Reflections on Remembrance Sunday 2023 – by Len Middleton

As a humanist I loved it. A strange thing to say given the heavily religious theme, but there was so much to think about.

The whole apparatus of the state was there. The mayor, a “civic procession” of local councillors and the Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire, presumably representing our unelected head of state.

The mayor was in his full regalia complete with chain and pointy hat. There was also a mace. This presumably was the borough council’s and was fixed upright next to the mayor’s pew.

Establishment of the church is not just the bishops in the House of Lords; the Lord Lieutenant of Berkshire represented the head of state and the head of the church. The order of service was produced by Reading Borough Council. Local officials were in church. Church and state are intertwined.

Civil society was joined by the armed forced including child soldiers – I mean army and sea cadets. The UK has signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) but let’s not go there. There were many adult soldiers too, both serving and retired, but the number of “cadets” was striking.

Being a church service, we had a couple of hymns. Dwindling church attendance means that nobody knows them. The words are printed but none of us know the tunes. At least with karaoke the tunes are well known. An obvious thing would be to have the cadets learn the tunes in advance but maybe preparing for war is the priority.

We sang a couple of verses of God Save the King. Most people probably know the tune, but the words are in the order of service. There are several versions; we didn’t include the line about scattering the king’s enemies.

A Ukrainian choir sang. Our attention was drawn to a war in Europe. While the number of non-white faces there hopefully means that we have abandoned the fiction that only white Englishmen have fought in the UK’s wars, there was no mention of the wars in the Sudan, Syria or Yemen. The war in Yemen is being fought with British munitions.

The mayor of Reading read a bizarre passage from the bible (Mathew 25:1-13) about ten young women and oil lamps…

We were catapulted into the 21st century by the arrival of the bishop of Oxford who read her sermon from an iPad. (Yes, it was a person of the female persuasion as a bishop, no less with an electronic device.) She also talked about the war in Israel and Gaza. While she carried a shepherd’s crook, she was much more “right on” and was probably the most relevant up-to-date part of the service.

Another hymn and bible reading and it was time to go to the war memorial at Forbury Gardens. Then after more singing and the two minute silence ended by the playing of the last post, it was all over.

The church, state and military all rolled up together in a ceremony replicated across the whole of the UK. There is a lot to think about here.