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Church's national service

WinkettI'm often asked by visitors to St Paul's Cathedral why there are so many war memorials. The question is almost always asked in a critical way, as if to say that the church should not be involved with the violence and compromise involved in a war. But in praying and working in a cathedral where many wars are commemorated from the last 300 years, I have come to understand that saying that the church should not dirty its hands with the appalling  dilemmas, confusions, and impossible decisions that emerge in war is to misunderstand completely its role in society or its character as an institution.  

We are in the season of remembrance and St Paul's recently hosted the national service for those killed in Iraq. Metaphor-ically, the church can be carrying stretchers from the trenches as many did in reality at the beginning of the last century.

However compromised a situation, however messy, however violent, distressing or wrong, a church which is true to Jesus Christ, who died a violent, messy death at the hands of an occupying army, will be there in the midst.

The church does not indiscriminately bless all that governments do. But since the conversion of Constantine, Western Christianity has found that the Gospel  quickens the hearts not only of slaves but of emperors and has had to deal with the consequences of  having believers in the corridors of power as well as the slums.

Jesus was excoriating in his criticism of religious and political leadership, in the manner of the Hebrew prophets. His condemnation of those who misused power is relevant to anyone who dares to hold public office in church or state. But at the same time, he displayed astonishing compassion to individuals, whoever they were and whatever their politics. In his closest circle he included Matthew the tax collector and Simon the zealot, surely on totally opposite sides of  first century political argument. He healed the daughter of a centurion as well as the daughter of the synagogue leader.

It's a controversial subject but, in my view, of course the church should host national and local gatherings of bereaved families, injured service personnel, politicians, medical staff and journalists, and call all, all, all to remembrance, repentance,  to tears and to the recognition that people on the front line have faced danger the like of which no armchair general can envisage.

Each individual will pray in a way that only they can, in the face of  their own feelings about death and pain. For those who can, they will pray not only for those who suffer but for everyone, civilian, military,  politically active or not, and for a greater commitment to peacemaking and peacekeeping in our own neighbourhoods. Should the church be present in difficult and compromised situations like war? Of course. And by respecting those who have died,  we take our place in a society that has the courage to remember and learn from the reality of war in order to help build a better world, at peace with itself.