Out of the Silence – the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday

Each year, leaders of the Methodist Church, Baptist Union and United Reformed Church are invited to join with other faith leaders, politicians and representatives of other countries to the mark Remembrance Sunday.  John Ellis, Moderator of the General Assembly of the United Reformed Church, writes about his experiences below.cenotaph 2After the 11 o’clock gun coinciding with the first strike of Big Ben, a deep, profound silence fell over 10,000 people in Whitehall and continued after the traditional two minutes while three generations of the Royal Family laid wreaths on the Cenotaph. Past and present, old and young, politicians and soldiers, bishops and atheists, all enveloped together in an extraordinary moment. Coming from a family of Christian pacifists, I was well aware no simple reaction to all this could possibly be adequate. But some strands were striking on that memorable morning. First, we were united in empathy with suffering. It did seem to help those who continue to carry the personal scars that those of us who cannot ever enter fully into their experiences nevertheless pause to notice. That no doubt is true of every local Remembrance Sunday ceremony.By contrast, the Cenotaph ceremony also emphasised the enormous scale of what we were remembering. Standing with the other religious leaders right at the foot of the Cenotaph was a reminder of quite how large that memorial is, as if to say this story is too vast ever to get your arms around it.cenotaph But something more subtle also happened at the gatherings in the old imperial vastness of the Foreign Office building before and after the public ceremony. There assembled as well as the Church leaders and the Commonwealth representatives a cross section of our political leaders. Something about the day made them want to avoid anything remotely like the confrontations beloved of the media. A senior member of the Government standing next to me asked a former Prime Minister of a different party for his advice on a difficult dilemma facing the country at the moment, and genuinely wanted to hear his answer. Both dared to dream that a cross-party solution could be found for our long term benefit. A Cabinet minister commented to me that it was so important that politicians had prayers before their business to remind them of the divine context of their work. The common good seemed the only proper level of conversation. In the face of horrendous suffering, the value of our essential humanity came to the fore and nothing less than treating all people as precious was good enough. Those who look up at the Cross know the feeling.