Sermon preached on the eve of the centenary of the outbreak of WW1 (3 August 2014) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

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12:30pm Eucharist
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5:00pm Evening Prayer
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Sermon preached on the eve of the centenary of the outbreak of WW1 (3 August 2014) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor

The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel discusses war - past and present - saying 'anniversaries of war are no occasions for celebration and, if anything, provide moments of recognition that all is not well with the world'.

This sermon was preached at a service in which an altar frontal, embroidered by 137 injured WW1 servicemen, was used at the Cathedral for the first time in 70 years. More information:

Micah 4: 1-5 Matthew 5: 1-12 

It is with such faith and such hope that we pray for the time when God will beat people’s swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. But, as the shelling continues in Israel and Palestine, it seems but an ideal dream more than any near-present reality. 

The story of humankind is the story of one bloody mess after another so that the Christmas carol is horribly accurate when it says that man at war with man hears not the love song which the angels bring. 

95 years ago, almost to the day, the nation gathered here in St Paul’s Cathedral to give thanks that one war at least was over. The newspaper reports of the time recall a sombre mood: an exhausted and troubled people were in no mood to celebrate. 

The Daily Telegraph described the scene: ‘Grave and subdued was the whole setting in the soft light of a morning overcast with clouds, yet to those who sat under the dome facing towards the sacrarium there was the beautiful radiance of the altar, embodying a symbolism of poignant and splendid appeal. The new altar frontal ... is the offering and work of soldiers so disabled that they can only undertake tasks involving no physical exertion. The richest white satin forms the ground. In the centre panel is the chalice, suggested, it is said, by a lad of 19, as the fitting emblem of sacrifice, and surely implying a noble submission to suffering in the words "the cup which My Father hath sent shall I not drink it?” ... On either side are crossed palms embroidered in gold by men who kept the flag flying at sea to their own grievous wounding; while the bordering includes the rose, alike of mystical and national significance, wrought with conventional foliage in artistic colourings.’ 

Only eight days before this special service attended by the King and Queen, the Treaty of Versailles had been signed, containing terms and conditions which, many would say, sowed the seeds for the rise of Nazism and a Second World War only twenty years later – a war which saw this cathedral church directly hit several times, the altar for which this frontal was made destroyed, and the work of our soldier embroiderers consigned to a storage chest for the next 74 years. A war which itself, it could be said, sowed the seeds for the current conflict in Gaza. 

Anniversaries of war are no occasions for celebration and, if anything, provide moments of recognition that all is not well with the world. And yet we, as people of faith, are obliged to express hope despite everything – and the altar frontal, which provides the focus for our commemoration this evening and, indeed, for the next four years, articulates – both physically and aesthetically – a legacy lest we forget. 

The altar frontal is itself a legacy in textile and great artistry – and one which has occupied the work and attention of staff and volunteers here at the Cathedral for many months, for which we are deeply grateful: because this legacy has itself acted as a catalyst for our remembrance which is its own legacy because memory is the mind’s eye which – firmly fixed on the past – informs our actions now and in the future. But there is another legacy which has been drawn here this evening by the altar frontal – and this is, of course, the relatives of the men who made this beautiful cloth. 

Some of you remembered your forebears talking about the St Paul’s altar frontal; to others, news that you were related to someone who had made an altar frontal for St Paul’s Cathedral came as a complete surprise – but, either way, you came here this evening from Australia, Canada and around the United Kingdom, drawn by something good and beautiful and used in the service of Christ’s Church, to remember and to give thanks for the British, Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and South African men who expressed hope despite everything and whose swords were turned by that very hope not into ploughshares but into embroidery needles. 

And one of the most heartening things we’ve learnt over the last few months is just how many of our soldier artists carried on their embroidery for the rest of their lives. And how I love the story of Driver Percy Cooney of the Royal Field Artillery who was stitching regimental badges when Queen Alexandra visited him in the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital here in London and asked for one of his badges but he refused, telling Her Majesty that it was for his sister, Mabel. On recounting the story many years later, his wife was horrified to learn that her husband had turned down a request from the Queen! But he found another piece of embroidery for his royal visitor and she subsequently sent him a crested tin with cigarettes and cigars and a five pound note. She was also present 95 years ago with her son, George V, and her daughter-in-law, Queen Mary – gazing like us this evening at the work of Driver Cooney and his 136 comrades. Perhaps he was here too, the cigarette tin carefully stowed away in his pocket ready to light up once he got back out onto Ludgate Hill later that morning. 

I believe keenly that the creative spirit is in every human being by very virtue of the fact that we are human creatures of the divine creator. If we read the creation story imaginatively, it becomes clear that to be made in the image of God means that we are most God-like when we are being creative which suggest that we are most devilish when we are being destructive. 

The story of this altar frontal demonstrates how our creative spirit can be harnessed as a means of rehabilitation – palliative and restorative, redemptive even. But I wonder if we, a hundred years on, need to work harder to harness the creative spirit not just to restore but to prevent. 

It is an old adage that prevention is better than cure and, to return to the situation in Gaza once more, there could be no better example of the creative spirit being harnessed to prevent hatred and to break down barriers than Daniel Barenboim’s West Eastern Divan Orchestra in which Arabs and Israelis make music together in harmony and in peace. It is hard to imagine that the hands that lift a violin to the shoulder and slide a bow across the strings to produce a sound of great beauty could also lift a gun to the shoulder and pull a trigger. 

Might another legacy of this altar frontal be a greater commitment on the part of all of us, and of the world beyond the walls of this great church tonight, to place into more people’s hands the tools of artistry and creativity so that people are so occupied in building up that they have no time to take up arms; are so occupied in building bridges that they have no enemies against whom to take aim and fire; are so occupied in building hope that they will carry on doing so despite everything. 

It may sound naive but, God help us, it works: the Ashington miners weren’t good with words so they painted; the unemployed of the Great Depression opened theatres as part of the Settlement movement; Fine Cell Work, represented here this evening, is a social enterprise that trains prisoners in paid, skilled, creative needlework to foster hope, discipline and self esteem; Michael Bogdanov moved into the inner city estate of Ladywood in Birmingham and turned indifference, suspicion and hostility into an eighty-strong cast to stage extracts from Shakespeare; and Gareth Malone has reminded people that they can sing despite what they were told when they were kids. 

And 137 men learned to embroider despite experiencing horrors that we hardly dare to imagine. To the greater glory of God and in their memory, I would like us all to call the world’s attention to the creative spirit that God has implanted in his children and to work actively – not only reactively – to the potential of human creativity to beat swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks so that we be worthy of the name ‘children of God’ because we are peacemakers and are blessed for that. 

This altar frontal is the golden thread that weaves together our remembrance with our aspirations. Like our faith, it expresses hope despite everything and it is a legacy that not only pleads for peace but provides us with a method for peace. 

Lance Corporal James Muth carried on his embroidery when he went home to Canada. He died at the age of 83, in the words of his son Malcolm: ‘after a useful life in the community: the father of seven children, carpenter, church elder, village councillor, and so much more.’ 

God, for all that has been good, thank you. For all that could be better: yes please.