November, when the clocks have gone back, is always rather a gloomy month. December should, of course, be even gloomier, but the Christmas festivities actually mean that it isn't. The Christian church does not help the November mood by holding three commemorations of the dead in the first two weeks of the month. These are All Saints Day (on the 1st), All Souls Day (on the 2nd) and Remembrance Sunday (which this year falls precisely on Remembrance Day itself, the 11th).
To take the last first, the original Armistice Day commemoration was established on the actual day when the war on the Western Front ceased in 1918. There is now no-one left alive who can recall that moment. But it has seemed right to the nation to continue to commemorate those who fought and died in 1914-18 as well as, of course, the many fallen in later wars. The day has taken on a new life in the light of servicemen's and women's deaths in Afghanistan. One does not have to agree with any particular – or indeed, any – war to recognise that those in the services have followed orders, put themselves in danger's way, and in some cases paid with their lives or their health. Such remembrance pays, in part, our debts as a nation to them and it also provides a genuine comfort to families who mourn loved ones.
All Saints Day is not intended at all as a sad occasion. A priest wears white or gold then, the colours of celebration. For the day is an opportunity to recall the many great Christians of the past, both known and unknown. Just as a country owes a debt to those prepared to fight for it, so does a church owe remembrance to the men and women who have given their lives – either literally or in the sense of a life's choice – for Christ. Just to give two examples. St Ailred was the Abbot of Rievaulx near Helmsley in North Yorkshire. One hopes that the beautifully situated buildings he left behind still have the power to remind visitors of the presence of God in their lives. And I like this summary of his teaching, “God is friendship”. I suppose it's another way of expressing the biblical truth that “God is love”, but it is both a lovely and a homely thought that God is our friend. And, though not officially a saint, because he was not a Roman Catholic, I am always moved by the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the relatively few German Christians prepared to stand up and be counted in opposition to Hitler. In this case, he did pay with his life, but in so doing he enabled German Christians to begin to escape from their national guilt and to play a positive part in the new, democratic, Germany.
All Souls Day is one to recall everyone who has died. Not well known names in church or military history, but our mothers and our fathers, our uncles and our aunts and, sadly, sometimes our children too. “God is love”. That phrase in the bible is not qualified to, for example, “God is love whilst you are alive” or “He is love when you believe the creed”. It is a statement without qualification, no 'ifs', no 'buts'. God is love. And it is fairly plain from scripture that His love does not stop when a person dies. Christians believe that every person has an immortal part, a soul, and that this soul may rest in Christ.
All Souls, then, is a day when we can remember those we have loved, secure in the knowledge that God also remembers them. On the nearest Sunday, in both our churches, there will be the opportunity to speak these peoples names once again, to pray for them, and – if desired – to light a candle in their memory. Please sign up on the lists in church to ensure that the person you want recalled is named.
As I have already announced in both churches, I expect to be retiring sometime during the first half of 2013. A precise date remains to be decided in conjunction with Sir Philip Naylor-Leyland, the Bishop of Sheffield and the Church Council. Sylvia and I will be immensely sad to be leaving the parish for the second time, but it is mutatis mutandis, a necessary change. As I have written below, the whole church faces many changes in the next few years, and it will be right to have someone younger to respond to those challenges.
With best wishes,