On BBC London this morning, there was a fair amount of debate about the proposal to have a Humanist service for remembrance Sunday at Conway Hall. The event is being hosted by Dan Snow and the purpose is to allow people who don't feel comfortable partaking in a religious service to remember the fallen of the various wars. As I listened to this, I wondered whether this was really a positive development. Of course it is a free country. People can do what they like and there is nothing at all wrong with people who reject organised religion setting up alternative events. We should all be perfectly free to remember our friends and family in any manner we choose. It is also very positive that people feel compelled to remember the fallen and take time out of their schedule for a period of contemplation.
The issue I have is that I do not feel comfortable with division being sown in an area where I for one believe we should display unity and community. During the various wars, comrades fell side by side. They did not care whether the man next to them was Chrisitian, Muslim or Humanist. They merely asked each other to do their duty and support their comrades. My Father was a bomber pilot during the second world war. He served in 40 Squadron and had spells at Moretonin the Marsh, North Africa and Foggia in Italy. He flew 40 active service missions and was shot down near Ploesti in Romania on his 40th mission. When his plane was destroyed, his best friend F/O Andrew "Spud" Murphy, who was rear gunner died. My Father attended many remembrance services to remember the fallen colleagues in his squadron. In the month prior to his plane being shot down in 1944, 40 Squadron lost nearly the entire squadron. Whenever he stood in line at the Cenotaph, he'd always be moved by the fact that comrades of all races and creeds were in attendance. My father was an Australian and a member of the Royal Austrailian Airforce. His squadron was largely made up of citizens of the Commonwealth. His crew included an Irishman, a Newfoundlander (then not part of Canada) and a New Zealander. The point was that despite the diverse background of the squadron, they were in it together.
Humanism and Atheism belief is one held by many people. My personal preference would be for such views to be accommodated within services that represent the whole of our society. I would spend hours listening to my father describe squadron life. He once told me that the Padre was in some ways the most important person on the base. When new recruits joined, the padre would explain that he was there for everyone, regardless of faith. He would conduct a simple service on a Sunday, which was not compulsory to attend. They would sing "The Lord is my Shepherd", say a prayer for fallen comrades, recalling their names and then say the Lords Prayer. The Padre would then invite the crews to remember their fallen colleagues in their own way and say a prayer for family back home. He would then ask for the Lords protection for the crews for the coming missions and pray that they all got home safely. My Father explained that attendance was near 100%. Aircrew were notoriously superstitious. He told me that he had several friends who were atheists and he'd asked several about the service. The answer had always been the same, that it was probably the sanest moment of the week. He told me that the Padre was great friends with one of the senior officers who made no bones about his lack of religious belief. My Father recalls having a chat with the officer about the subject and he said that in his opinion, the service was not about religion, it was about being part of a team and caring about your comrades. He said that singing the hymns and saying the prayers did not endorse anything other than the fact that everyone was working to create a better world.
I can remember the last time my Father attended a reunion of 40 Squadron crews. He came back and was absolutely bladdered. He'd met up with many friends he'd not seen since the war. he was so excited that he spent about four more hours drinking with me and telling me stories. Towards the end of our little session, he told me a story. He said that as his plane was being shot down, he said that he'd said the "Hail Mary" and asked the Lord to give him his three score and ten years. He said that his survival was remarkable and he always attributed it to the intervention of the Virgin Mary. He said that he hit the ground, in pitch black five seconds after he pulled his parachute cord. His plane hit the ground and exploded about 300 yards from when he landed. He said that at that moment, he knew he'd see the war out. He also told me a very strange thing. When he got shot down, his plane was flying towards Ploesti to bomb the Romanian Oil Refineries. He said that as he was just doing his final checks, he looked and in the co-pilot seat, a member of another Air Crew, Jack Schinder was sitting. Before my Father could say anything, Schinder said "It's a killer the way these Wimpeys go down Titch". At that second, he heard a burst of machine gun fire and he realised that his plane was being engaged by an ME109 night fighter. His plane was breaking up and his rear gunner was dead,. The plane was in flames and his first priority was to get his crew out safely. Fortunately, all apart from the unfortunate Murphy survived.
My father took these events as complete affirmation of his faith. I asked him if any athiest had survived similar scenarios. His response was "Of course they did". I asked him if he'd ever asked any of them if they'd prayed during the experience. He said "Yeah, they all did. It's what you do when you are getting shot down". I asked what his opinion of this was. He replied that he thought they were all "ungrateful bastards" humourously. He said that at the reunion all manner of strange stories came out. He said that for many, they hadn't discussed it since the war. His parting shot as we wrapped up our chat was to say "The ones who got through were lucky. The best thing you can ever be in life is lucky". I have often thought about what happened to my father on that night. It is really quite disturbing. He wasn't a man given to flights of fancy or making things up, so I 100% believe his account. I accept that there are plenty of other explanations. It is up to you to choose your own one. Whenever I think of remembrance Sunday, my mind always comes back to the events back in 1944 and the horror my father endured. He got through and had a great life. 55,000 members of Bomber Command didn't. We do owe them a debt.
However we choose to remember the ones who were lucky and the ones who weren't (and I hope we all do remember them), let us remember that they were fighting for justice, tolerance, democracy and fairness. I believe we best express our thanks to them by standing together and putting our differences to one side.