Today has been the last time for the foreseeable future in which I will support the North Hampshire Downs Benefice before my deployment to Eversley. All ‘lasts’ are tough, but after a week visiting the battlefields of Flanders to a backdrop of news coverage from the UK of the horrors at Grenfell Tower, it has felt especially difficult to find words appropriate to the moment.
My thanks to the congregations of All Saints Odiham, and All Saints Tunworth for their usual warm welcome. I will miss my itinerant ministry as I go forward to a new phase of ministry.
The poppies are flowering among the fields of Flanders. No longer do they inhabit the acres of muddy ground strewn with the debris of battles only recently silenced, but instead they have been pushed to the field margins, replaced by neat rows of potatoes, flowering profusely in the summer sun like the pristine white tombstones of the Commonwealth War Graves they surround. Just as the debris of battle is now largely pushed beneath the soil only to be unearthed by deliberate excavation, the poppies have been sidelined – the now traditional image of blood and sacrifice more profuse in museums and merchandise than they are in the fields where initially they covered the death and detritus of war.
I have spent the majority of this week in Flanders, staying at Talbot House, better known as TocH, the chaplaincy and “Every Man’s Club” that lay in Poperinge, behind the ‘allied’ trenches in World War I. Designed as a study tour focusing on ‘peace and reconciliation’, it became for me a pilgrimage as I retraced in part, the steps my great-uncle trod with the Royal Warwickshire Regiment over the Messines Ridge in 1917 and again, this time in retreat, in 1918. Yet, standing on Thursday, watching the dragonflies dance over the pristine white lilies in the Pool of Peace that now fills one of the 19 mine craters whose explosion was the opening salvo of the 1917 offensive, I was only too well aware that the scene 100 years before would have been in as stark a contrast as, say, a burning tower block against a night sky.
The Rev’d ‘Tubby’ Clayton, the resident chaplain of TocH, was a man whose response to the horrors and suffering of trench warfare was at least two-fold. Firstly, he highlighted and celebrated the equality that lies between all people before God and between each other, for as the sign still reads over his door, “all rank abandon, ye who enter here”. Christ, the kingdom of God come near, died for all, no less for the Private, than for the Major or the General, and called as disciples Matthew the tax-collector to work alongside Peter, James and John the fishermen, who came together in proclaiming the kingdom.
‘Tubby’, also travelled among the “harassed and helpless” men in front line units, bringing with compassion the strength that comes through making visible the grace of God, and with it hope that in enduring their suffering they would come to a better place, in this life or the next. In the front-line confirmation classes and the prayers, this shepherd reminded the sheep that not only was Jesus standing with them in their suffering, but was present in their daily acts of heroism and survival among the horror they endured.
Today, rather than staggering through the mud and gunfire of Flanders, the “sombre national mood” (to quote HM The Queen) reels from the horrors of another seemingly random terrorist atrocity, followed all too closely by the even greater devastation of a towering inferno of sub-standard housing. Where I wonder are the poppies? Have they been sidelined to the field-edges of our consciousness, our yearning for the cost-effective productivity of ordered lives pushing aside our awareness of the inequalities that lead to unnecessary deaths? Where I wonder is the peace that grows like lilies on a pool, only when the violence stops?
The world needs more men and women like ‘Tubby’ Clayton, who with gentle good humour and the warmest of welcomes, can highlight the need for equality and the call to share equally in God’s kingdom building. His work continued through the foundation of the TocH communities around the world, and their focus on fairness, friendship, service to others and to the Kingdom of God, as well as the rebuilding of a church and community at All Hallows’ by the Tower after the horrors of a Second World War.
When the debris of the initial horrors of the Manchester Arena, London Bridge, and Grenfell Tower have been sanitised and tidied away, we need to make sure our memories of the issues that caused each are not sidelined like so many poppies in the edge of a Flanders field. We are called as disciples of Jesus to remember that whilst we may first share the grace of God close at hand among our own communities, we are sent through the power of the Holy Spirit, to support, or even be, the heroes who offer hope, who speak and stand for equality among all people, equality of life, not simply in death.
Let us not wait for the enquiries and recriminations to cease before looking at the gaping holes created by the mine-field of social deprivation and the self-serving isolation, before realising that we are called be Christ on the front-line of our communities, so that through faith and endurance where we find it hardest to face what we encounter, we contribute to a pool of peace that will be the harvest of hope restored, not just to our land, but to the world.