Sermon preached at Evensong, Friday 1 July 2016 by Revd. Michael Hampel, Precentor

Today at the Cathedral View More
8:00am Holy Communion
8:45am Morning Prayer
11:15am Sung Eucharist
3:00pm Choral Evensong
5:30pm Eucharist
6:00pm Cathedral closes

Sermon preached at Evensong, Friday 1 July 2016 by Revd. Michael Hampel, Precentor

On the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, Canon Michael looks at the power of art amid the horror of war 

This morning at 7.28, we observed two minutes’ silence here in this cathedral church to mark the very moment, one hundred years before, when the first allied troops went over the top and entered battle in the region of the Somme at the height of the First World War. That was ten hours ago. By now, one hundred years ago, the death toll had already reached close to 60, 000 men.

It was deadly and it was bloody and we are left with statistics and lessons learned; historical accounts and lessons not learned; facts and opinions; emotions and indeed ignorance.

But we are also left with artnot least the poetry of some of those soldiers who fought and who tried to find words to describe what they experienced and to give those words a sharp edge with which to cut through the politics and uncover the truth – that so much warfare and conflict is avoidable if we did but possess the imagination and will to make this world a fairer and more equitable place.

But even poetic language has its limits and, when those limits are reached, the art which is musical or visual takes over and speaks to the ear and eye of the imagination in trying to provide space in which the best and the worst of our human actions can be contemplated. The music of Samuel Barber composed in that long weekend between the First and Second World Wars has provided that space in this service but, after the service, you will be able to view Stanley Spencer’s simple yet profoundly moving painting ‘Poppies’ as you leave.

The terror and carnage of the fields around the Somme which scarred and devastated the flower of youth was not able to hold back nature from recreating itself and poppies flourished in what seemed to be God-forsaken territory.

The image etched itself onto the minds of those who saw it and it was not long before the poppy became a symbol of remembrance and – to this day of course – millions of us wear a poppy in November as we pause and remember both the futility of war but also the courage of those who are caught up in it.

Stanley Spencer has taken that image and immersed his canvas in the scarlet, green and black of those majestic flowers. They crowd the scene and almost push past the confines of the painting’s frame – as if they were blocking out the horror which perhaps lies beyond the beds in which they thrive.

And this is not about avoiding the truth but rather of demonstrating what truth can be – that it can be beautiful and it can thrive; that it can regenerate itself despite our best efforts to stem it; that imagination is the key to redemption and resurrection – new hopes and new possibilities.

And – perhaps most of all, in this grim world of conflict and terror – that just as many times as we get it wrong and the poppies die back so the green shoots sprout again and the beauty of that enigmatic and iconic flower bursts through the mud and blossoms despite everything.

The crosses either side of the entrance to the dome area of this church – just behind where most of you are sitting – say something similar: that the ‘war to end all wars’ did not end all wars and that conflict and bombed cityscapes continue to scar our world but that the cross of Christ with its stark but loving promise of hope despite everything rises triumphantly through the quagmire of our failure.

Just after you have seen Stanley Spencer’s painting of the poppies, you will also see the altar frontal which was embroidered by First World War servicemen recovering from the worst effects of their experiences at the front: the hands that clung to life in the trenches have also made something of great beauty – using images from nature to provide a field of hope despite everything.

Perhaps some of those hands brushed past the poppies growing along the edges of their field of battle – like their comrades who died, fragile but oh so precious and so beautiful.

The poppy dies back and grows again – thanks to the imaginative power of God our maker.

It is never too late to use the power of our imagination to make it all different and to make it better.