Sermon: First World War

Address given at St Helen’s Church, Skipwith by the Rev David Biles on the eve of the centenary of the declaration of war in 1914.

"This morning I am not preaching a sermon nor am I attempting a history lesson. I will try to suggest some thoughts on the centenary of the First World War and how that conflict changed the life of our Church of England.

On August 4th 1914 Germany refused to withdraw its invading armies from Belgium. Our country declared war on them. In the evening of that day King George V and Queen Mary appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace and were cheered for three hours by enormous crowds of people.

The churches shared this enthusiasm. In many parishes there were special collections for charities connected with the army, for the Red Cross, for St John’s Ambulance. Special services were held at cathedrals and parish churches to pray for those who had volunteered to fight. These soon became public opportunities to remember the increasing numbers of those who were killed as the terrible events of the war unfolded.

Some bishops and church leaders saw that it was their duty to encourage men to enlist. Organisations such as the Church Lad’s Brigade, and the Church of England Men’s Society promoted recruitment among their members and tried to stay in touch with them when they joined the army.

Christians of all denominations were forced to explain to themselves and to other people how the gospel of love and forgiveness should be applied in situations of such horror engulfing their families and friends, the destruction of their towns and villages and the economic difficulties of the 1920s and 1930s.

The 1914-1918 war was an event of such importance that I feel that it began a new era for us. It was the beginning of the modern world; a clear challenge to Christians and especially to members of the established Church of England to ask God for guidance and strength to build a better country and a more effective church.

So on this anniversary it is worth considering how our church has used these past hundred years to be more faithful disciples of Our Lord Jesus Christ. We should do this from the local level of how our church has witnessed to the people we meet every day.

One of the changes that have taken place in the last hundred years has been the breaking down of the barriers of social class that limited and divided communities. This has been reflected in the way in which churches have united their members in the practical organisation and in the conduct of the church services.

It is clear now to every congregation that they have to manage their own affairs as effectively as they are able, welcoming new members as warmly as they can, making sound links to other organisations and above all making the worship offered to Almighty God as inclusive as possible. This has involved moving away from the much loved Book of Common Prayer to more modern sounding services, to an emphasis on the importance of Holy Communion services by which we are drawn close to the sacramental presence of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and at the same time to more informal family services. Matins and Evensong have declined in importance, which is sad because they enabled those on the edge of the local church fellowship to find their part in the church’s worship.

The modern congregation may be smaller in numbers but it is probably more committed and takes a greater part in the worship of Almighty God.

This church building that we are using this morning stands as a permanent sign of the presence of God in this community. It is probably in a better condition structurally and in its interior decoration than it was one hundred years ago. We may grumble about the amount of money that we are asked to raise for architect’s fees, building and repair, the cost of heating and lighting and the diocesan share; these have risen enormously during the last one hundred years, but these impressive holy buildings are still here.

As we walk up the church path we cannot fail to be reminded by those names on the War Memorial; that their earthly life did not continue to experience these last one hundred years, when God has revealed new paths for us to love and serve him.  

We are the inheritors of these changes and of this new life. We must continue with faith, trust and expectation into the next one hundred years to make our contribution by God’s mercy; those who were killed and injured in the First World War were unable to make theirs. We have to take our part in this continuing spiritual conflict in the holy company of our Lord’s disciples.

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