The most remarkable thing about the ceremony at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday is that it just gets more popular. A ceremony that a generation ago might have been confidently predicted to appeal to a smaller and smaller bit of the population has somehow attracted the kind of benign publicity you get for the Children in Need awards.
And the enormous crowds at the Tower to see the moatfull of ceramic poppies – one for each British life lost – has taken everyone by surprise. It’s got a good deal to do with the centenary of the First World War, of course, but that itself suggests that in a fractured Britain, people attach real emotional significance to wars from a lost world whose very language – such as sacrifice – is alien to our own.
Even for pacificists (and you don’t come across many nowadays) there’s not much not to like about Remembrance Sunday; the pity of it all trumps any kind of triumphalism. It’s diverse in a good way; the honouring of the part played by troops from the empire isn’t tokenism, but marks something real. At last, the Irish veterans of the war (my grandfather came entirely unscathed out of Jutland) have been acknowledged by the Irish state, represented by the Irish ambassador. And with the last march of the Normandy Veterans there’s that sense that if you don’t hurry and watch, a last bit of living history will get away.
But the beauty of the thing is precisely that it’s a service of commemoration; it coheres with the hymns, and the Lord’s Prayer. The Bishop of London presides, a bit like the Queen, in an altogether different capacity from the politicians.
Which is why it’s so very dispiriting to find the British Humanist Association calling for the thing to be made ‘relevant’ to the 21st century, ideally by making it an entirely secular commemoration but at least by including a humanist to represent the unbelievers. There was a discussion on the subject on the Sunday programme on BBC’s Radio 4, where Andrew Copson for the humanists argued that the religious people in the ceremony should be replaced by those with more to say to contemporary society. Which sounds fine, until he volunteered who he had in mind, first suggesting civic leaders (Boris?) and then ‘commentators, thinkers, people who have thought about the ethical content of war.’ And I fancy we know just who we might expect. Joan Smith, anyone? Alain de Botton? Just to depress us further, Copson commended the example of the Scottish parliament, which kicks off with reflection but without prayer.
Look, the point of a religious service is that the form and content isn’t made up by the celebrant but is in a form that derives from the church. Underneath, or above, it all, it is God to whom the dead are entrusted, and moreover a God to whom all sides can pray. If you want a really good solemn secular commemoration of war, make for France on Armistice Day – a public holiday, if you please, where they take the commemoration of the fallen very seriously indeed. The ceremonies are God-free in France, but His absence is filled by the state. I’m not sure the version with the Church of England isn’t more human and consoling.