one who thinks "this Jesus fellow is quite interesting".

    They were able to engage with the service because it reflected a lot of what they were used to. Had we been perhaps as Evangelical as we usually are they would have been put off for life.

    It is a misconception that "young people" 18 - 25 don't like liturgical services. In my experience its only "young Christians" who don't.

  3. I think that you are quite right, the expectation for Remembrance Services is solemnity along with tradition.

    My church provided alternatives to Remembrance Services at earlier and later times, but with a Remembrance day input.

    I felt that attending both, met a real need for a reflective Holy Communion, followed by an Act of Remembrance at 1050, which was packed to overflowing.

    Of course, we are also having Acts of Remembrance on 11th at 1050 at those churches which did not have a service on Sunday (5 churches and One Vicar makes it difficult to have a service every week at each church).

  4. In my experience young people love processions, and will have one at the drop of a hat.

    In my Anglican days in a very middle-class parish we had two youth groups, one for 12-18 year olds, and the other for the 8-12s. Occasionally each of them would plan and lead the Sunday evening service. The younger group almost always included a procession of some sort. They thought that worship should include doing something.

  5. "worship should include doing something"


  6. In one of our local churches, the Remembrance service is packed out too, mostly with people who only turn up at church for that service. Many of the regulars don't go, either because they won't be able to find a seat, or because it's so different from a normal act of worship that, for them, it's not really an act of worship at all. That raises all sorts of questions for me about what's going on there, as well as about the approach of people at that church. Remembrance has to be an act of worship, but if the majority of people there aren't actually believers and worshippers, then what do you do?

    Agree with Markio and Steve - one thing that the alternative worship/FX movement has reclaimed for evangelicals like me is that action and ritual can be part of worship. Doing them creatively (had a Facebook comment on this post about a Rainbows group making poppies with their left hands, to help them think about those who'd been injured and disabled by war) is part of the challenge. The trick is not to change too many things at once, but the one thing you do tweak, to make it meaningful and memorable.

  7. DK

    Just a point of order regarding the title... last Sunday was Remembrance Sunday, tomorrow is Remembrance Day!