The Rector's speech to the 60th Anniversary
commemoration service for the Battle of Arnhem, held on Sunday 19th September at
the Military Cemetary in Oosterbeeck, Holland. Held in the presence of Her
Majesty Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and His Royal Highness the Prince of
Notes: The Battle of Arnhem was an audacious attempt by British and Polish Airborne troops to secure a crossing over the Rhine. If successful it would have shortened the war by many months. Despite heroic efforts depicted in the epic film "A Bridge too Far", the Battle was eventually lost with terrible casualties, only 1 in 5 would return home. Most of the Paras had been trained here in Cheshire at Tatton Park.
"You may know the story about a man lost in the British countryside who stops to question a local farmer for directions to the town where he’s headed. After a moment’s thought the farmer replies “Well, ideally, you don’t want to start from here.”
Don’t you hate that sort of advice! What good does that do any one? I love the Christian faith because at its heart there is a liberating realism. We may fail, but we may also begin again. As fallen people in a fallen world we are forever starting from places we would not choose and are far from ideal, but that is reality.
And realities don’t come more harsh than this. In this cemetery we are surrounded by the graves of the fallen. To some of you these aren’t just names and numbers on stone, they are your friends, husbands, fathers and grandfathers. We wouldn’t choose to start from here. But here is where we are, 60 years on. And a dose of liberating realism allows us to say “so now, how do we build the future?”
Forgive me General Mike [General Sir Mike Jackson, Chief of General Staff], I wonder if you remember a question you asked some young officers on exercise in France a few years ago? We had retired to a bar strangely enough and it was four in the morning so I’ll forgive you if the details don’t spring to mind immediately; but I think I can safely say we were all getting well and truly philosophical. You asked us “Why are you prepared to do this, to share in this military life?” And to a man their replies were all the same “Because in it we believe we can make a difference”. In our fallen world, we can make a difference, not by starting from somewhere else but starting from just where we are.
An ideal world wouldn’t need soldiers, an ideal world shouldn’t need diplomats nor politicians, but as we all know we don’t live in an ideal world - but we have a heck of a lot to gain from trying to build a better one!
Our reading today was from Psalm 144. It was originally a prayer before going to battle. Some of you have prayed before battle, in a glider as the cable was released, hooked up in an aircraft as the doors were opened. Perhaps, like the psalmist, you prayed for strength and safekeeping:
“Blessed be the LORD, my rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle; my rock and my fortress... my shield and he in whom I take refuge”
But, interestingly, that’s not where this prayer stops. It looks beyond the battle to the hope of a better future, where sons & daughters can prosper and live in peace. That’s what our dear friends died for, that hope. And it was not in vain, because although they did not win that future themselves, we have! Here we stand 60 years later in a spirit of friendship & co-operation amongst the nations of Europe that was just a dream 60 years ago.
A wonderful and liberating saying has been born from here in Arnhem. “The bridge too far has become a bridge to the future”. Today we remember the great sacrifice of so many young men, who fought so very very hard and at such great cost, and we thank personally those of you who with such great dignity are their representatives amongst us still. We would not have chosen this as our starting point. But the world will always face us with such challenges. So we build from the ruins of the Twin Towers; we build from the ruins of dictatorship in Iraq; and at times, yes, we build from the ruins of our errors and failures in life. These would not be the places we would choose to begin, but they are the very places the future can be shaped and changed. By the Grace and Mercies of God, and by the determination of men and women who are prepared to believe that their lives can make a difference, we can build a bridge to the future. Amen."
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