Thursday, February 24, 2005

World War One: Part III, Discrediting the Church

I hope to write a real blog entry sometime soon, recounting all of my wacky adventures (there are so many) and offering reflections on important things (as I do so often), but unfortunately I'm behind in my reading. We've got another Bonhoeffer session this evening, and I spent last night meeting with an Asbury prof and Jason to discuss "emerging church" stuff, and watching "Saw" with my roommates. A very creepy film.

More from my work on the Great War. Does any of this sound familiar?

As far as the British were concerned, they were standing up for the integrity of moral society and international relations, refusing to allow the vile German doctrine of expediency, Realpolitik, to define international relations. An entire generation of boys emerged prepared to assume the Empire’s role in the Christian narrative: the British ideals and culture served as tools of civilisation, which included evangelism. To protect this mission was to serve God faithfully, and this was a cause certainly worth dying for—the fulfilment of the divine mission. Fighting for King and Country therefore, was to uphold duty, honour, and the rule of God’s Kingdom.


Poets such as Wilfred Owen wrestled with the definitions of a just war and reconciliation of the concept with the circumstances of foreign policy, but resented the abdication of principle inherent to the clergy’s collective enthusiasm and patriotism in the face of war rather than acknowledging the shades of grey. He spoke in a letter home from a military hospital of the need to send the Archbishop of Canterbury a New Testament with the entreaty, “resist not evil” well marked for the Primate’s consideration.[1] With little sympathy, George Bernard Shaw fumed at the inconsistency:

They have turned their churches into recruiting stations and their vestries into munitions workshops. But it has never occurred to them to take off their black coats and say quite simply, ‘I find in the hour of trial that the Sermon on the Mount is tosh, and that I am not a Christian. I apologise for all the unpatriotic nonsense I have been preaching all the years. Have the goodness to give me a revolver and a commission in a regiment which has for its chaplain a priest of the god Mars: my God.’ Not a bit of it. They have stuck to their livings and served Mars in the name of Christ, to the scandal of all religious mankind. When the Archbishop of York behaved like a gentleman[2] and the Head Master of Eton preached a Christian sermon,[3] and were reviled by the rabble, the Martian parsons encouraged the rabble.[4]

[1] Alan Wilkinson, The Church of England and the First World War (London: SPCK, 1978), 115.
[2] When in November 1914 Lang spoke favourably of the Kaiser personally while condemning German militarism in an attempt to curb popular hatred of Germany, the archbishop received a number of angry letters from the public (Ibid., 218-19).
[3] Edward Lyttleton had in March 1914 preached at St. Margaret’s Westminster on loving one’s enemies: “If we intend to hold fast to everything we have gained in the past [often] by very questionable means [and refuse to release any advantage], all I can say is we are abandoning the principle of Christianity and taking once more our stand on the principle of competition” (Ibid., 221).
[4] Ibid., 245.

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