All Saints Sydenham

18th July 2004

Faithful Soldiers and Servants – Part Two

A fortnight ago we considered the similarity between the Christian Life and its military counterpart, and we recognized that the analogy of Christian Soldiers was one which has informed both Bible and hymn-books from the very earliest times.

We then looked at the example which the history of World War One provides to enable us to see how the lessons which were learnt there, at the cost of so much human life and suffering, can be applied to the situation we find ourselves in today in the Church. In particular we recognized the importance of Holding the high ground, both morally and theologically, and the ever-present danger of having our faith undermined by the enemies of the Cross of Christ (as St Paul called them in his letter to the Galatians).

Today we shall look at some other lessons which we can learn from the experience of Private Thomas Atkins and his commanding officers a little less than a hundred years ago.

People are surprised to discover how little progress was made by either side during World War One after the initial rapid advance of the German forces through the Low Countries and France, which was only stopped by what became known as the Miracle of the Marne. Thereafter, and for the next three years, from the North Sea to the Swiss border there was a stalemate with the opposing forces advancing and retreating less than six miles in either direction. With so little progress being made it led on to another weakness – Boredom.

Trench warfare in WWI was plagued by just such boredom and loss of morale. Heavy losses, accompanied by little or no advantage, caused many combatants to ask themselves "What’s the point?" and wonder how it had come about that an endeavour, which sounded so promising when they joined up, had managed to go sour on them in such a short space of time.

Boredom and loss of morale is a problem facing the Church us today. How often people say "Church is boring!"

Of course it's bound to be boring once the objective gets lost sight of – being a member of the Church will then only appeal to people who "rather like doing that sort of thing". Attempts to appeal to a wider clientele by introducing novelties like Women Priests and a Go-as-you-Please Moral Code only end up by alienating these aficionados, and, once that novelty has worn thin, those whom it attracted in the first place.

One of the early casualties of boredom is discipline. Coming together Sunday by in conditions which may be uncomfortable, associating with people who are not of our choosing, makes us more inclined to ignore the discipline under which we should be conducting our lives.

The resulting loss of morale is contagious, insidious and damaging. A parish church who maintain their buildings admirably, conduct their services with reverence, may nevertheless, because of sheer boredom, develop an atmosphere which becomes poisoned by the sort of things its members say and think about each other. The victims of this poison-gas of gossip, criticism and scandal are not usually those against whom it is directed, but innocent bystanders who have only started coming to church recently and are genuinely shocked by "how little these Christians love one another".

Another problem is what are called Co-belligerents – those people, basically sympathetic to the Christian Faith, but who aren’t sufficiently committed to "sign-up for service" and turn up for Parade on Sundays except when they ‘feel like it’: people who say "of course I’m right behind you on the issue of [say] homosexuality but I do feel that it’s every woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, or become a priest if she wishes to."

There’s two things wrong about this. In military terms, "being right behind you" means "standing well back from the front-line, and only joining the fray when victory looks certain"; secondly, one can never be sure how secure their support will be. It takes very little to persuade someone who’s standing miles back from the front-line into believing that what they’re standing for "perhaps doesn’t matter so much after all".

But the Faith we have been commissioned by our Lord to safeguard for future generations does matter. It can never consist in picking and choosing where, and when, and what to defend. The serious fighting must be done by the professionals who have committed themselves, soul and body, to remain Christ’s faithful soldiers and servants to their lives’ end.

Then there is the Peace Problem. World War One – the War to End Wars, cost so much in human life and misery. The so-called Peace Process, turned out to be only a twenty-year cease-fire, as some had predicted in 1919: a bitter recrimination between victors and vanquished, paving the way for Hitler and World War Two.

The lesson is obvious. As Christians we are involved in a warfare against World, Flesh and Devil which will last till the end of our earthly lives – to the death in other words. It doesn’t suddenly come to an end when ‘peace breaks out’. Win the War, Lose the Peace can be just as true of any parish which has come successfully through its troubles but fails to consolidate the victory for which they have struggled so long and so hard.

On the last day of our tour of the Battlefields we visited the town of Ypres itself, and there the most powerful similarity between World War One and the Church in 2004 came to my mind.

Ypres in 1919 was left a smouldering ruin, not one house left standing. Thousands upon thousands of people had died fighting for what they believed. The Cloth Hall, a fine mediaeval building stretching the length of the Town Square, which had symbolised for the people of Ypres what St Paul’s Cathedral did for Londoners in WW2, was a heap of rubble.

Today it has been painstakingly rebuilt and restored to its former glory. It hosts two permanent exhibitions – one about the War itself entitled In Flanders Fields, and the other, which first opened its doors on the very day of our visit, centres on the plight of Refugees. So there is something there of interest both to those who want to find out about the war itself, and those whose interest lies more in humanitarian issues. Both exhibitions may rightly be said to be about the War, and each is of a quality seldom equalled in the world of Museums.

The lessons for us are two-fold.

First they remind us that there is no better cure for the dispirited Christian than to read a chapter of Church history. History shows that we, so far from our being the first people who’ve had to fight for their faith by holding the High Ground, we stand in a long line of martyrs, confessors, doctors, evangelists and just plain ordinary Christians who have confessed Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord, regardless of the consequences to themselves, and that, despite the ravages of war, the Catholic Church and the faith which we profess continue unvanquished by the forces who have made it their business to destroy them both.

Like the Cloth Hall they have risen from the ashes whilst the false ideologies which attacked them now lie in ruins: evidence, if such were needed, that in the end the Kingdom of God will prevail.

Second, the Refugee Museum serves to remind us that we too are Refugees. ‘Here we have no continuing city, no abiding stay’. Our homeland lies beyond the bounds of this earth.

But whilst we are still on earth, you and I have the inescapable duty to ‘strengthen the weak-hearted, to arouse the careless, to recover the fallen, to restore the penitent, to remove all barriers to the advancement of God’s Kingdom’ and to ensure that the journey of our fellow-pilgrims and combatants is not made any more difficult than it already is through our own negligence, weakness or deliberate fault.

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