Our way of dealing with death is to stand in respectful silence and watch the Queen
Remembrance Sunday is approaching, and not for the first time, the National Secular Society is arguing that the service that takes place at the Cenotaph should accommodate non-believers. You can read Dan Snow’s Guardian article, making the same argument, here.
You might find this rather strange, and I am slightly surprised by it myself, but I find myself in agreement with much of what Mr Snow says. The service at the Cenotaph remembers all the dead of war, and so no one should be excluded. If, for example, the leader of the Liberal Democrats gets to lay a wreath, then why shouldn’t a representative of the National Secularist Society, or the British Humanist Association, if indeed that is what the veterans and their organisations want?
Yet there are one or two things in Mr Snow’s article that leave me wondering. First of all there is the assertion that the presence of an Anglican Bishop somehow ‘dominates’ proceedings. I do not think this is the case at all. Indeed, though this may be a sign that I have never perhaps followed proceedings with great attention, the Remembrance ceremony does not strike me as an Anglican, or even Anglican-led, service. It does not even strike me as particularly Christian. Indeed it is not really a ‘service’ (or what we would call at liturgy or paraliturgy) at all, more a ‘ceremony’. My idea of a service for the dead is a Requiem Mass. When I see the Queen and party leaders laying wreaths at the Cenotaph, I do not get the impression that anything identifiably Christian is going on. Thus I think that Mr Snow is really pushing at an open door: this ceremony is pretty secular as it is, in that anyone, of all faiths and none, can join in pretty comfortably.
This is something, it has to be said, that the Church of England does well: it presides over ceremonies that are pretty much open to everyone, and which few could find exclusive or offensive. While it is absolutely true, and has been for a long time, that the Church of England does not represented the majority of the country, nevertheless, someone has to preside at these events, and if the Anglicans have the experience in doing it, why shouldn’t they continue to do so?
There are other things in the article that also give me pause. Clearly the author appreciates Remembrance Sunday and all that goes with it. Remembrance Sunday is not a Christian feast, but Christians, and Catholics, do mark it. We Catholics can mark it with ease, because the whole concept of remembering the dead and observing anniversaries is not alien to Catholicism. We pray for the dead, and we are familiar with the structure of the liturgical year. Remembrance Sunday even falls in November, the month of prayer for the dead. While not exclusively Christian, Remembrance Sunday fits in well with Christianity, because it represents an outgrowth of Christian practice. To try and separate Remembrance Sunday from its Christian roots may be to destroy it.
Finally, the popularity of Remembrance Sunday is sign that Christianity has more or less died out in English mainstream culture. In a place like Italy people visit cemeteries, they light candles on graves, they pray for the dead, they tell their beads, and above all they have Mass said for the dead; they honour those who have gone before them, namely the saints. All those saints in Italy, and the greatest saint of all, the Madonna, are emphatically not dead, they are alive in God. In thinking of them, one rejoices. But here, in no longer Merry England, our way of dealing with death is to stand in respectful silence and watch the Queen, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Labour Party lay wreaths at that very muted Lutyens monument to the war dead. It may be very British, and it is pretty secular in all but name, and it doesn’t quite do it for me, but what do you expect? I’m a Catholic.