Has God the Father really disappeared?

The patriarchal deity could not have died in the First World War if he was seen landing on the beaches in the Second: a response to Rachel Mann.

Kathryn White
27 July 2017

Bury Market Place on Remembrance Day. Credit: © Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

In Rachel Mann’s telling of the story, the traditional, male-centric deity “died in the trenches of the Somme, but the churches will not let him go.” I beg to differ: the patriarchal God didn’t die in the Great War, though in British society we feel little connection to Him today. He wasn’t strafed down in the mud of No Man’s Land or buried in an unnamed grave.

British Church membership had been declining steadily since the Victorian age and remained on this trajectory following the First World War, but macro studies like Richard Schweitzer’s have found that levels of religious belief remained fairly consistent between 1914 and 1918: while some certainly lost their faith, others were drawn towards it by the challenges they faced.

From the outbreak of the war, it was recognised in the Church of England that the religion of the trenches would have to be pragmatic, appealing to the needs of servicemen and responding to their problems. As the established Church, this meant a direct appeal to the Patriarchal God in creating a strong connection between a soldier’s duty to their country and a Christian’s duty to God.

This appeal was made most clearly by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Randall Davidson, who led the charge of the Church of England’s militarism alongside his “famously belligerent” Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram. Davidson preached in August 1914 that avoiding war would have resulted in “the loss of England’s Honour, England’s chivalry to weaker peoples.” It was therefore the duty of all good Britons, and ergo all good Christians, to do their bit for the war effort.

This wasn’t just jingoism, soon to be snuffed out by the stalemate of war. Today we look back on the “King and Country” ethos of the times and later the “Dunkirk Spirit” as romantically patriotic nostalgia, which, though less connected to religion, still maintains a sense of national paternalism. An appeal to a duty beyond ourselves and a reciprocal feeling of care from a body outside of our control remain reassuring concepts.

In the ultra-masculinised environment of the military, particularly a century ago, it is easy to see why the Anglican Church extolled the Patriarchal God throughout the war. He provided soldiers with guidance and gave them a reason for their responsibility.

The Church reached these soldiers through its ministry in the Army Chaplains’ Department, as well as through the production of specific pocket Bibles and Gospels for servicemen which highlighted key phrases thought to inspire and provide comfort in times of hardship. The popular Active Service Gospels were accompanied by a message from the Commander in Chief of British Forces, Lord Roberts, further demonstrating the blurring of national and religious duty. It read:

"I ask you“ to put your trust in God. He will watch over you and strengthen you. You will find in this little Book guidance when you are in health, comfort when you are in sickness, and strength when you are in adversity.”

The God who watches and strengthens is the Patriarchal God. Of course, it would be wrong to assert that because this material was published, it must have been read and believed by all. Yet the continual recurrence of such themes in wartime liturgy indicates that the appeal to the Patriarchal God was seen as effective among soldiers.

Comfort and strength are constantly recurring terms in wartime analyses of what is needed from religion by both chaplains and soldiers alike, and also in the commemoration of the war after the Armistice. This is the central finding of Jay Winter, who argues that “The Great War, the most ‘modern’ of wars, triggered an avalanche of the ‘unmodern’” on which the Church was relied on to communicate feelings of loss and bereavement. After all, it was God the Father “who so loved the world, that He gave his only son,” and who could thus provide comfort to the parents whose sons had made the ‘Supreme Sacrifice’ at war.

It is certainly true that some men remained unconvinced and unmoved by expressions of religion, unable to reconcile their wartime experiences with God’s love—as is also apparent in similar debates today. This, in part, caused the despondency evident in the works of poets such as Wilfred Owen. While their mud, guts and grousing have come to colour our modern popular memory of the First World War, they are not representative of the era’s dominant thinking, nor were they the most popular literature during the war. Liberal and anti-war views like Owen’s became more widely accepted only in the Great Depression at the end of the 1920s and again in the pacifist movement of the 1960s that coincided with the war’s fiftieth anniversary.

At the time, patriotic and religious songs had provided a popular expression of poetic sentiment. One of the most frequently recurring hymns was ‘When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,’ which was sung heartily in both religious services and recreation huts. Its lyrics talk clearly of Jesus’ sacrifice, but its final two lines also commit the worshipper to God, and their duty to uphold His love:

“Love so amazing, so divine;

Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

Here, God is the power to which man is subservient. The evocation of God’s sacrifice as a father, bound up in Jesus’ crucifixion, also raises the image of the “Suffering God,” as conceptualised by the iconic army chaplain “Woodbine Willie” (Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy) as a result of his wartime experiences, a theme explored by historian Stuart Bell who highlights this quote from Kennedy: “it’s funny how it is always Christ upon the Cross that Comforts; never God upon His Throne.”

The God of the trenches, whether He’s invoked as God the father or Christ the Son, is nonetheless a personal God with whom the soldier is supposed to identify. This is pragmatism on the Churches’ part. A soldier who receives comfort from God and who feels like He understands him is more likely to be a believer whose morale can be strengthened by religious trust. The Church at war made a clear attempt to preach an emotive personal God who cares because He suffered, either as the Father or the Son.

The Church and its scriptures also became the national lynchpins of remembrance in the aftermath of war, as remains the case in commemoration services today. Far from the abandonment of God, Michael Snape has identified that it was Britain’s “historic Christian identity” which “continued to console and support” throughout and in the wake of both World Wars. In particular, he cites the Protestantism of Britain’s wartime Prime Ministers and Kings in perpetuating this Patriarchal religion of national duty under the fatherly guidance of the Lord. The Patriarchal God could not have died on the barbed wire of the trenches in the First World War if he was seen again landing on the Normandy beaches in the Second.

In modern European culture we often ignore our Christian heritage. Yet one of the few times in a year that many in Britain will come into contact with the Church is on Remembrance Sunday. Christian liturgy is still the language of commemoration, even if it no longer pervades other areas of national life. In the ultra-masculinised military, amid its rigid hierarchy and discipline, the appeal of the instructive, duty-bound Patriarchal God is clear.

In a world where much conflict is still bound up with religion, we must try to understand the role of the churches during and after the war objectively. And that means learning from our own history and religious culture in order to move towards a shared and peaceful future.

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