Did the Great War leave God “hanging on the old barbed wire”?

The patriarchal deity died in the trenches of the Somme, but the churches will not let him go.

Rachel Mann
16 July 2017

The Fire Window in the Regiment Chapel of Manchester Cathedral. Credit: © Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

In the north-east corner of Manchester Cathedral there is a large rectangular chapel. The focal point is a stained-glass window in the east wall, a vast arch of red, orange and yellow glass that suggests flames and destruction. On the altar frontal beneath it and completing the fire motif is a phoenix. In the Manchester Blitz of 1940 the cathedral was bombed and burned. The Fire Window commemorates both the long nights of destruction and the city’s resurrection out of the flames.

The Regiment Chapel as it is known commemorates, remembers and celebrates the service of The Duke of Lancaster Regiment and its precursors, including the Manchester Regiment. From the walls hang flags and battle honours, heavy with the conflicts of the twentieth century including Mons, Ypres, the Somme and Cambrai. Along the north edge are sturdy wooden display cases full of weighty books of remembrance, packed with the names of the fallen. On alternate Wednesdays there is a simple service called ‘The Turning of the Leaves,’ when the pages of the books are turned over. These are pages thick with memory, ritualized into manageable remembrance.

It is troubling to think about how the Church of England has been complicit in the ways in which war has been prosecuted. Elie Halévy notes how in the Great War of 1914-18, for example, state control of thought took two forms: the negative, aimed at suppressing opinions deemed contrary to the national interest; and the positive, appropriately termed “the organization of enthusiasm.” The Church of England was very much part of the latter. Indeed, until the formation of a government Department of Information in 1917, propaganda was very much the business of private initiative.

As Albert Marrin, who argues that the Great War was the last European holy war, has written:

“Convinced of the righteousness of England’s cause, and believing that Christianity was concerned as much with the discharge of civic responsibilities as with the religious life, patriotic clergymen resolved to do their ‘bit’ for King and Country.”

The consistent refrain of diocesan conferences and parish meetings at the time was that the Church had a dual role as a servant of God and the servant of the state. As a servant of god, it provided huge amounts of practical humanitarian support to both needy soldiers at the front and their families at home, as well as supplying chaplains and distributing mind-bogglingly large number of Bibles and religious tracts.

In terms of service to the state, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, the Bishop of London, remains the most notorious figure among the clergy who were active as recruiters for the war, yet there was no shortage of other clerics willing to preach for the patriotic cause. Rev. Richard Huggard, Vicar of St. John's Barnsley claimed to have personally enlisted two thousand men. The Rev. A.W. Gough, Vicar of Brompton and Prebendary of St. Paul's suggested that every Englishman worthy of the name should don the khaki uniform with pride, “the festal garment which God is offering us today, which he is insisting that we put on.”

Winnington-Ingram—a man who loved to throw on a uniform and hang around recruiting rallies—boasted of having been thanked officially by the War Office for adding ten thousand men to the fighting forces of the crown. Soon after, a grateful king appointed him a K.C.V.O.

For whom was the God proclaimed by the Church, and what account of suffering was it able to provide? The writer Alan Wilkinson suggests that “God speaks to the Church through the world, as well as to the world through the Church...In this period, that Word emerged more authentically from the prose and poetry of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen than it did, say, from the sermons of Winnington-Ingram.”

More than any other, Owen’s poetry determines how most British people see the Great War in particular and war in general. He was a 2nd Lieutenant in the 2nd Manchester’s and was gazetted for the Military Cross. Owen was not a religious poet; his subject, as he famously put it, was “War and the pity of War. The poetry is in the pity.” Yet his poetry and letters play with and push against biblical images and theological concepts; he is profoundly aware of God and Christ, but his wrestling with God is imbued with rich irony and ambivalence. It is as if he is trying to make sense of an abridged or compromised God for times of abridged hope, a God who can make some kind of home in an ironic world.

Owen discovers a God both greater and lesser than he imagined. In one of his letters, he suggests that:

“Christ is literally in no man’s land. There men often hear His voice: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life—for a friend. Is it only spoken in English and French? I do not believe so. Thus you see how pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism…Christians have deliberately cut some of the main teaching of their code.”

Owen found himself drawn close to Christ in his passion, though he expresses this closeness with irony:

“For 14 hours yesterday I was at work—teaching Christ to lift his cross by numbers, and how to adjust his crown; and not to imagine he thirsts until after the last halt; I attended his Supper to see that there were no complaints; and inspected his feet to see that they should be worthy of the nails. I see to it that he is dumb and stands to attention before his accusers. With a piece of silver I buy him every day, and with maps I make him familiar with the topography of Golgotha.”

The contrast with the God/Christ of the Anglican churchmen cum recruiting sergeants is striking. Theirs typically reflects the muscularity and presumed masculinity of their class. As Modris Eksteins strikingly puts it in his book Rites of Spring, “Clergymen dressed Jesus in khaki and had him firing machine-guns.” Their God is one that echoes through the martial fair-play of the poetry of Sir Henry Newbolt in his most famous poem, Vitai Lampada, which imagines a soldier bringing the virtues of his school and sport (specifically cricket) onto the battlefield:

“The river of death has brimmed his banks,

And England's far, and Honour a name,

But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:

‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’”

Newbolt was a lifelong friend of Douglas Haig, the British army commander from 1916 until the end of the war. They had met at Clifton College, whose cricket field provides the location for the first stanza of Vitai. As the writer Paul Fussell makes clear, “Much later Newbolt wrote, ‘When I looked into Douglas Haig I saw what is really great—perfect acceptance, which means perfect faith.”’ The Establishment, of which the Church of England was a part, celebrated what Patrick Howarth has called Homo Newboltiensis: the man who is stoic, honourable, brave, loyal and not a little unimaginative.

The God of the Anglican recruiting sergeants is the patriarchal God, made in their own image and inherited from decades of English imperial confidence, shaped in public schools. The Episcopal and clerical recruiting sergeants of 1914 were part of a class and culture that comprehended the old truth that son inherited from father in the fullness of time if the son was faithful to his elder. For the elder was, ultimately, to be trusted. The evidence for this lay in one hundred years of relative peace in which England’s power had grown to its zenith.

If the Church of England continued to articulate a patriarchal God throughout the war (and perhaps still does to this day), Owen offers glimpses of something else. In his lesser-known poem ‘The Parable of the Old Man and the Young’ (a retelling of the Abraham and Isaac myth), Owen signifies the death of patriarchal society and the god to which it is beholden.

Beginning on familiar territory (“So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,/And took the fire with him, and knife”), the poem unfolds into a nightmarish trench-based scene: “Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,/And builded parapets and trenches there,/And stretched forth the knife to slay his son”). As in the Biblical story, an Angel intervenes and invites Abram to “Lay not thy hand upon the lad” and sacrifice “the Ram of Pride instead.” The conclusion of the poem is devastating in its simple condemnation of the ‘Good Father’ principle: “But the old man would not so, but slew his son,/And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

Arguably, the patriarchal God died on the Somme, at Ypres and at Passchendaele. He—like so many—was left “hangin’ on the old barbed wire” as the famous World War I song put it. Unlike the poor lads on both sides who went over the top, perhaps he hangs there still. The Churches will not let him go. What is for sure is that in our time the traditional churches are in crisis.

I do not know if this is because churches like my own, the Church of England, have yet to move on from this dead, male-centric God. I suspect it may be one reason among many. The reasons why the masses no longer go to church (if they ever did) are complex and multiform. What is clear is that the patriarchal God could not—in the light of years of slaughter—hold the weight of expectations. Ultimately, it proved to be an unreliable and hapless idol.

Rachel Mann’s new book is Fierce Imaginings: The Great War, Ritual, Memory and God.

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