#whitefeather diaries

Holy war?

Monday 25 August 2014

Bert was very critical of church leaders who sought to justify the war with Christian arguments. Nearly all church denominations in Britain included both supporters and opponents of the war, although in most the supporters were in the majority.

Those Christians who backed the war tended to regard it as a regrettable necessity, but some went further, arguing that it was a “holy war”. Foremost among them was Arthur Winnington-Ingram, the Anglican Bishop of London, whose rhetoric outraged pacifists and annoyed more moderate Anglican leaders.

Here's an extract from one of Winnington-Ingram's sermons, preached in Westminster Abbey.

To save the freedom of the world, to save Liberty's own self, to save the honour of women and the innocence of children, everything that is noblest in Europe, everyone that loves freedom and honour, everyone that puts principle above ease, and life itself beyond mere living, are banded in a great crusade – we cannot deny it – to kill Germans. To kill them, not for the sake of killing but to save the world; to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young men as well as the old, to kill those who have shown kindness to our wounded as well as those fiends who crucified the Canadian sergeant.

No-one believes more absolutely than I do in the righteousness of the present war; as I have said a thousand times, I look upon it as a war for purity, for freedom, for international honour, and for the principles of Christianity. I look on everyone who fights for this cause as a hero, and everyone who dies in it as a martyr.

Christianity has been rediscovered. Censors have been converted by reading soldiers' letters. Many a man who professed himself an atheist has now seen what Christianity really means.

Some supporters of the war were horrified by this sort of language. J.G. Simpson, Canon of St Paul's Cathedral, was one of several to criticise those who spoke of “holy war”. J.E. Watts-Ditchfield, the Anglican Bishop of Chelmsford, supported the war but took a very different line to Winnington-Ingram. He believed the war resulted from sin – including the sins of Britain. In a sermon in St Paul's Cathedral, he insisted:

We should look on our own sins: the opium traffic forced on China, our refusal to interfere when Armenians were massacred, the neglect of Sunday, the prevalence of intemperance and impurity, the hastening to be rich, the division among the classes and the masses, the unhealthy public spirit as shown in the press, the neglect of the housing question, the begrudging of money for old-age pensions and the removal of slums.

The Student Christian Movement (SCM) included both pacifists and those who chose to sign up to fight. But SCM's leadership explicitly condemned clergy who took jingoistic positions or ignored the horrors of war. They declared that students seemed to be more aware of the reality of war than some of the clergy:

They are very conscious of the sin of war, and are completely out of sympathy with clergy and ministers who make no reference to the sin of war unless it be to lay the entire burden of sin upon Germany.

The majority of our members who have gone to fight have gone feeling that England chose the least of two evils in 1914 in deciding to enter the war, but that the fact that she had only a choice of evils was due not merely to German wickedness but to her own sinfulness in the past. In thinking thus, they were not thinking of things like Sunday observance and the drink traffic, but rather of the ideals of what was most worth aiming at which are cherished by the majority of Englishmen, ideals which make our nation the servant more of Mammon than of God.

It has seemed to the student class that the Church has had nothing distinctive to say to a world at war. It has done little more than support the State. The result has been a marked weakening of allegiance to the Church since the outbreak of war and in some quarters a strong desire to see the Church find new leaders.

SCM split after the war, with a number of conservative evangelicals breaking away to form what are now known as the Christian Unions. SCM still exists and includes Christians from a range of traditions and viewpoints. It continues to be concerned with issues of peace and war, campaigning against nuclear weapons and the arms trade (see www.movement.org).

The above extracts are quoted in The Church of England and the First World War by Alan Wilkinson (SPCK, 1978).

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