Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Call to Service

(being the third of a trilogy on “Religion and Violence”, a theme covered in Karen Armstrong’s latest book, Fields of Blood)

Background
What I learned about religion in childhood came almost entirely from school. The single exception was a phase when my invalid Granny would take me through a series of booklets from the Bible Reading Fellowship to which she subscribed. These had the format of selecting a text for each day and explaining its significance, or in the adult versions—they were carefully graded—offering a meditation on the sacred words. I didn’t let her know that I was “stony ground”, that her evangelism took no root in me. School was a different affair: Scripture was simply a lesson, like History or Geography—all you had to do was learn the facts and stories as presented. No repentance or conversion was required. Then on Sundays—for I was a boarder most of the time—you had to attend the local Anglican church. And sometimes a master would forget our civilian status and call it Church Parade. “Mandatory church parades were abolished in the United Kingdom in 1951,” says Wikipedia. It was otherwise in our school’s Cadet Force, where joining was not compulsory—in theory. If you declined to join, you were instantly eligible for the Pioneer Corps, automatically conscripted. This meant that in your usual scruffy school uniform you would spend Thursday afternoons shambling after our equivalent of Groundskeeper Willie, cleaning the leaves out of drains

Our headmaster wanted to “be in that number”. . .
and so forth. From our co-opted parade-ground, i.e. the car-park adjacent to the school, you would hear a sergeant’s bark as he drilled his squad in their uniforms pressed & polished to a mirror-shine the evening before. I was in our Air Force section and in due course rose to the rank of sergeant. I considered myself an inward pacifist, occupying a space where I was free to satirize “militarism”.

In exactly the same way, I took a non-combatant role in the matter of Christian worship, being a sort of stretcher-bearer who inwardly sighed when we sang “Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war.” In our school, each form of service was a metaphor for the other; at times the two meanings of “service” blurred into one. Selflessly you offered yourself to your country and to God. In fact, it was lip-service. In my brief incarnation as a Boy Scout, I promised “on my honour to do my best to do my duty” to

. . . when the Saints went marching in
an entity called God-and-the-Queen.

By way of instilling the indivisibility of duty, we had a special ritual on Speech Day. In full gleaming uniform, stiff with pride and inflexible duty, the Cadet of the Year marched up to the stage, saluted, and received a ceremonial sword, to return before the next Speech Day, and a finely-bound Bible, to keep forever. It was the King James version, naturally. We were the King James I School, of ancient origin but re-founded in new premises in 1610, when said King was on the throne. Not only that but King Charles I was housed there after losing the second Civil War. “Charles’s only recourse was to return to negotiations, which were held at Newport

our school badge
on the Isle of Wight,” says Wikipedia, which goes on to quote from his last speech before the single axe-blow that took him “from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be.”

God is on our side
So I was well-prepared when I came across a press cutting from my great-aunt’s WWI scrapbook: a brilliantly-crafted piece of pro-war propaganda, signed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York at Whitsuntide, 1915.It was, you might say, completely expected; just as nobody can have been

Click for full transcript in PDF
surprised that Princess Mary, then aged 17, daughter of King George V, wrote to more or less everyone asking them to subscribe for Christmas presents to send to the fighting men at the end of 1914. If my Auntie Ollie’s scrapbook is to believed, the whole Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was indeed united by the urgency of survival, as they saw it, in the war against Germany. Conscientious objectors and aliens were locked up. A draconian move, you might think. But perhaps it was partly, given the prevailing mood, for their own safety.

As co-editor of my great-aunt’s posthumous website, I don’t allow myself comment there, leaving it untainted by the present-day, as free as possible from anachronism. For example, we don’t call it “A Scrapbook of World War I”. You must imagine yourself on a time-machine, transported to a past with no knowledge of subsequent history, only a supreme confidence in its own values. You are welcome to enter, but it won’t be complete for many months yet. You will be taken to a singular time and place: St Leonards-on-Sea in the County of Sussex, a hundred years ago from August 1st 1914 through to the end of November 1919. You will look through the eyes of a young woman whose father and eldest brother are Churchmen, & whose other brothers and brother-in-law have mostly signed up for War Service; all except my great-uncle Arthur, who was working in Malaya for the Forestry Commission, and my grandfather Vincent, a schoolmaster & also medically exempt, already with a family, including my rebellious non-conforming mother, aged 5 at the outbreak of war.

Where I stand
One is obviously influenced by one’s background, sometimes for and sometimes against. From my mother’s side, the influences were upper-middle-class. Her rebellious and non-conforming nature led her to gallivant off to Singaporeas a dancing teacher and thence to Australia, where I was conceived and born, in circumstances still not fully explained. My grandparents knew but I was never told, till someone broke a promise and gave me the outline

Family group 1913: click top left for detail of
my great-aunt & her brother Llewelyn;
bottom right for my mother and her parents
, when I was 48. I did get to meet my father, after my mother’s death, but he had nothing further to say, beyond what I had been told; so I have no idea how much of that was true. At my conception, she would have been 31 and he not yet 18, for as soon as he reached that age he enlisted in the Australian army. Subsequently he became a roofing contractor. I mention this to neutralize the impression of being descended from privileged English gentry.

About war, I have no comment to offer. As for religion, I’ve always had a sense of something spiritual, which was never entirely absent from religion, half-smothered as it invariably was by other agendas. The sonorous rhetoric of Cranmer’s Prayer Book and of King James’ Bible cast ritual spells when read or sung aloud, as in Choral Evensong, reaching the soul like the Cantatas of Bach. But I felt impelled to ignore the doctrines they conveyed, to seek elsewhere for those in a lifelong quest which finally concluded that “no doctrine at all” was best. And now? I find it good to be an observer with no fixed plans, no urgency to arrive anywhere.

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For brief notes on how to wage war in the trenches, see my great-uncle’s training diary. Llewelyn Sanger Davies in 1914 interrupted his studies at Cambridge, eager to join up as a subaltern. Like his sister Olwen (they seem to have been close) he demonstrates skill at sketching and writing. She would have acquired the diary after his death. Llewelyn was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1st 1916. It will be some time before her website publishes that page of her Scrapbook, wherein she notes “6 months later his identity disc was returned and nothing else.” He is pictured in the left-hand inset on the family photo above.