“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow oldAge shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.At the going down of the sun and in the morningWe will remember them.
This Remembrance Sunday will be like no other, but one thing will stay constant: these lines, by Laurence Binyon, will be recited with great solemnity at war memorials, in churches and online across the country.
There is something timeless about these words, and deliberately so. They echo the style and manner which the English language had used, since the Renaissance, to talk about and with the Almighty. ‘They are words’, said Roger Scruton, ‘with the same simple and incontrovertible nature as the words chosen by Cranmer: words that do not merely bear repetition but are made to be repeated.’
Remembrance Sunday is one of two days when, beyond Christmas and Easter, the English are more likely than at any other time to attend church. (The other being Mothering Sunday.) This is right, church is a proper place to remember the dead of the two world wars. Other places are proper for this too: war memorials, temples, mosques, non-conformist chapels will all have their rites and ceremonies with which to honour the fallen. Churches especially are a good place to remember those who have gone before us, who have gifted us the world we now live in, if only (as Larkin puts it) “that so many dead lie round.”
Churches are good places but this year they will be silent places, as worshippers are banned from church buildings. Outdoor Acts of Remembrance must be short, with people discouraged from attending them. This is a tragedy, as fewer and fewer veterans of the world wars survive each year to remember their colleagues, that we lose the opportunity to show our respect to the 2.4 million veterans of later wars living among us, many with visible and invisible wounds.
But honour them we must, especially those who were willing to endure unimaginable horrors in the fight against tyranny twice in a century. This was not an obvious decision. To choose to go to war, especially in 1939, with the memories of the trenches still fresh in everyone’s mind, was not a given. And yet, despite the huge cost in human lives and capital, the country went to war.
And church is a proper place to consider the enormity of going to war: to recognise the lives that were lost, the homes shattered, the children orphaned, the minds and bodies of those who returned, permanently scarred. It is a proper place to contemplate the deaths that we and our forebears caused and to consider them against the lives saved, the peoples freed, the concentration camps liberated.
It is a proper place to consider the wars which we think were just and the wars we don’t, and to lay aside those political debates for a day to honour those who risked their lives for our sake, and who left us the world we live in and the freedom to enjoy it. It is a proper place to remember our forebears and consider that we stand on the shoulders of those giants, and to remember that it will one day be our shoulders on which future generations stand — and to consider what world we would leave them, and what sacrifices we would endure for that world.
This year, we won’t be in church. The pews will observe a different type of silence — but so will we. This year, more than any other, at the going down of the sun and in the morning, we must remember them.