The Revd Brutus Green
10 years ago on the 90th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I, the Princess Royal unveiled the Animals in War memorial just a short walk away on Park Lane. Its most famous inscription reads almost like a Hollywood tagline: ‘they had no choice’; a strange choice. The British army of that war was until 1916 entirely voluntary, the second largest volunteer army of all time, but there were certainly many humans who felt through the war a lack of choice. I suppose it’s an attempt to elicit our pity, but it overshadows some remarkable stories of courage and determination by the war’s animals. Just a couple of weeks ago you may have read of Warrior, a horse who was posthumously awarded the PDSA Dickin medal, commonly known as the ‘animal Victoria Cross’. Warrior, dubbed ‘the horse the Germans could not kill’, survived the whole war, including being dug out of the mud at Passchendaele and twice being trapped in burning stables. Warrior finally returned home and lived out his days on the Isle of Wight to the grand old age of 33, the horse equivalent of 93.
Not all horses were so lucky, though. Henry Chappell’s poem, ‘A Soldier’s Kiss’, tells a moving tale:
Only a dying horse! Pull off the gear,
And slip the needless bit from frothing jaws,
Drag it aside there, leaving the road way clear,
The battery thunders on with scarce a pause.
Prone by the shell-swept highway there it lies
With quivering limbs, as fast the life-tide fails,
Dark films are closing o'er the faithful eyes
That mutely plead for aid where none avails.
Onward the battery rolls, but one there speeds
Needlessly of comrades voice or bursting shell,
Back to the wounded friend who lonely bleeds
Beside the stony highway where he fell.
Only a dying horse! he swiftly kneels,
Lifts the limp head and hears the shivering sigh
Kisses his friend, while down his cheek there steals
Sweet pity's tear, "Goodbye old man, Goodbye".
No honours wait him, medal, badge or star,
Though scarce could war a kindlier deed unfold;
He bears within his breast, more precious far
Beyond the gift of kings, a heart of gold.
A fitting poem, I’m sure you’ll agree, for Horseman’s Sunday.
Now St Paul’s letter to the Philippians, that we heard earlier, is about perseverance in adversity. Paul writes from prison in Rome, awaiting his execution, which he is remarkably sanguine about: ‘living is Christ and dying is gain’; even so much that suffering is a privilege if it is for Christ.
We rarely see suffering in this light. Suffering for us is usually something which damages and weakens. Suffering elicits our pity. One of the central goals of our society is to put off, to minimise and hide suffering as much as we can. But for St Paul ‘suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope’. Just as, for Aristotle, ‘Suffering becomes beautiful when anyone bears great calamities with cheerfulness, not through insensibility but through greatness of mind’. We should bear in mind with Somerset Maugham that there are a great many whom suffering does not ennoble but makes ‘petty and vindictive’. Equally, there is suffering that destroys and maims, something we have considered frequently this year in connection with the last century’s wars. But it is our most difficult experiences that make us who we are and lead to the greatest successes, per ardua ad astra, through struggle to the stars, as the RAF’s motto puts it. Working with Steve these last five years has made me the man I am today.
Unfortunately our society has largely lost its moral compass in this respect. When people discuss morality these days, it’s mostly a euphemism for gossip about sex. We hear less about the virtuous character overcoming adversity. Even on shows like the X-factor - the stories are designed more to bring about pity than admiration. And when people talk about the great heroes of the twentieth-century, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, their heroism is usually qualified by some reference to inappropriate sexual practices. They are, it turns out, just like us, only slightly more depraved. So as Oscar Wilde put it, ‘everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.’
In David Reynold’s recent study of the impact of World War I he complains how ‘the history has been distilled into poetry’, that the poets for the first time succeeded in allowing poetry to make war ‘in its own image’. Wilfred Owen’s poetry on ‘the pity of war’ only became popular in the late twenties, but it’s still his vision that defines how we see that war, partly because it fits with the way we see the world generally. In truth, we have become sentimental.
But this suspicion of greatness, for all its democratic quality and exposure of scandal, does not greatly improve our public conversation. The tedious deferral to the man on the street in radio shows is arbitrary and unenlightening. Discussing religion with people, as I occasionally do, everyone has an opinion and believes that theirs is equally valid. On one level, this is true; religion deals with the basic questions of life and we all have different experiences; but on the other hand you’d hope that academic or vocational experience would give you some credibility. But no; having thought about a subject for two minutes and visited a wikipedia page is now universally accepted as qualification as an expert in any subject these days. Especially on Facebook, where as a friend of mine recently sarcastically posted: ‘never go into the complexities of a subject, just tell me how you feel about it’. A truly democratic country appears to be one where everyone is equal, but at the lowest common denominator. A society run by referenda would be extremely democratic but I’m not sure it would make good decisions.
At a glance, today’s Gospel might seem to be advocating a sort of levelling down egalitarian principle where everyone is paid the same, a days wage. But the parable is really about what are you doing now. It is never too late to start building the kingdom of God; to start serving your neigbours. You can do it today by waiting around outside the church and when Bryan hires you to do something to serve your community like selling raffle tickets - my least favourite job in the world - doing it with joy; or if you can’t find Joy maybe Tricia. You will receive your reward in heaven, even if you don’t get the hamper.
In losing the idea, the aspirational figure of the virtuous person, we have lost something essential to the making of a good society. When two and a half million men enlisted in the army one hundred years ago, they largely did so because they believed it was the ethical thing to do. It is unlikely it will ever be repeated, and in that we have lost something. The truly outstanding thing about the Scottish referendum is that it brought 85% out to vote, and seemingly ignited renewed interest in how we are represented across the UK. It is still a considerable step from here, though, to a sense of people serving society. The individual rules supreme today, in us having our rights, and everything that society, government and the world owes us. JFK was right to ask what we can do for society, but public life still seems more interested in scandal, celebrity and self-advancement than duty and service.
On a side note it has intrigued me how surprised people are at the thought of a priest joining the army. It is as though they have boiled Christianity down to an ideal of passive love and non-violence, and the British Army down to violence and conquest. This isn’t exactly an expert analysis. The two are united precisely in the sense that both the Church of England and the Army exist to serve the people of the United Kingdom. There may be a few differences coming to my life in the next week but I still think of it more in terms of changing department than in changing career, though I’m sad to say I won’t be serving with a cavalry regiment.
Now in the Bible the horse has a very special place, and that is almost always at the side of the warrior. Where the psalm praises God’s work in creation, it is suspicious of man and horse together: [The Lord] ‘hath no pleasure in the strength of an horse : neither delighteth he in any man’s legs.’ But as the forces of hell are unleashed with four horsemen so too, as we shall hear outside, is the white rider, who turns out to be not Gandalf but Jesus. The horses here doubtless had no choice but they do offer an example of service, just as Jesus remains our moral example of the virtuous life. Our horses today then can be our reminder that we owe lives of service to God and society, not to be pitied but to be admired. Amen.