On Tuesday of last week we alighted from a packed train as dusk fell over Lewes. If you’re not familiar with it, Lewes is a solidly respectable town in East Sussex which for one night each year bans the motor car, clears the streets completely and does its best to turn the clock back to the 16th century. For several hours, torches, effigies and burning crosses are paraded through the streets to the beat of drums and marching bands. It is the most extraordinary sight in an English country town. There’s an anarchic and confusing feel as some 30000 people descend on the place to throng the narrow roads and cheer the marchers throughout the evening until eventually the parades diverge, the five societies which run the show split up and prepare to carry on the celebrations at their own bonfire sites around the town and the place can start to think about returning to normality for the another 364 days.
At one stage we were walking around a bit and couldn’t help overhearing a man behind us who was treating his family to a very learned exposition on what all this was about. To cut a long story short, it’s rooted in the fact that Lewes was a focus for the Marian persecutions back in the 1550’s, a time when the big fault line in society was between catholic and protestant. 17 protestants were martyred and are recalled to this day in the burning crosses I mentioned earlier.
But one striking thing aspect of the whole evening was the extent to which the event has embraced contemporary remembrance. The throng was thickest as each society in turn gathered at the war memorial at the heart of the town and performed its own solemn act of remembrance. Different wars and different experiences of war were referenced by different societies and different marchers. Even some causes which might raise a few eyebrows are remembered. But that’s good, I think. Nobody is saying this is about one thing and you can’t remember or celebrate anything else. Nobody is saying my remembrance trumps yours. It’s as though amongst all the apparent chaos they’ve found a way to come together and share their remembrances in a way that validates all of them.
That’s not an easy thing to do is it? For among those who died, many died bravely in battle, others died of disease or in accidents, some were shot at dawn. Some deaths are barely recorded. But they all died, we remember them all, they were all victims of war. And there are other victims of war who didn’t die, but whose lives were changed beyond recognition by injury, bereavement or upheaval. Lest we forget, they all deserve to be remembered
In our reading we heard “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” But who can teach us his ways - how do we find his paths in the light of all the horrors we remember this morning? Who can dare to open their mouth and reveal the way forward?
It is an enduring assumption about the last war that Winston Churchill had a gift for this. His speeches brought people together. But a book recently published called The Roar of the Lion makes the case that it wasn’t entirely like that. Listen to this quote from a young office worker:
"It annoys me to have to listen to [him] making these speeches. I was dragged out of the office to listen, but everyone got bored and quite a lot stopped listening. I hadn’t expected it to be remotely interesting but I had hoped for some amusement from the good fellow’s obvious rhetorical devices and odd pronunciation."
Or this from a sailor to his fiancée:
"I was on watch last night for [his] speech but he gives me the pip anyway so I didn’t miss much. I don’t need him to give me moral support and if a vote was cast in the services for him he would not be there anyway, the navy has special dislike for him as we do all his dirty work for him."
Hardly a united people by the sounds of it. But of course that place for criticism, disagreement, and disapproval were crucial aspects of the very freedom that the nation, and not least Churchill, was struggling for. Inevitably as we remember and commemorate the victims of war we may find ourselves uncomfortable and in disagreement. But is that not far better than to forget? Churchill was later credited with that phrase “to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war.” He was prepared to open his mouth and try to find a way forward even as it opened him to criticism and disagreement. That doesn’t change - we still need to speak of these things if we are to find our way forward, to find the paths of the Lord.
A place that works hard at this in recognising the broad spectrum of people’s experiences of war is not that far from here and well worth a visit. The National Arboretum at Alrewas is perhaps the country’s largest focus of remembrance, a place where many organisations honour their fallen and recognise the great variety of sacrifices made by the military, by civilians, by volunteers. At its centre is the Armed Forces Memorial with its dramatic wall of names - horrifyingly it’s now over 16000 who have died since the end of the Second World War. But almost as thought provoking is the enormous space remaining in the expectation that there will be many more.
The act of remembrance needs to be worked at. The Lewes bonfire folk do it in their own inimitable way, the National Arboretum is more measured and moving and reflective. Our service this morning is also one small part of the process. We heard that reading conclude with the promise that nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. We’re a long way from that, it seems, but just being here, prepared to speak and remember together shows that the hope is still alive in our hearts that one day it may be so, and all those sacrifices were not in vain.