We’re Christian, right? An argument for Secular Remembrance

by Thomas Foster

Remembrance Day holds a special place in the UK national psyche. There’s something about the simplicity and the solemnity, that I think appeals especially to us.  It’s when people from different sides of the aisle, both metaphorically and politically, come together to honour those who gave their lives in service of their country.

The sight of the massed bands of the Armed Forces, the haunting sounds of the ‘Last Post’ and the thousands of people standing silently and with purpose, never ceases to give me a feeling of pride.  After the two minutes silence and the laying of the wreaths, comes the only moment for me that slightly sully’s the occasion. The Bishop of London steps forward and intones, “Oh Almighty God,….”.  What follows is an -admittedly short – service led by the Church of England. It’s these few words in an otherwise completely religiously neutral ceremony that leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but why?

Let’s start by looking at the Cenotaph itself. If you would like to learn more about the origins of the Cenotaph, the paper by Professor Norman Bonney on the subject is a fascinating read, but for now I’ll give you the basics. At the end of the First World War, the British authorities debated about what symbol should be used to mark the graves of the dead. One of the members of the War Graves Commission, Edwin Lutyens, a famous architect, was in favour of a religiously neutral symbol rather than a cross. This would not only provide a symbol for UK non-Christian families who lost loved ones, but also the Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist soldiers who fought for British Empire all around the globe.

This idea manifested itself as the Stone of Remembrance and can be found in the largest Commonwealth war graves all over the world, inscribed with the words ‘THEIR NAME LIVETH FOR EVERMORE’. However, due to opposition within the War Graves Commission, namely by Rev. Randall Davidson, a compromise had to be reached whereby a large Cross of Sacrifice was also used. A proposal for Christian inscriptions upon each cross was rejected by the commission.

Debate amongst the commission carried on, and continued with discussions of how the ending of the war should be marked. It was decided that a parade of returning troops would take place. Lord Curzon, one of the five members of the War Cabinet, had suggested that a 30 foot high cross should be placed near Admiralty Arch, however, the final decision of the War Cabinet sided with the then Prime Minister David Lloyd George. He had wanted a secular monument and immediately commissioned Lutyens to implement the project. Thus, the Cenotaph was created.

So the spirit of the Cenotaph was to allow a secular monument to stand testament to the courage of the dead. Inscribed simply with the words “The Glorious Dead” and the dates of the War, it was an uneasy site for the then majority Christian nation to see. So much so that the The Church Times denounced all celebrations at it as a cult, and attacked ‘Cenotapholatry’!

One of the more popular arguments when considering Christianity’s, and other religions, place in remembrance is, “The UK is a Christian country, so of course we should have Christian prayers.” Is this true? And even if it is, is the service still appropriate? Looking at the 2011 census results, at a glance, this argument appears to have some weight. When asked “What is your religion?”, 59.3% of those polled identified as Christian (a decrease from 71.7% in 2001), with Muslim the next most numerous with 4.8% (up from 3%). One of the largest growing groups were those answering they have no religion, which came in at 25.1% (up from 14.8%). Although people who identify as Christian are still the majority, these numbers do indicate that there is an increasingly large proportion of the population that do not identify with Christianity, and if we look deeper it gets more interesting.

A YouGov Poll that same year asked the same question to a sample of people in England and Wales. When asked “What is your religion?” 53% of those polled stated they were Christian, but when asked “Are you religious?”, only 29% of those polled said they were, with 65% of people answering no! It becomes even stranger when the people who identified as Christian were asked “Do you believe that Jesus Christ was a real person who died and came back to life, and was the son of God?”, only 48% of people said yes, 25% said don’t know, and 27% said they did not!

It’s clear that this argument does not hold up when put under scrutiny. So in light of this how do we proceed? In some respects, these numbers shouldn’t really have an impact on how we conduct our remembrance days. If even one person feels excluded, then I would argue this is one too many.

The ceremony needs no religious symbolism or sermons. The common cause of remembrance is more unifying than any religion could hope to be. This would allow everyone within the UK, and all the nations that suffered loss, to truly feel united when we remember those who gave their lives.

Poppies” by Daniel Arndt is licensed under CC by NC SA 2.0