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Remembering

Just over a hundred years ago, Sergeant John Raynes, from Heeley in Sheffield, was serving on the Western Front.  On 11th October, 1915, his battery was bombarded by armour piercing and gas shells.  Sergeant Raynes ran out from his own battery not once but three times – a distance of 40 yards – to assist and then bring back a wounded colleague, Sergeant Ayres.

The following day, John saw action again. The house he was in was knocked down by a heavy shell.  Eight men were trapped inside.  The first man rescued was Sergeant John Raynes.  He was wounded in the head and leg but insisted on remaining under heavy shell fire to assist in the rescue of the other men.  He then reported for duty with his Battery which was again being heavily shelled.

For his courage on those two days Sergeant Major Raynes (as he became) received Britain’s highest military honour, the Victoria Cross.

Last Monday, 12th October, 2015, exactly one hundred years after these actions, John Raynes was honoured in his home city of Sheffield.  Civic leaders gathered with officers from his former regiment, members of the Royal British Legion, children from local schools and the general public.  As Bishop of Sheffield, I dedicated a special memorial paving stone to his memory in Barker’s Pool.  A piper played a lament.  We kept silence.  A bugler sounded the Last Post and Reveille.  We remembered.

There will be similar ceremonies all over the country over the next few years.  The paving stone for John Raynes was one of over four hundred to be dedicated to all those who received the Victoria Cross in the Great War in each person’s place of birth all over the United Kingdom.  There will be two further ceremonies in Sheffield in 2016.

For me and for many present, the ceremony was very moving.  It was a good to reflect and remember the sacrifice and bravery of so many at the beginning of this season of remembering when we will wear poppies and look back.  It was good to pray for the safety of British forces stationed overseas, many from this Diocese.  It was good to remember the courage of a remarkable man and many like him.  It was good to pray for the peace of the world and for all caught up in the conflicts of nations.

This is the prayer I wrote for the dedication of the paving stone to Sergeant Major John Crawshaw Raynes, VC:

Almighty God,remembrance
You are our light in the darkness,
Our strength when shadows fall
We dedicate this stone today
In memory of a brave son of this city,
John Crawshaw Raynes.
May it serve always as a reminder of his courage
Of the sacrifice of the men of this city
And of the dangers faced daily by
Our armed forces.
Grant to our world we pray,
Peace and freedom and justice
And grant to each of us
The courage to defend our fellow men and women
In your holy name we pray
Amen.

 

Remembrance in Rotherham

Highlights of the week included a visit to the primary school in the village of Laughton on Tuesday.  The school is the oldest school still in existence in South Yorkshire and celebrated its 400 birthday this year.  It doesn’t surprise me in the least that the oldest school in the County has a strong Church connection.  It takes the commitment of Christians to cherish and guard institutions from one generation to the next.  The school is small, warm and friendly with a really high proportion of special needs children (though I wouldn’t have known unless someone told me).  As well as celebrating a 400th birthday, I was also there to dedicate and open a new quiet space in the playground for children who want to sit and talk rather than run around.

On Wednesday, I led our final Deanery evening on Re-imagining Ministry for Mission in the Ecclesall Deanery in the city of Sheffield.  Lots of good people and lots of good questions.  More than a thousand people have come to this series of 12 evenings to reflect with the Bishops and Archdeacons on God’s grace and future patterns of ministry in the Diocese.  If you would like to know what happened and where we are going there is a PDF of the special booklet on our website here:  http://www.sheffield.anglican.org/index.php/follow-the-tour-2012

But the main reason for the post today is my visit to Rotherham this morning for the Remembrance Sunday.  There were around 500 people in the Minster for the special service and at least as many again at the Cenotaph afterwards for the Act of Remembrance.  There was a sense of reverence and occasion in the town as many different generations gathered.  These have been difficult weeks for Rotherham with some tough stories in the national press.  In those moments its important to record the good days and the normal days and the annual rhythm of the year.

This is what I was able to say in the Minster this morning:

“No-one has
greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15.13). The words of Jesus
Christ, spoken two thousand years ago on the night before he was crucified, the
night before he lay down his life for his friends.

 

The words have
echoed down the years and they continue to have a special meaning for those
caught up in armed conflict and for all of us today as we remember.  Today is the one
day in the year when we call to mind those who have given their lives in war,
those who have born terrible cost through injury or bereavement or through some
other great sacrifice.  It is one
day.  But that one day is a symbol for
all of the quiet, private acts of remembrance which happen in homes and hearts
throughout the year.  We owe a great
debt to the men and women of our armed services.  That debt is both past and present.

 

The first world
war is real to me because, when I was fifteen years old, I sat and listened to
my grandfather tell the story of life in the trenches, of how he was shot and
left for dead in no man’s land in the Battle of the Somme, kept alive by a
trickle of rainwater.  He was found and
rescued after three days.  He told me how
one of the stretcher bearers was blown up and killed on the way back to the
front line.  How he carried shrapnel in
his leg and head for the rest of his life and was never able to work normally
again.  Every family here
will have that kind of story and worse.
It wasn’t that my granddad was always talking of his war
experiences.  He told me once and that
was all that was needed.

 

And for many, of
course, the memories are much more recent and raw, more acute and vivid:
memories of friends and family who have been killed; of units facing action; of
loved ones in danger; of the uncertainty and risk, of courage and heroism in
Iraq, in Afghanistan or some other theatre of war. We make our solemn
act of remembrance today.  A symbol for
all the quiet, private acts of remembrance which happen in hearts and homes
throughout the years.

 

We live in an age
which does not find it easy to speak of death or suffering.  Most of the time much of our society is in
denial of the reality of death for all of us, not just those who die in
conflict.  We do not want to face it but
all of us will meet our death one day and we are afraid.  We cover up our
fear.  We pursue pleasure and prosperity,
we occupy ourselves with trivia, we worship fame and celebrity. But it is no
surprise that with every year that passes people have fewer resources within
themselves to cope with tragedy and sudden death.

 

Our society seems
gripped by mood swings.  For much of the
time, people give the impression that life is one long party.  Then a tragedy strikes and we see a vast public
outpouring of grief and questions but questions which find no easy
answers.  We must do better
for our children, for our young people, for the generations still to come.

 

I stand here to
remind you today that the Christian faith is the ancient birthright and
treasure house of this country.  It is
the faith which shaped our nation, our traditions, our heritage, our values,
our institutions.  The Christian
faith is the place where the deepest questions about life and death, suffering
and pain, meaning and purpose find answers which satisfy.  The Christian faith proclaims the love of God
for each person in creation, the equality and worth of every individual, the
value of sacrifice, the possibility of forgiveness, the offer of eternal life,
the wisdom to live well in good times and in bad, the strength to build
marriages and families and communities which endure.

“No-one has
greater love than this, to lay down his life for his friends” (John 15.13). In this Act of
Remembrance today we honour those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for
their country.  But in this Act of
Remembrance we dare to look further at our questions and our fears and our
hopes for the future.  And as you speak
aloud those questions and hopes, I appeal to you to begin the renewal and
rebuilding of your family and your community and your nation by turning again
in a deep and personal way to the ancient and ever new Christian faith, to
Jesus Christ, the one who laid down his life for his friends, to the only one
in history who has overcome death and who offers to each one of us eternal
life.

O God our help in
ages past, our hope for years to come,  Be thou our guard
while troubles past and our eternal home.