Reflections on celebrating VE day during a worldwide pandemic.

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Some of you may remember Revd. Patrick Irwin, who covered services here at St Andrew’s when Paul was on holiday last year. A former British Army Chaplain, his last two military postings were as Senior Chaplain in London District and at SHAPE (NATO Headquarters in Belgium). Those of you who joined us for the St Ursula’s quiz on Friday evening, may have noticed him dialing in from Turkey to join the Virtual Experts team. As Patrick observed, the opportunity to travel from one neutral country to another seemed a splendidly eccentric way of celebrating the 75th anniversary of VE Day!

His sermon on Sunday reflected on the anniversary of VE day and the current coronavirus pandemic. Very kindly, he has allowed us to reproduce it in full below;

Sermon in Ankara on VE Day
Easter V 10th May 2020
Revd Patrick Irwin

On Friday many countries observed the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, which marked the end of the Second World War in Europe. That War of course continued in Asia and the Pacific until August, but at least in Europe the fighting was officially over.
It is a very significant date in world history and an opportunity for us to recall the courage and sacrifice shown by so many members of the generation that lived through World War Two.
We honour their memory.

The crowds who celebrated on 8th May 1945 were celebrating the coming of peace, and certainly longed for a lasting peace to replace the ravages of war. Despite what is sometimes said, we have not had peace in Europe since 1945. Wars such as the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s, to give but two examples, disprove that. Even western Europe has been plagued with terrorist campaigns, prolonged in Northern Ireland and Spain, and of shorter duration in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Italy, before the new outbursts of terrorism in recent years. That said, there have not been major wars in Europe since 1945, which is a record, certainly in recent centuries and probably since the time of the Roman Empire.
For that Europeans may indeed be grateful.

The most remarkable development since 1945 was the drive for reconciliation between former enemies. Nothing like it occurred after World War One. In political terms it led to the association of European states that has now become the European Union, an association that was started with the declared determination to ensure that France and Germany would never go to war with each other again. In individual terms it has produced a new generation of Europeans that would regard such a war as inconceivable and value a shared European identity that goes far deeper than the shifting borders of the European Union. The Christian churches have played an important role in this work of reconciliation.

One of the leading examples of this has been the example of Coventry. On the night of 14th November 1940, Coventry cathedral in the English Midlands was severely damaged in a bombing raid. Only the outer shell of the walls and the tower remained standing. In the days that followed, two enduring symbols emerged from the rubble: two charred roof-beams which had fallen in the shape of a cross were bound together and placed at the site of the ruined altar, and three medieval roof nails were also formed into a cross, which became the original Cross of Nails. Soon afterwards the words “Father Forgive” were inscribed on the wall of the ruined chancel on the instructions of the Provost, Dick Howard. He was asked to add the word “Them” to his inscription “Father Forgive”, but he rightly declined, pointing out that only Christ could say that and that we needed to ask God’s forgiveness for all the evil and destructive results of sin, and not only for those perpetrated against us. The Provost made a commitment not to seek revenge, but to strive for forgiveness and reconciliation with those responsible. During the BBC radio broadcast from the Cathedral ruins on Christmas Day 1940 the Provost declared that when the war was over we should work with those who had been enemies to build a “kinder, more Christlike world”.

The Cross of Nails quickly became a sign of friendship and hope in the post-War years, especially in new relationships between Britain and Germany and the developing links between Coventry and the German cities of Kiel, Dresden and Berlin. Many Crosses of Nails were given as a symbol of reconciliation, and in 1974 a new Community of the Cross of Nails was established, which continues to grow all over the world. The only cross that you will ever see the present Archbishop of Canterbury wear is the Coventry Cross of Nails.

If one of the tributes we can pay the wartime generation we honour today is reconciliation, the other is hope, and here also the Christian churches have an important role to play. One of my previous postings was as Chaplain to the Guards’ Chapel in London. At 11.20 a.m. on 18th June 1944 a V1 flying bomb hit the Guards’ Chapel during Sunday morning worship. The direct hit completely destroyed the roof, its supporting walls and pillars, and the portico of the Chapel’s main door. Tons of rubble fell onto the congregation. 121 people, servicemen from the UK, Australia, Canada, France, and the USA, and civilians, were killed and 144 others were seriously injured. The Chaplain conducting the service was killed while the visiting preacher was uninjured. It took 48 hours to free the survivors.
In this scene of utter devastation the silver altar cross was untouched and the six altar candles continued to burn. Eyewitnesses have confirmed to me that indeed they did so. This image of the surviving cross and burning candles has always struck me as a remarkable image of hope. The burning candles remind me irresistibly of the prologue to John’s Gospel,
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
(1 John: 5)
The cross tells of God’s love for the world revealed in his sending his Son to die for us. To celebrate the Eucharist in front of those particular candlesticks and cross was always to be reminded of how God’s love and light remain with us even in the worst of times.

Those who celebrated in 1945 hoped for a better world, and in some ways we have achieved their aspirations, though there is still much to be done. Christian hope is rooted in the love of God and of his desire for us to have life more abundantly. This encourages us to reach out in hope to build a better and more compassionate world. At present the human race is presented with a rare and remarkable challenge and opportunity. All of us without exception are confronted by a common enemy. I do not suppose that the coronavirus was sent to us by God as a punishment or a challenge but I do imagine that he is looking at our world today and saying. “Here you have a common enemy. Can you humans for once actually work together?”

It is unfortunate that the current crisis has prevented veterans of the Second World War from having their parades and parties, but it has provided us with a means to show reconciliation and hope in practice by working together against our common enemy. This applies at all levels from government action to individual consideration and unselfishness. What indeed could be a better way to honour the wartime generation than to cooperate in building a better and a safer world?

Revd. Patrick Irwin was ordained deacon in Cambridge and was a priest in Ely, then Chaplain of Brasenose College in Oxford, before serving as a British Army Chaplain. More recently, he was Anglican Chaplain in Bucharest and Sofia and has since served as locum tenens in a wide variety of Chaplaincies in the Diocese of Europe. Since the end of February 2020, he has been serving as Locum Chaplain at St Nicolas Anglican Church at the British Embassy in Ankara, having initially gone there for just one month before his travel plans were changed…

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