Monument not conceived as religious memorial and church no longer represents beliefs of majority of Britons, says campaigner.
A secular campaigner has called for the Church of England to abandon its role in the annual Remembrance ceremony at the Cenotaph, claiming it no longer represents the views and beliefs of the majority of Britons.
Norman Bonney, emeritus professor of sociology at Edinburgh Napier University and a director of the National Secular Society, argues that the Cenotaph was deliberately conceived as a non-religious memorial and should be treated as such.
The Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Whitehall monument is usually led by the Bishop of London, who offers prayers for all those who have died in the service of their country.
In his paper, The Cenotaph: a contested and consensual symbol of remembrance, Bonney argues that the the monument’s designer, Edwin Lutyens, did not want it to have religious significance as he recognised that many of those killed fighting for the British empire in the first world war were not Christian but Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh.
He points out that David Lloyd George’s cabinet rejected the Church of England’s requests for the Cenotaph to include a cross and to bear Christian inscriptions. It is marked only with the words “The Glorious Dead” and dates commemorating both world wars, “1914-1918”, and “1939-1945”.
Yet despite the monument’s explicitly secular nature, argues Bonney, the remembrance ceremony retains strong Christian aspects that demonstrate “the continuing ritual dominance of that religion – in its Church of England form – in the public life of the UK state and its annual ceremony of remembrance of the dead of war”.
The church cannot claim to speak for everybody in 21st-century Britain, he argues. “Changes in religious belief, emphasised in recent census findings, demonstrate that Christianity in general, and the Church of England in particular, can no longer be fully inclusive of the whole community, particularly when over a quarter of the population have no religion,” he writes.
Bonney would rather see the event stripped of all its religious aspects and replaced with “a secular ceremony with which all can identify”.
According to the Ministry of Defence, there are 265 Christian chaplains serving the armed forces, including 49 army reservists. Sixteen Anglican chaplains are understood to be spending Remembrance Sunday on active service in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.
The Church of England dismissed Bonney’s suggestions, saying the religious ceremony served a valuable purpose.
“The Remembrance Sunday Service at the Cenotaph has always contained prayers and readings from scripture, and the fact that it continues to be so central a part of our public life would suggest that it is meeting people’s pastoral needs,” said the Venerable Peter Eagles, archdeacon for the army.
The church’s director of communications was more forthright, accusing the National Secular Society of a “rather sad” attempt at seeking publicity.
“As the nation prepares to collectively remember the sacrifice of those who laid down their lives, it is both misjudged and misguided for the National Secular Society to attempt to politicise Remembrance Sunday for their own ends,” said Arun Arora.
“As millions of people prepare to gather at churches and war memorials for remembrance services led by clergy this Sunday, they will be accompanied by those on active service who will join services led by chaplains in the field. To see the National Secular Society – and its barely 10,000 members – hijack this time of solemn remembrance is rather sad.”
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