“They’re not simply names on a board,” Rev Canon Malcolm Ferry told his congregation at this morning’s Service of Morning Prayer, “they’re families, they’re people, they’re blood of our blood.” With those words, the Rector of St Augustine’s Church, on Derry Walls, introduced the Service at which a new Roll of Honour Memorial for the First and Second World Wars was dedicated by the Bishop of Derry and Raphoe, Rt Rev Ken Good.
It was, said Canon Ferry, a “special day” for the parish. “This little church sent 110 men and women off to the First World War, and 175 men and women to the Second World War – this tiny church – so we gather in their name today and we certainly are so proud.”
Gathered there, too, was Rev Dr Jim Francis MBE CF, Deputy Assistant Chaplain-General of the British Army, who helped conduct the Service and preached the sermon.
Seated at the very front of the church – proudly wearing his medals and accompanied by his beaming daughter – was 93 year old Jack Sterling, a Second World War veteran whose name is among those gracing the plaque on the back wall. Sitting in the very back row, immediately below the monument, were the Heatley brothers, whose father and uncles feature on the Roll of Honour.
In church, too, were other relatives: members of the Miller family, “a great name connected with our church”, the Rector said, and the Musselwhite family. “They have both a father and daughter on the Roll of Honour”, Canon Ferry said. The daughter, Maud Musselwhite BEM, was formerly an Auxiliary Territorial Service then the Royal Ulster Constabulary (George Cross). “Maud has a special place in the history of policing in Northern Ireland. On the 24th May 1957 – just over six months after the outbreak of an IRA campaign that was to last six years – Sgt Musselwhite became the first policewoman in the province to be decorated for gallantry.” Other members of the congregation wore medals earned in the wars by their loved ones.
As he took his place in the pulpit, Rev Dr Francis said it was unusual to come to a church where it wasn’t just the fallen who were commemorated but the sacrifice of “everyone who left hearth and home to go and fight in the cause of this country”. So, he said, St Augustine’s was “unique, almost” in having that kind of commemoration.
As they dedicate the memorial of those who had gone before them, Dr Francis said, they were confronted by an inescapable fact – that they had behind them in their nation’s history an enormity of sacrifice which they could not help but remember with pride—a pride tinged with sorrow. “But that memory brings an immediate realisation of another inescapable fact: looking forward, we have an enormous challenge – a challenge of building a world worthy of the sacrifice of those who left hearth and home, those of our home, of our flesh, of our love, those who didn’t come back, those who came back for ever changed. We must build a world worthy of that sacrifice. But the stark truth of our human condition is that the complexity of building that world will most likely call for ever more sacrifice. But we wouldn’t be true to those who’ve gone before us if when called upon we don’t at least try.”
Dr Francis said trying required moral and spiritual courage, a courage to see the world in a different way, to imagine it as a better place and work towards that. Dr Francis said Jesus’s words and actions should compel us to shift our focus in a radical way and to respond with radical action – putting other people’s interests at least equal to our own.
The preacher spoke about another Church of Scotland cleric who, he said, knew a thing or two about putting other people’s interests first. George MacLeod had also been an infantry officer and had fought at Ypres and Passchendaele. “He came from a privileged background but as an infantry officer in the trenches of the Western Front he witnessed the worst of man’s inhumanity to man. He also saw the triumph of the human spirit—people laying down their lives for other people.
“Through this experience he began to conceive a vision of a better world – a vision that was informed by Jesus’ example, and that picture of the Kingdom described so beautifully in our reading from Isaiah this morning. So when the country that he and others returned to turned out not to be the ‘land fit for heroes’ that was promised – but was instead ravaged by politics and economic depression – he felt that that had betrayed the sacrifice of the trenches, so he founded a thing called the Iona Community. He took over Iona island in the Western Isles and rebuilt the Abbey.
“The purpose of the community was and is to provide support for people who are disadvantaged by political and economic crisis – in particular, in his day, it was ex-servicemen – but more importantly the purpose of the community was to galvanise the church to prayer and action with a vision of a peaceful society.
“George MacLeod prayed a prayer that encapsulates my idea of exactly where we should be, what we should be doing and how we should be doing it as we strive to build a world – exercising our moral and physical courage – that’s worthy of the sacrifice of those who’ve gone before us. His prayer reads: ‘Christ, you are within each of us. / Ours are the eyes with which you, in the mystery, / look out with compassion on our world. / Take us outside, O Christ, outside holiness, / out to where soldiers curse and nations clash / at the crossroads of the world.’
“In our day,” the preacher said, “substitute for ‘soldier’ the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, the oppressed – substitute those who were once our enemies – and you get the idea, to pay attention to their needs is to pay attention to the broken body of Christ. But in the paying attention it is making Christ present in our world.
“So as – on a day like this – we rightly take pride in our distinguished history, let’s try and locate that history in an even greater and more glorious history that we are part of: the history and the ongoing story of Jesus at work in our world, Jesus at the crossroads of our world, and let us pray for the courage to go there too. If we do, we might just see the day when – in the words of Isaiah – people shall beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks, a day when nation shall not lift up a sword against another nation. It won’t be easy, but we – the people of Jesus – in this place, at this time, we are called to try.”
During the Service, the choir and congregation sang ‘A Victory Hymn’ which was discovered only recently but had been written by Canon Ferry’s grandmother, Annie, around 1918. “I don’t think she ever thought her hymn would be sung in such a setting, especially in front of the Assistant Chaplain General of the British Army,” the Rector said, “so it’s a special day for me, too.”